The Quick Explanation
Three Thousand Years of Longing is about isolation and connection and the way stories serve to bridge the gap between those two things. The stories we tell ourselves, those we share with others, and those we listen to. While the character journey involves Alithea and Djinn falling in love by way of story, you also see Alithea find comfort in the aftermath of their romance through writing the tale of her time with Djinn. Characters in Three Thousand Years of Longing are typically defined by what causes them to connect or disconnect from someone else and how their behavior changes depending on that state of being. Causes for disconnection span from lust to war, knowledge to racism. There even seems to be a statement on technology as a means of division, on science and realism as the stuff that reduces the power of story.
While told as fantasy, Three Thousand Years of Longing opens with a statement about being truth told as fairytale. Meaning that what we see is story. It’s Alithea’s dramatization of a romance that was surprising, overwhelming in the best of ways, but unsustainable. By telling the story the way she does, it becomes the stuff of myth and legend. Overall, her story is bittersweet. Yet it shouldn’t leave you with a feeling of sadness so much as contentment for having loved and been loved. Ultimately, Alithea winds up in a place of being comfortable with her own vulnerability and openness to love. Which is a beautiful state of being. One I hope everyone reading this can feel.
- Tilda Swinton – Alithea Binnie
- Idris Elba – Djinn
- George Miller – Writer/Director
- A.S. Byatt – Author of the story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”
Why it’s called Three Thousand Years of Longing
The title does a couple things. First, it indicates the appropriate emotional register. This is a movie about longing, a movie for the lonely, especially those who are not only lonely but also yearn (whether they realize it or not) for something more. It sets up the question of whether the longing will be fulfilled. This ability for a title to indicate tone and story elements is something that happens quite often. A title like The Usual Suspects primes the viewer for a mystery. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind implies a movie about psychology and forgetting.
The second thing the title accomplishes is to set a tone of exaggeration and hyperbole. It’s not just Longing. Or A Year of Longing. Or Ten Years of Longing. The idea of THREE THOUSAND years of longing implies something outside of realism. Something heightened and legendary. The question then becomes how the movie justifies (or fails to justify) such scope. In this case, it’s justified by having a genie who has lived for thousands of years in isolation. The story fulfilled the fantastic tone of the title. And while the movie makes it a very literal thing, it’s also just a metaphor for a feeling lots of people will recognize. Their longing may not be on that literal of a scale, but it feels like it is. They recognize the intensity inherent in the hyperbole. Sure, many people are lucky enough to find a high school sweetheart or a college sweetheart or to meet their one true love in their twenties or early thirties. But not everyone is so fortunate. A lot of humans live without love (even if they’re in relationships). And they spend decades in anticipation of its arrival. They may reach a point where they, like Alithea, start to believe and accept love will never be theirs. So the title can resonate with anyone who feels or has felt such a thing.
Of course, on the most practical terms, the title refers to Djinn’s life and the fact he tells us stories from across multiple millenia.
Did the events in Three Thousand Years of Longing actually happen?
I feel like this needs to be clarified. The events in the movie are metaphorical. This isn’t a story that should be taken literally like, say, The Matrix or Jurassic Park or Harry Potter or Pirates of the Caribbean or Back to the Future. In those films, and many like them, we’re supposed to buy into the reality of the fantastic. How do I know this? Alithea opens the movie by telling us exactly that:
“My name is Alithea. My story is true. You’re more likely to believe me, however, if I tell it as a fairytale. So, once upon a time, when humans hurtled across the sky on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, when they held in their hands glass tiles that could coax love songs from the air, there was a woman, adequately happy and alone, alone by choice, happy because she was independent, living off the exercise of her scholarly mind. Her business was story, she was a narratologist, who sought to find the truths common to all the stories of humankind. To this end, once or twice a year, she ventured to strange lands. To China. To the South Seas. And the timeless cities of the Levant. Where her kind gathered to tell stories about stories.”
