‘Three Thousand Years’ and the History of Middle East Tales

With color and sound, director George Miller’s fantasy explores the region’s stories and storytelling itself, while pondering what people do when they make wishes

‘Three Thousand Years’ and the History of Middle East Tales
The djinn (Idris Elba) waits anxiously in the hallway of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul / screenshot

Making a film based on “The 1,001 Arabian Nights” is a risky venture. On the one hand, Hollywood Golden Age standards like “The Thief of Baghdad” (1924) and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (1944) get applause even from someone like Jack Shaheen, who in his book “Reel Bad Arabs” tries very hard to sniff out anti-Arab sentiment. On the other hand, Disney rolled the dice in 1992 and wound up with “Aladdin,” one of the most scandalous films ever made. This was thanks to an ill-advised song lyric about the Middle East: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” (The 1993 VHS version tossed out this carbuncle but kept the phrase “It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.”) The 2019 Will Smith reboot of the same name, one of that year’s highest-grossing films, didn’t do much in the eyes of critics to update Orientalist caricatures. Teachers still use the 1992 version to show what not to say about Arabs and Islam. Another Disney production, 2010’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which was based on the Persian national epic “Shahnameh,” got panned for casting Jake Gyllenhaal, a white actor, to play a Persian character. And the list goes on.

So the stakes are high for “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the latest film by director George Miller and “Chronicles of Narnia” production designer Roger Ford. Miller is known for the “Mad Max” franchise, of which 2015’s “Fury Road” was hailed as one of the greatest action films ever. For that reason, it’s easy to forget that Miller has also made children’s movies like “Babe” (1995) and the Academy Award-winning “Happy Feet” (2006). He broke ground in 1971 with a documentary about violence in the movies. Given such breadth, it’s no surprise he chose “Three Thousand Years,” billed as “Aladdin for adults” and based on the 1994 short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt for The Paris Review. But can romance come from a story that, when Byatt wrote it, seemed to question the very idea of romance? And at a time of heightened sensitivity to who gets to tell stories, can Hollywood still celebrate the Middle East?

Professor Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a British narratologist — someone who writes about stories instead of composing them herself, “a being of secondary order,” in Byatt’s words. This fact introduces a core of stories within stories, a meta-narrative, evoking the structure of “The 1,001 Arabian Nights” and allowing Miller to play with otherwise tired formats. During a conference in Istanbul, Alithea turns up a blue flask from the Grand Bazaar with a djinn trapped inside (the Arabic “djinn” or “djinni” is where “genie” comes from). The djinn (Idris Elba) offers three wishes in exchange for his freedom. This makes Alithea nervous — “there’s no story about wishing that’s not a cautionary tale” — and the two bivouac in her hotel room while she dithers and doubts. In the meantime, the djinn narrates his prior “incarcerations,” three in all, until at last Alithea confesses her love for him. Then she makes a wish: that the djinn will love her back. They decamp to London, where Alithea blisses out on djinn-love until the unanticipated costs of her wish hit her full in the face. The film’s conclusion is melancholy but fitting.

Viewers hoping for “Mad Max” should probably go rub another magic lamp. Sitting in a room spinning yarns is hardly the stuff of a Jerry Bruckheimer megahit. Yet this is the core of “Three Thousand Years,” and it often charms as much as djinn’s magic does. Tracking closely with Byatt’s story, the djinn unpacks his quest for freedom through a string of colorful flashbacks, divided into three arcs with helpful titles on digital parchment.

The first, “A Djinn’s Oblivion,” comes after the djinn’s tryst with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), a figure who appears in the Quran, is called Bilqis by classical authors like al-Tabari and al-Zamakhshari and supposedly sprang from human-djinn relations. In the film, her lust burns for the djinn until she lays eyes on Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad), the wise Israelite king who in Islamic lore wields strong magic. His version in the film works quickly. He woos the queen with a song, corks the djinn with a puff of burgundy fumes curling above the ochre landscape, and tosses him into the Red Sea to languish for two and a half millennia.

