Tilda Swinton in Three Thousand Years of Longing © MGM
The Queen’s Gambit ignited larger interest in chess, The Devil Wears Prada made fashion exciting, and Dead Poets Society immortalized Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” As a philosophy professor specializing in fiction, I had high hopes for Three Thousand Years of Longing, which features a narratologist—someone who studies stories. At a time when pro-STEM cultural currents might be leading some graduates to regret their humanities major, according to one recent report, a Hollywood PR boost—from director George Miller, the filmmaker behind the enormously successful Mad Max action movie franchise, no less—was just what the humanities needed. Or so I told myself. In hindsight, my optimism—that Hollywood would shine an edifying light on a much-maligned branch of academia—seems more than a little poignant.
In Three Thousand Years of Longing, a literature professor (Tilda Swinton) travels to Istanbul for a conference and accidentally unleashes a Djinn (Idris Elba) from a souvenir. There is much to love about the movie: vibrant colors form a feast for the eyes, the spread of languages and cast are delightful, and the Djinn’s stories draw one in again and again. The first story begins with juicy historical gossip about Queen Sheba and King Solomon!
In the A. S. Byatt short story the movie is based on, the professor is named Gillian. In the movie, her name is changed to Alithea after the Greek aletheia, “truth.” The name change is significant because it accords Alithea with more authority, and the new authority is unfortunate because Alithea espouses the two-cultures framework that understands the humanities and the sciences in contrast to each other—and fundamentally separate. In a well-attended lecture, Alithea claims angels, heroes, and ghosts have outlived their usefulness since we don’t need to invoke supernatural entities (and the stories that involve them) to explain things like thunder and lightning anymore.
This point assumes that stories and sciences have, and even compete for, the same aim; it also assumes that stories and sciences don’t naturally coexist. But this just isn’t true. As any real narratologist would tell you, scientific thought experiments are but little stories that give us knowledge without empirical data, and the business of learning about the physical world cannot be neatly separated from the business of learning what we find valuable.
The film has a further blow to strike against the humanities. The problem isn’t just that Alithea, our unfortunate representative, is unimaginative about where stories can be found; the plot suggests the humanities have no natural home in the twenty-first century. In the movie—spoiler alert!—the Djinn, the very symbol of the connection between myth and reality, begins to disintegrate in COVID-19-era London: his body desiccating and crumbling. It takes an official wish from Alithea for him to even gain the ability to speak in the short story; on the other hand, he is bothered by modern pace and technology, but not in danger. In the 1994 short story, Byatt’s opening declaration that the narratologist is “out of touch, and therefore happy,” is a sly tongue-in-cheek from an author who, in the past four years, had won the Booker Prize for Fiction, a number of honorary doctorates, and had been appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. “In her impoverished youth,” writes Byatt, “she had supposed that scholarship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.” Gillian’s career may seem obscure, but the ancient order she belongs to—the order of narrative—is glamorous, powerful, dangerous, and current. She is invited to give a prestigious keynote at the end of the story and even gets to stay at the kind of hotel she wanted. Byatt’s narratologist, in other words, is rewarded, and she carves out an important place for herself in society.
The film, however, crucially misunderstands Byatt’s sleight of hand, and even seemingly insignificant details reinforce stereotypes about humanities professors being out of touch. When describing television to the Djinn, Alithea mentions electricity and transmitters before muttering, “I’m a literary scholar, we don’t know much.” This is not characterized as a modern problem: when a sultan in one of the Djinn’s stories begins to write poetry, the court finds him unfit to rule. (Byatt’s first paragraph, by contrast, pays rapid tribute to the political currency of narrative—and the presence of poets in history.)
In this, George Miller’s interpretation misunderstands the text, introducing harmful stereotypes about humanities professors: that they study outdated material; that they’re not technologically well-informed; and that what they do is of uncertain value.
It also misunderstands the humanities, so adding to the disappointing trend in the humanities’ credibility crisis, confidence crisis, and major crisis. Many have pointed out that cultural assumptions have been fueling the crises, namely the preconception that studying literature, languages, religion, and the like won’t prepare one well for the job market. But the data suggests otherwise: philosophy majors, for instance, tend to do well, and a humanities major can help one out-earn those who majored in pre-law or advertising by $20,000-54,000 a year.
Three Thousand Years of Longing didn’t need to sacrifice narratology for the sake of a (Hollywood) story. For instance, Alithea might have discussed our need for stories and our need to study stories. The movie insinuates that the Djinn’s stories awaken Alithea’s latent desires for romance, but an equally compelling interpretation is that we’re easily suggestible beings who imitate characters in a story. We collect social information from stories as well as real life, so we need to pay attention to the kinds of stories we find ourselves telling.
In the short story, Gillian explains tennis in narrative terms and shows how the scoring system is designed to maximize drama. The more evenly matched the players are, the more difficult it is to win: not one but two points—and not one but two games—are needed to win. The ability to see the story arc in sports, politics, and culture alerts us to the path we might be unwittingly following. Ironically, this kind of attention to the value and significance of narratives is missing from Three Thousand Years of Longing.
For a movie so self-conscious about storytelling, it’s curious that the study of stories doesn’t get defended, let alone valorized or even investigated. A. S. Byatt, George Miller, Gillian/Alithea, and the Djinn are all in the business of stories, but Three Thousand Years of Longing fails to connect the dots between their approaches to narrative. I hope I won’t have to long for a movie to succeed in doing so for nearly as many years.
Hannah H. Kim is an assistant professor in philosophy at Macalester College.