Not only are we explicitly told this is a fairytale version of events, the movie demonstrates the way in which the “ordinary” can be presented as fantastic. “Humans hurtled across the sky on metal wings” is just flying on an airplane. And wearing “webbed feet and walk[ing] on the bottom of the sea” is scuba diving. And the “glass tiles that could coax love songs from the air”? iPhones. But the realistic, scientific descriptions of these things robs them of their wonder and power. By describing them as Alithea does, she imbues them with a strange, exciting energy. Which is exactly what she’s doing with the story she tells us. There’s a very realistic, grounded version that would be familiar and probably boring. So she tells the fantastic version. The wondrous version. And we care more because of it. That’s the power of story.
This “theory” is reinforced early in the movie when Alithea begins her dialogue with Djinn. She tells him about her youth:
“When I was young, there was a boy. He was not of flesh and blood. At that time, I found myself in a school for girls. I am a solitary creature by nature and this boy, Enzo, he came to me, out of an emptiness, out of a need to imagine. He told me stories in a language only we two spoke and he always disappeared when I had a headache but he was never far away when I couldn’t move for asthma. [He was] only an emanation of an absence. I feared he would leave, so I wrote him down. I filled this journal, bulging with facts. But the more realism I tried to insert, the more I began to doubt. And it all began to feel silly. I felt silly. So, after a time, I burned it all in the school furnace. And after that, he disappeared altogether.”
The major takeaways from that speech are that Alithea has a very strong imagination. And realism spoiled the story. Alithea learned that lesson. And won’t make the same mistake again. Instead of trying to turn her fantasy real, she reforges her reality into fantasy. And that ties into something she says during her presentation at the narrative conference. Quote: “Mythology is what we knew back then. Science is what we know so far. Sooner or later, our creation stories are replaced by the narratives of science. Painstaking science. And all gods and monsters outlive their original purpose and are reduced to metaphor.” That quote is at once indicative of Three Thousand Years of Longing and something the film rejects. Alithea’s entire character arc sees her go from someone who has replaced creation with science to someone who believes, once more, in the fantastic. The Alithea who narrates, the one at the end of the story who has written the book that is the story playing out on the screen, who has, in her story, a random djinn in the audience respond to her statement with a single word, “Rubbish”, is not the same woman who makes the comments about the reduction of mythology.
That’s why Alithea leaned so far into mythology when writing the book. The purpose of such mythology isn’t simply metaphor but serves a deeper purpose. Connection. As all good storytellers know, sometimes the less real you make something, the more real it becomes.
Three Thousand Years of Longing themes and meaning
Obviously, longing is a major theme. But it’s more of a foundation than the primary concern. The movie doesn’t want to simply explore longing. Rather, it wants to talk about the beauty of story and the way in which story can connect people. Narrative is a means by which we can all feel less alone. Alithea even says that it’s through stories she discovers her emotions.
There is a meta aspect to this. As people who are alone and who do long might feel unseen, unheard, and become comfortable in their sense of isolation. Three Thousand Years of Longing reaches out to them and says, “Hey. You’re not alone. There are many of us who feel this way. You’re part of history. We’re in this together. And your story is what can connect you with someone else. Don’t be afraid to own your story and to accept love when it arrives.” I guarantee there are people who will cry harder at this film than any they’ve seen before and not know why. But it’s because they feel recognized. That’s awesome.
The emphasis on story is why so much of the film is just Djinn and Alithea exchanging tales. They’ve kept these stories private for so long. To share them with someone else is an act of vulnerability. And to be someone who listens is a tremendous gift. You see how the give and take between Djinn and Alithea leads to their shared happiness.
Interestingly, Alithea mentions, several times, the curse of a wish granted. The idea that whenever someone interacts with a genie, the wish tends to go sideways. Every blessing has an unseen cost the wisher probably would rather have not paid. Like you might wish for ten billion dollars but then you’re immediately audited by the IRS and because you can’t prove the source of the money the government seizes it and puts you in prison. Genies are known for being part of cautionary tales. And the stories Djinn tells have that aspect to them (something else Alithea points out). Every tale is bittersweet if not outright tragic. But each is illustrative of tensions inherent to the human condition. No one is wholly bad or wholly good. These are complex people who sometimes lose out to the problematic aspects of their personalities. And that often affects others. Especially Djinn.
