The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A. S. Byatt (1994)
Three Thousand Years of Longing directed by George Miller (2022)
I saw this movie the week it came out and didn’t realize until the end credits that it is based on a book! I of course downloaded the book right away and began reading it!
This movie is still in theaters and I highly recommend going to see it! It is a movie made for the big screen, with incredible visuals, music, fantastic stories, and great performances.
Both book and movie are about a British woman narratologist who going to Istanbul for a conference on storytelling and while there gets a glass bottle in a shop. When she is in her hotel room cleaning the bottle, a djinn appears and tells her he will grant her three wishes and they must be her heart’s desire. As she thinks of what to wish for, the djinn tells her of his past and how he came to be trapped three different times, over the course of three thousand years.
The first is with the Queen of Sheba whom he was in love with, but when she married Solomon, Solomon had the djinn trapped in a bottle and thrown out to sea.
He was then found by a woman who was part of a harem and used her first wish to be wanted by the prince and her second wish to be pregnant with his baby. She was later killed, and since she didn’t complete the third wish the Djinn was trapped in this invisible plain of existence. His bottle was later found by a large woman who didn’t trust him and wished him to be back in his bottle. He again was thrown out to sea. He was then found by a woman named Zefir who he falls in love with. However, his love for her is controlling and she wishes they had never met, which makes him once again trapped in the bottle until the narratologist finds him.
Alithea/Gilllian’s imaginary friend
In the book, the main characters name is Gillian, but in the movie her name is Alithea which is Greek for truthful.
In both, we learn she went to a girl’s boarding school and had a hard time making friends and describes herself as a solitary creature. She tells the djinn about how she had an imaginary friend who would provide her comfort when she had asthma attacks, as well as just keeping her company in general. She wrote about him in a book, however the more she wrote about him, the sillier she felt and she burned the book in the furnace. In the book she explains this saying, “It seemed silly, in writing, I could see it was silly. I filled it with details, realistic details, his underwear, his problems with gymnastics, and the more realism I tried to insert into what was really a cry of desire-desire for nothing specific – the more silly my story. It should have been farce or fable, I see that now, and I was writing passion and tragedy and buttons done with verisimilitude. I burned it in the school furnace. My imagination failed.”
In the movie that is the end of her imaginary friend, but in the book, we learn that after getting rid of the first friend she wrote about, she is later visited by yet another imaginary friend. This one she doesn’t write about, and he once again will visit her, but he too ended up fading away after time.
In both, her husband leaves her for another woman. In the movie, she became pregnant, but lost the baby early on and it seems he left her soon after, saying she was incapable of feelings. She tells the djinn, that she feels things through stories.
Anyway, in the book she and her husband have two children, and sometime later in their marriage he left her for someone much younger. Yet, when he told her, she didn’t feel the sadness and anger she felt she should have felt. Instead, she felt free, which is also how she describes it in the movie.
The fact that she has children in the book yet isn’t close to them adds another layer of loneliness. To have children but not be close with them seems lonelier than not having any children at all.
Even though she felt free to be divorced, she still struggles with loneliness.
Women in stories
A big theme in the book is the role of women in stories and their lack of independence throughout the ages, and even today in Gillian’s time (the book takes place in 1991).
She didn’t like being married partly because she wanted her independence. Just like the Queen of Sheba didn’t want to be married initially because she too had the power she desired and didn’t want to be “enslaved” in a marriage.
We also have Zefir, who is brilliant, yet because she is a woman, and one of three wives of a man who keeps her like a bird in a cage, she is almost going mad and wishes she were a man because if she were, she could put her brains to use. She also says how she thought maybe she was a witch, because back then that was how they explained a woman who was as smart and intellectual as her.
This mirrors Gillian as well, who also wished to be a man at various times in her life. Men are free to pursue their intellectual desires and it is socially acceptable.
When Queen Sheba tells Solomon he needs to tell her every woman’s desire, Gillian asks the Djinn what it was he said. in the book she later confides that she thinks every woman’s desire is to be a man.
She also tells the Djinn a story about when she was 20, she was staying at a friend’s house in preparation for the friend’s wedding. She says how she loved her body at that time, it was thin and beautiful, yet it scared her because she knew she wasn’t prepared for a woman’s body. The morning of the wedding, the friend’s dad comes in her room with a breakfast tray, and he pulls her robe off her shoulders and gropers her breasts and rubs his face in them. When he leaves, she feels sick and feels her body is to blame.
The theme of the conference in Istanbul is Woman in Fiction and Gillian tells the story of Patient Griselda, who endures many hardships that her husband puts her through to test her and in the end, when all is seemingly well, Giselda nearly suffocates and strangles her own children. The book reads, “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies…and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.”
This theme is kind of present in the movie, but it is a much larger theme in the book.
That fact that Alithea/Gillian is a narratologist is important to keep in mind when understanding the movie and book. Narratology is “the study of narrative and narrative structure, and the ways that these affect human perception.”