Dejected, the djinn reappears in the 16th century during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (Lachy Hulme), the Ottoman sultan who in the film sports a larger-than-life turban a la Titian’s famous portrait. Suleiman’s concubine Gultem is in love with his son, Prince Mustafa, who is in turn the object of a murder plot by Roxelana, aka Hurrem, Suleiman’s other favorite concubine. Gultem wishes for Mustafa’s love and then his love child, both granted by the djinn before Mustafa is throttled by the palace guards with the sultan’s blessing. Urging Gultem to use her third wish to escape, and thus to free him in the process, the djinn is thwarted by a “follower of Iblis” — the Quranic name for Lucifer, whose shapeshifting minion in the film turns into a horde of beetles — as Gultem meets a watery grave.

The second episode, “Two Brothers and a Giantess,” captures the film at its most graphic and burlesque. It’s now the year 1621. Murad and Ibrahim, two sons of Ottoman Sultan Ahmad I, grow up in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace with their widowed mother, the Greek concubine Kosem. Young Murad (Kaan Guldur) assumes the throne at age 13, becoming Sultan Murad IV (Ogulcan Arman Uslu), a reckless and cruel sovereign who zips off to war and leaves his mother behind. In turn, she secretes Ibrahim (Hugo Vella and Jack Braddy as the adult Ibrahim) inside a sable-lined vault for fear of Murad’s wrath when he returns.

Tucked in his golden cage, Ibrahim quickly turns to hedonism. He convenes the best storytellers and gathers around him a harem of plumpish women — “he believed,” says Byatt’s narrator, “that the pleasures of the flesh would be more intense the larger the expanse of flesh with which he coped.” Here the movie does not hold back. Per Miller’s B-movie roots and his general embrace of what other directors consider “bad taste,” Ibrahim’s ladies appear in all their ample, denuded glory. Ibrahim chooses the grandest of them, unnamed in Byatt’s story but called Sugar Lump in the movie (Anna “Betty” Adams), as the governor of Damascus. With cartoon-like silliness, one day Sugar Lump trips in the bathhouse onto her ponderous rear, shaking the foundations and popping loose the flagstone that holds the djinn’s bottle. He emerges and offers three wishes, but Sugar Lump knows the dangers of djinns peddling wishes. She immediately orders him into the bottle and chucks him into the Bosporus.

In the third episode, “The Consequence of Zefir,” the djinn shows his bashful side. After an indefinite time following the assault by Sugar Lump, he is rescued by Zefir (Burcu Golgedar), a brilliant, feisty concubine to an old sultan who forces her to veil and to please him whenever he wants. “She could have been remembered like the genius Da Vinci,” the djinn says (though one wonders how he knows, since the djinn was bottled up during Da Vinci’s life). “She was a skilled artist but no one sought her out.” Given this fact, her first wish is a dead giveaway: knowledge, a wish the djinn says, “it delighted me to fulfill.” He schools her in poetry and math and recounts his worldwide travels. He brings her books and congeals them into colored bottles, forming a glass menagerie of wisdom at her fingertips. Soon the djinn falls for her, and she becomes pregnant. He can’t bear the thought of losing her, so with bitter irony he keeps her from wishing a third time, echoing her forced marriage to the old sultan. Finally she blurts out, “I wish I could forget I had ever seen you!” And so she does, leaving the djinn to his next poignant adventure.

Strangely, these tales don’t come from fantasies like “The 1,001 Arabian Nights” but instead Middle Eastern history, especially Ottoman history. Anyone familiar with the region’s culture and storytelling will be struck by how thoughtful the film is, despite its kooky, over-the-top vaudeville. At least it’s certainly no “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” type of movie. Ignoring blurry details and dashes of fantasy, one detects kernels of history in the djinn’s tales. The concubine Gultem is based on Gulfem Hatun (d. 1561), while Sultan Murad IV was indeed known for his brutality (rumors spread that he ordered the death of his mentally disabled brother Ibrahim, but this seems not to have happened). Miller’s location, cast and music celebrate rather than lampoon the Middle East, above all the wonders of Turkey. Shot on location in Istanbul, the film pans over Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and other iconic hotspots. Turkish actors fill most of the minor roles and speak Turkish throughout (Elba gives it his best college try). “Chesm-i bulbul,” or “the nightingale’s eye,” the name for the djinn’s bottle and hence of Byatt’s story, is in fact a beloved style of glasswork. The film credits roll to a Turkish love song.

Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) discovers the “chesm-i bulbul” (the nightingale’s eye) in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul / Screenshot

Also, both Byatt and Miller get much of the folklore right. Viewers learn that djinn come in many varieties, including those who fear God, like Alithea’s djinn insists he does, and those who don’t. Djinn are made of “smokeless fire” while humans are made from dust, based on the Quran’s chapter 55, “The Merciful.” Djinn can live for thousands of years, change size and shape, make love, eat and sleep (the djinn in the movie says his kind don’t do the latter). All this and more, drawn from Islamic folklore through Byatt’s story, makes Robin Williams’ blue meanie from the 1992 “Aladdin” look like the cardboard cutout he is. Much of the credit goes to Byatt, whose short story gives a balanced, heedful look at the region and its people.

Despite all this, Miller still seems nervous. People could get the wrong idea, he might be thinking, as they often do with Middle East fantasies. And maybe he’s right, given Hollywood’s history of stereotyping the Middle East. So just to make sure, he adds a scene that’s unjustified by the plot and which mainly serves the demands of cultural sensitivity, in deference to viewers who don’t know enough about the Middle East to see how much care Miller has taken. Back in London and close to the finale, Alithea greets two neighbor ladies who ask why Alithea wastes time with “ethnics.” She fires back that she can’t abide people — like them — with knee-jerk reactions against anyone different. “Fuckface,” one of them spits at Alithea, who ducks back into her house.

This scene’s welcome jab at xenophobia is not what annoys; it is rather the non sequitur. It’s the one and only time we meet these neighbors, though they later stand aghast while Alithea explains her enormous ebony djinn will be staying for a while. It’s the one time we hear their views. Their struggle to grasp the Middle East has not shaped us in any way, nor does the script humanize them beyond political caricature. “OK, boomer,” says the movie with a sneer. Miller could have stood on his thoughtfulness toward the Middle East without pandering, but in fairness, he’s less to blame than a culture industry that makes directors like him think that pandering is the price of keeping their skin.

Yet one chink in the armor of “Three Thousand Years” isn’t about Orientalism at all but basic storytelling. To wit, there is zero chemistry between Swinton and Elba. It’s hard to believe, as the story asks us to, that they could at any moment burst out of their terry-cloth robes and go for the gold. This seems to be a structural problem. Early on we learn that Alithea is a brainy creature, one whose husband “told me I was incapable of reading feelings. I was incapable of reading HIS feelings.” Her mind is wired in a way that makes her a sharper scholar. She feels emotions not from other people, but from stories. And as Peter Debruge writes for Variety, this means her and the djinn’s tale-swapping dialogues amount to “foreplay, of course, for the movie’s last act.” The result, as Debruge puts it, is “weak tea.” Swinton, known for taking oddball projects, plays the film’s asexual Alithea all too well, casting nary a bedroom eye at her brawny demon, who in Elba’s interpretation falls short of Byatt’s djinn as a time-hopping gigolo who teaches women how to please (Swinton had a similarly frigid role in “Only Lovers Left Alive”). Byatt’s story is nothing if not highly sexed, and Miller’s retelling can’t do it justice.

But neither the film nor the story would be what they are if the desire were all gone. In fact, desire is at the heart of what they do, if by desire we mean the broad sense of wishing, wanting and longing. Several times the djinn reminds Alithea — and the audience — that not just any wish will do, like when she fails to get rid of him by calling for trifles like a sip of tea or bite of food. The wish must be her heart’s desire.