And we see the curse happen with Alithea and Djinn. Alithea gets the love she desires. But, unfortunately, Djinn is electromagnetic and sensitive to the radio waves and frequencies inherent to 21st century civilization. Living with Alithea is destroying him. He can’t possibly survive. So what comes between them isn’t a failure in their relationship but circumstances beyond their control. That’s the “curse” her wish suffers.
While Three Thousand Years of Longing could have ended with Djinn returning to his world and Alithea in a broken, devastated place, it, instead, chooses to give her closure. Alithea has been transformed by her time with Djinn. She discovered the capacity to love and be loved. However fleeting the relationship was, it was vital and so persists as an active influence on her life. It also helps that Djinn can come visit every now and then. But we’ll get to the symbolism of that a little later in the article.
Of course, one of the reason’s Alithea has so much closure is because she’s turned the whole thing into a book. She maintains this chapter of her life through words and drawings. So what they had isn’t something that’s been lost. It’s something she still possesses and will continue to possess. Which I think is one of the lovely things about Three Thousand Years of Longing. That concept of this thing that’s gone being a story you keep transcends romantic relationships and is applicable to most forms of loss. The loss of parents. Siblings. Loved ones. Friends. Pets. Jobs. Childhood. Your twenties. Your athleticism. Etc. When you think of those things as taken from you, robbed from you, gone with no chance of return—it’s devastating. But when they become stories in and of themselves, stories you keep telling yourself, that you keep revisiting, then the emphasis isn’t on the loss but on the experience itself. And how beautiful it is to have had. You forever possess those things. They’re yours. Cherish them. And let them lift you up.
Lastly, we mentioned it a few times, but the movie really wants to emphasize the importance fantasy plays in our day to day lives. Imagination. Creativity. Creative interpretation. These things aren’t the byproduct of lesser or ignorant minds who lack science and explanation. Anyone who has ever tried to read an instruction manual knows facts aren’t all that exciting. So we have the example of Alithea essentially killing her imaginary friend through realistically portraying him. The more real he was, the less real he felt. So if the audience knew the real story of the romance she’s telling us about, the odds of us connecting with her are much less. The factual details of what happened are too mundane. Maybe even for her to feel inspired enough to tell. But when its presented as a fairytale, when we elongate the truth, scale it up, evolve the real into the fantastic, suddenly we’re willing to listen.
The fact Djinn is sensitive to aspects of everyday technology could be nothing more than an easy way to write him out of the human world. But it does beg the question of the role technology plays in life. Especially after Alithea contrasts mythology and science. Technology is a byproduct of science. That puts it more as an antithetical element. An idea reinforced by the fact Alithea’s book is handwritten rather than typed. Even the ideas of mythology and science get at the concepts of old versus new. The romantic versus the practical. Fiction versus fact.
You can easily extrapolate that concept to conversations about the ways in which the Internet has disconnected people by taking them out of their immediate surroundings because they’re focused more on the world within the screen. You can see a couple out to dinner and both are on their phones rather than interacting. Or family and friends who text rather than call, who call rather than get together in person.
In addition, there might be more commentary or criticism of the present hidden in the Djinn’s stories of the past. To be honest, nothing jumped out at me on first viewing. But I think it’s at least worth mentioning in case anyone wants to spend more time with this movie.
The end of Three Thousand Years of Longing explained
Alithea makes her third and final wish, setting Djinn free in order to save him from the harmful effects of 21st century London. The couple spends a final evening together before he returns to the djinn world. The next day, Alithea boxes up his things and puts them on a shelf next to her ex-husband’s box. Three years have passed. We see Alithea on a bench, writing in a book about the Djinn, as she observes, nearby, a happy couple. Her book is full of stories and sketches. Behind her, a dad and child play. The very first page of the book shows the speech we hear at the beginning of the movie, about telling true events as a fairytale. As Alithea walks through the park, a strange wind blows. She turns to see Djinn walking toward her. They hold hands and walk off, together.
As all of that goes on, Alithea narrates the way she did at the very beginning, thus providing a sense of coming full circle. Her last words are: “He would visit from time to time and they would grasp each vivid moment. Despite the pain of the raucous skies, he always stayed longer than he should. Long after she begged him to leave. He promised to return in her lifetime. And for her, that was more than enough.”