In the movie when she is speaking at the conference, they are talking about how centuries ago, the way people tried to make sense of things was by creating a myth or story around it. Using stories as a way to understand life and as a way to cope with difficulties. We do that today as well to some extent, but rely on science in place of myths.
In the book, the conference topic is about women roles in stories. Which as I said, is much more an overarching theme in the book.
We also have the quote in the book when Gillian is speaking with a fellow narratologist, which reads, “…there must be a wonderful pleasure for some people in being other people’s fates and destinies. Perhaps it gave them the illusion that their own fates too were in their own hands…”
The Djinn’s fate is in Gillian’s hands and maybe that helps her feel she is in control of her own fate.
All in her head
We know that in her childhood she created someone who brought her comfort and provided good company. And since she studies stories, the theory that she imagines the Djinn makes sense.
It also makes sense why as said, at least two of the women from the Djinn’s stories are reflective of Gillian herself.
In the movie, she faints during their conference when she keeps seeing a figure no one else sees. He consumes her and she passes out. When she comes to, she tells her co-worker that sometimes her imagination gets the best of her but that she is all right. He says something about her being like a child, and she says that she is a child.
She had burned the book of her friend when she was a kid because she started feeling too silly, and maybe growing too old for it. Yet here she is later in life, embracing her childish self which could be why she was able to imagine a friend yet again, and in such detail.
In the book she also sees imaginary figures (and in book and movie her colleague jokes that she saw a djinn, before the appearance of the actual djinn). In the book, she explains that the imaginary figures she sees is a representation of her approaching death and coming to terms with it. So, in the book she creates the djinn out of loneliness, but also in her attempt to make the most of life before it is over. Or also as a way to feel in control of her fate because as said in that earlier quote, narrators in stories like to control another’s fate because it makes them feel more in control of their own.
Djinn drew her to him
Another way to look at the movie, is to think that the Djinn is real, and he had been drawing Alithea to him in order to be freed. This is a theory that could work for the movie, but I don’t think there is as much evidence for this when it comes to the book.
But with the movie, when she lands in Turkey there is a person only she can see and they are pulling her cart in a different direction-trying to pull her to the bottle with the djinn.
Then the figure during her speech is a man who was part of Queen Sheba’s court, so he could be a manifestation made by the djinn.
We also know from a story the djinn tells, that if someone is part djinn, they can sense him and he can call to them in a way. We see similarities between Althiea and Zefir, and we know Zefir had been pregnant with the Djinn’s baby. So, it is possible Alithea is a descendent of Zefir’s and therefore part Djinn.
In the movie she also talks about how it was so random they just happened upon the store where the Djinn’s bottle was, and she dug it out from this pile of various pieces. The fact that she was so drawn to it, could once again be evidence that he was influencing her.
You could also go as far as to say that he was influencing her when she was younger, with the imaginary friend she created.
In the movie, Alithea is very skeptical about making any wishes at all, because she knows that every story about wishes is a cautionary tale. I like this aspect because we can speculate on whether the Djinn’s stories are even true, or if he creates these stories as a way to pique her interest and try to be sneaky and get her to wish something.
Anyway, she doesn’t wish anything until he tells the last story of Zefir. She is jealous of the love he had for her and is lonely in life and wants not only to love someone deeply, but to be loved deeply in return. She makes this wish, they make love, and then he joins her when she returns to London.
When in London, the magnetic waves from technology are overwhelming and the Djinn tries to manage it (he calls himself a transmitter, and so all the tech waves flood his brain), and Althea is happy and content. We see her out and about by herself but seems at peace because she has the Djinn to return to.
However, the technology starts to hurt him and one day she finds him in the basement and he is almost turning to dust. She makes a second wish that he speaks to her-because he had been too weak to speak.
This reinvigorates him to some extent and he acts like he is fine, but clearly, he isn’t. She then uses her third wish, to wish that he goes somewhere where he will be okay.
He then leaves, and she packs up the jacket he wore, and the slippers she had been wearing the day they met and puts them in the basement next to the box of memories from her husband.
We go forward three years, and see she is writing about him in a book the same way she had written about her imaginary friend when she was a child. He returns to her and they walk off together. We are told in voiceover that he visits her throughout the years and always stays longer than he should. But he is there to comfort her and keep her company through the years of her remaining life.
Meaning of movie ending
If we see this as her imagination, then we can assume the reason he started dying in London is because she is using less of her mind to maintain his creation. She is back at work, doing her thing, and he therefore starts to fade.
She wishes him to be somewhere safe, but because of her wish for them to love each other, he isn’t gone for good and still returns to visit her when she is in need of love and company. This could represent her embracing her full self and loving herself, if the djinn is really just an extension of her mind.
If we see him as being real, then it is more of a love story about two people who love each other deeply yet can’t be together because they can’t exist in the same realms for long.