When Alithea finally makes her big request for the djinn’s love, she wonders aloud, “Is it too much to ask?” This is foreshadowing, but it also reveals Alithea’s struggle to love herself and accept love from others. “I have everything I need,” she says — but does she really mean it? Likewise, the djinn has trouble in love and no happy answers. “How can it be a mistake to love someone entirely?” he asks while thinking of Zefir. That both the djinn and Alithea are trapped by their own gigantic emotions produces one of the film’s loveliest sentiments, spoken by Alithea as part of her wish for the djinn’s affections: “I want our solitudes to be together.”

Given this, it’s surprising how many wishes and wants didn’t make it into the movie. Byatt’s “short” story runs 100 pages, and Alithea, originally named Gillian Perholt, doesn’t meet the djinn until page 53. Until then, the story sets the scene and introduces characters, but mostly it lingers on Gillian’s — and Byatt’s, who often sprinkles autobiography into her fiction — crippling fear of domesticity and loss of womanhood. “I had this image of coming out from under and seeing the light for a bit and then being shut in a kitchen,” Byatt told The Guardian in an interview, “which I think happened to women of my generation.” So too does Gillian fear marriage, not least because she is beyond childbearing years; her children have grown up, and her husband has run off with a younger woman, leaving Gillian “redundant,” unnecessary as a wife and mother. Gillian hates her own body, and her first wish in the story is for it “to be as it was when I last really liked it.” At one point Gillian recalls a TV documentary about starving Ethiopian women, one of whom looks at the camera and says, “I wish I wasn’t a woman, then I wouldn’t be trapped.”

Above all, Gillian would hate to be like Patient Griselda, the main character of “The Clerk’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” A variant of the Beauty and the Beast genre, the story follows a young lord, Walter, who marries a peasant girl, Griselda, on the condition that she promises to obey him in everything. This she does, and then gives birth to a daughter instead of the hoped-for son. Walter decides to test Griselda’s loyalty: He proposes to kill their daughter, since, as he tells Griselda, people grumble that the daughter of a peasant would have power over them. Then Walter and Griselda have a second child, a son, and again Walter suggests killing him. In fact, both “murders” are a deception: The two children have been taken to Bologna and raised apart from their parents, but Griselda doesn’t know this. Then, Walter says he plans to take a new young wife and will send Griselda home to live with her father, being forced to leave behind the wealth she enjoyed as the wife of a lord. Walter asks Griselda to prepare the feast and the marriage bed. Then comes the big reveal: The “bride” is in fact Walter and Griselda’s daughter, and the squire their son. Walter admits he did all this to test Griselda’s loyalty, which was not found wanting, and so they can be reconciled.

Outrageous if taken as a real scenario, Griselda’s marriage to Walter symbolizes the “innocent sufferer,” namely the Christian soul’s unquestioning love for Jesus Christ. Even so, no one would blame Gillian for seeing in the story a caution against domestic slavery (in 2020, Margaret Atwood reimagined the story with the title “Impatient Griselda”). But neither this nor Gillian’s other fears trickle down to Miller’s film. All that’s left is a question repeated innocently and frustratedly by the djinn: “What do women want?” At first Alithea’s answer seems to be love, freely offered and freely received. But then comes the Catch-22 of forcing the djinn’s affections by a wish. Authentic love, like authentic wishing, must be the heart’s desire. More than wanting and being wanted, Alithea — and with her, one supposes, every human being — wants to be wanted by choice.

Still, even the idea of choice raises questions. Early in the film, Alithea rambles through the Grand Bazaar, with its 61 covered streets and 4,000-plus shops, only to happen on just the right shop, and just the right room in the shop, and just the right bottle in the room, to find the djinn who will change her life. Can we ever escape our fate? Do we really have a choice about who or what we want? As Alithea lovingly cradles the nightingale’s eye, she seems to know just one thing: “Whatever it is, I’m sure it has an interesting story.”

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