So there are two primary ways to read this. One is literal, the other is figurative. The literal view is pretty straightforward. Due to the electromagnetic makeup of genies, Djinn is sensitive to all the electrical waves present in a modern city. They’re a kind of poison. This dovetails with the fact Alithea had wished for his love. As she says, she took away his agency to love her of his own volition, making what they have hollow and unsustainable. Setting him free is the best thing for Djinn’s health as well as the future of their relationship. And Alithea’s choice pays off. Djinn not only survives, he’s able to, every now and then, return and spend time with her. He really does love her. She’s found a sweet spot between connection and isolation. She’s on her own a lot of the time, but she has someone she loves, who loves her, and who she can be fully vulnerable with. Knowing all of that has brought her a peace of mind that makes the lonely times anything but.
The figurative way of looking at this also has, I think, two primary readings. One is more literal, the second more thematic. So the figurative-literal reading views the entire movie as euphemistic. This goes back to Alithea’s initial statement about the story being told as a fairytale and her early examples of common things described in fantastic ways (plane travel, scuba diving, iPhones). That means there was never a djinn. No wishes. Nothing fantastic. The reality is she dated another typical, normal human being and decided to mythologize the rise and fall of their relationship by transforming him into a djinn. They met in Istanbul, connected over stories, and fell in love. She may have asked him to move to London with her, rather than stay in Istanbul with him. He agreed and tried to make the best of it but was miserable there. They decided to go their separate ways, with him returning to Istanbul (or some other country). But every so often they visit each other and enjoy their time together, happy enough apart because they know the other is out there.
Then the figurative-thematic reading is that Djinn represents Alithea’s overall relationship with romantic partners. He isn’t representative of a single person but multiple. So at the very end, her seeing Djinn every now and then simply means she’s had other short lived but worthwhile relationships. And even though she doesn’t find this great love to spend her life with, she has love in her life. It comes and goes. But she takes comfort in knowing love will, eventually, in some form, return to her. This would mean the movie is less about a tragic love story and more about the way in which an individual who struggled with vulnerability found a way to free her heart and live more honestly and openly and the joy there is in having a healthy relationship with your desires. You can see that reflected in the tension between Alithea and Djinn when he keeps asking her to tell him what her heart’s greatest desire is and she’s unable to do so. It takes them many hours and many stories to finally reach a point where Alithea can admit to herself she wants the romantic passion Djinn described. It’s something she hid from herself. Denied herself. And to finally admit it and live true to that feeling is a powerful, powerful thing.
Regardless of how you want to interpret the ending, I would argue that it’s 99.99% clear that the events of the movie are a romanticization of something much more mundane. It’s not a case of Black Swan or Shutter Island where we need to question the protagonist’s mental health. Alithea isn’t confused about what’s real and not real. We’re not supposed to question what’s real or not real. Djinn never existed. But he represents someone who did. So just keep that in mind when thinking about or re-watching Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Was Three Thousand Years of Longing a book?
A.S. Byatt wrote a novella called “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” that was originally published by The Paris Review in 1994. It’s the foundation for Three Thousand Years of Longing. The main character is a narratologist who attends a conference in Istanbul and finds a bottle that contains a djinn. They exchange stories, she wishes for his love, but eventually must free him. Despite being free, he still, every now and again, comes to see her. But Byatt’s work is incredibly dense and heady and steeped in mythological references. There are long, philosophical stretches. It’s almost too dense to truly be romantic? The film strips out a lot of the heaviness and turns it into an airier experience. One isn’t superior to the other, just different experiences. I will say, from what I read, the movie improves upon some areas. Especially the ending. In the original, Dr. Perholt and the Djinn argue about an academic presentation she gives that he modified the details of, then she frees him, then two years later, as she’s in New York City, looking at paperweights in a store, when the djinn stops by to visit. They admire paperweights together. It just feels a bit anticlimactic to me, where the movie provides a better sense of climax and closure. The novella is a bit too understated for my tastes. I got to the end and thought, “That’s it?”
If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll respond!