I prefer to think of it as being in her imagination though.
In the book, Gillian actually makes her first wish right away, and that is to have the body she wants. It is later in the book we hear the story about her friend’s dad and learn that her “ideal” body is the one she had when she was 32. It may not have been as “perfect” as the body when she was 20, but when she was in her 30’s her body no longer scared her and she was confident.
Her second wish is the same as the movie, for her and the Djinn to be in love. The Djinn says to her, “‘You honour me…and maybe you have wasted your wish, for it may well be that love would have happened anyway, since we are together, and sharing our life stories, as lovers do.’ ‘Love,’ said Gillian Perholt, ‘requires generosity. I found I was jealous of Zefir and I have never been jealous of anyone. I wanted-it was more that I wanted to give you something – to give you my wish –’ she said, incoherently… ‘You give and you bind,’ said the djinn, ‘like all lovers. You give yourself, which is brave, and which I think you have never done before…’”
She again brings him to England and there is talk about all the energy and electromagnetic waves in the air, but it seems like he is fine. They then go to Toronto for another conference and she gives a speech the title of which is “Wish-fulfilment and Narrative Fate: some aspects of wish-fulfilment as a narrative device’”.
She tells a story involving a man who had unlimited wishes and wished wisely, but each wish caused the giver to get smaller and smaller. He ends up wishing for the giver to make a wish of his own, and once he does, the giver disappears and the man’s life returns to normal. A line from this speech reads, “Characters in fairy-tales are subject to Fate and enact their fates. Characteristically they attempt to change this fate by magical intervention in its workings, and characteristically too, such magical intervention only reinforces the control of the Fate which waited for them, which is perhaps simply the fact that they are mortal and return to dust.”
Gillian tries to change her fate with the creation of the Djinn, but in the end she will be left to the same fate of eventually dying.
When she returns to the hotel room she uses her final wish for him to go where he wants. Before he leaves, he buys her a glass paperweight (she collects them) and they make love once more.
We see years later, he visits her again when she is in a shop and he buys her two more paperweights, one with a snake the other with a flower.
The snake was symbolic in the book, very early in the story Gillian reflects on John Milton’s book about the creation and how the snake was “floating redundant” and Gillian herself feels she is floating redundant as a woman yet in her career she still has purpose and isn’t “redundant”.
The book has more going on before the meets the Djinn, and she even makes a wish when she is with some colleagues. We hear more stories from the conference, as well as stories told to her by a strange man in a museum who may or may not be a djinn.
I have only read the story once, but if there is anyone out there who has studied this book and its various themes and symbolism, I would love to hear your thoughts! It may be a novella, but there was so much to this book!
Oh, and the title of the book comes from the name of the bottle the Djinn was in. It is described as the movie shows, a blown glass bottle with blue and white stripes and it was named The Nightingale’s Eye.
The Djinn’s stories
As far the stories the Djinn tells, they are basically the same as the movie. We have a violent man in the book, but in the movie this man was part djinn and after war he becomes blood thirsty and can only be calmed by an old storyteller. When the storyteller dies, the man becomes weak and he too dies. His brother then is put in charge. The brother is the one that stayed in a room lined with sable and liked large women. This man was in the book, but in the movie his mom wanted him in that sable room with all the women, whereas in the book the man himself did it. And he hadn’t had the violent brother, that was a separate man in the book.
The movie might even get a bit more in-depth with these stories than the book did, but ultimately both are very similar. I thought the movie did a great job showing Zefir and how the Djinn’s love for her caused him to want her to be trapped in that room because if she wished to be out, he might lose her to another love. The movie also shows how he would stop her from talking, because he was worried she might make a wish he didn’t want her to.
Both book and movie show how in some ways, the wisher is as much a slave to the djinn as the djinn is to the wisher.
Book vs Movie
I was so excited for this movie, but I’ll be honest, when it ended, I took it at face value and was like, “hm, so it was a romance I guess.” And felt a little underwhelmed. Then I watched Fish Jelly’s review of it and their interpretation really helped me have a greater appreciation for it and to appreciate the layers of the story.
I am so glad I read the book right after because that also gave a look into the story and its meaning.
A lot of great details in the movie came straight from the book, including how the Djinn was huge at first, and his foot filled the bathroom door. Such a cool visual in the movie and that was exactly how it was described in the book.
In the end, I think the book is a bit clearer on the Djinn being in her mind, but I do like that the movie is a bit more interpretive. It is really hard to say which I liked better because they are very similar, the book gives you even more to think about. The movie is amazing though was a such a cool theater experience.
Ugh, I don’t know! I guess I will say the book wins? But the movie is a very close second. I will say though, the book had so many names and words that I didn’t know how to pronounce so I liked listening to the audiobook. It is fine when every once and a while a book has a name you can’t pronounce and so you mentally skip over it, but with this book it was so frequent!