It would appear there is a new found vibrancy in the relationship between the film industry and the biblical text. In the past two decades there have been numerous films made portraying biblical narratives which have received wide public circulation. The movies: Left Behind, Omega Code, Passion of Christ, and One Night with the King are just some examples of films made recently that portray biblical events. Interestingly, in all of these movies the filmmakers present a particular way of reading the biblical text. As one might imagine these readings are often times saturated with many provocative prejudices and unashamed biases. As a result, movie viewers should pay close attention to the underlined messages being portrayed in these films. The purpose of this review is to analyze how the filmmakers of “One Night with the King” are reading the biblical text and what concerns that should pose for the film viewers.
The movie “One night with the king” is about a young Jewish girl Hadassah who rises from obscurity to notoriety as the Princess of Persia. By chance Hadassah who becomes Queen Esther uses her position to overthrow the genocidal plan of Haman (an empirical official and descendent of the Agagite linage) to destroy her people. The movie portrays this story as one of divine destiny. It was God’s divine plan to raise Esther to the palace for such a time as this, so that she could be the savior of the Jewish people. From this it is clear the moviemakers are reading the biblical story of Esther as one of Jewish divine preservation and subsequent exaltation in foreign lands.
This reading presupposes some sort of divine orchestration despite the fact God’s name is not mention at all in the biblical account. This reading also presupposes both Esther and Mordecai were devout Jews who were not interested in selfish gain but communal perseverance. To this end the moviemakers go to great lengths to portray Mordecai as a deeply religious Jewish scribe and Esther as an innocent Jewish girl who loves reading the history of the Jews. Neither of these images can be substantiated by the biblical text. Esther chapter 2 tells us nothing of the individual character of Mordecai or Hadassah prior to Esther being taken to the king’s palace. This lets us know that the moviemakers were apparently concerned with the lack of religious presence in the book. Therefore, they embellished the religiosity of the main Jewish characters of the story, in order to maintain their reading of divine preservation and exaltation.
In addition to a Jewish religious preoccupation, the filmmakers also reveal a certain discomfort with the sexual nature of the biblical account. In the movie Queen Vashti is removed from her position not for refusing to show her beauty to the King’s royal banquet (Esther 1:10-12), but for protesting the King’s decision to go to war against Greece. Also, the movie gives the impression that the attraction of the King to Esther was her reading ability. In fact, Esther during her famed one night with the king spends the entire time reading to him the story of Jacob and the other patriarchs. In the biblical text the only ability or advantage Esther has is her physical appearance and advise from the king’s eunuch (Esther 2:15). Any mention of Esther’s reading abilities is non-existent. King Ahasuerus is portrayed in the movie as a politically motivated king driven with the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Once again, the biblical text differs by portraying the King as a drunken sensual man who is easily influenced by his sexual appetite and by those around him (1:10, 1:13, 1:16-22, 2:2-4, 3:8-11, 5:1-3).
It appears from this analysis that the moviemakers recognized the sexual nature of the text but chose to suppress it by appealing to a religious and political framework instead. Apparently, the moviemakers view sexuality as problematic to religious sanctity. I presume they didn’t want to appear to be condoning sex outside of marriage. This is why in the movie the only implication of sexual interaction between Esther and the King takes place after Esther has been received as queen. One might also assume the moviemakers wanted to avoid the ideological question of teenage exploitation in the text. They seem to accomplish this by depicting the biblical sex competition as some gloried beauty contest. Perhaps the most troubling observation of the moviemakers reading is their willingness to insert God into the story, while being unwilling at the same time to address how this God then relates to the sexploitation taking place within the narrative.
Another interesting aspect of the moviemakers reading of the biblical text is related to the issue of Persian colonization. In the film it seems Jewish assimilation into Persian culture was smiled upon. Haman encourages hatred against the Jews by categorizing them as Greek sympathizers or internal enemies of the empire. He also raises suspicion of the Jews by portraying Judaism as a religion of equality, similar to Greek democracy, which stands in opposition to Persian government. Also, Mordecai rebukes a fellow Jewish man for selling poison to the king’s cupbearer and later rides through the city on the king’s horse while wearing the king’s clothes. And in the closing scene of the movie Mordecai is seen dressed in his official Persian attire celebrating the assimilation of the Jews into Persian culture.
To be sure the biblical text renders no implication of Jewish upheaval or social protest. Both Esther and Mordecai are portrayed as good, law-abiding, Persian assimilated Jews who only want to save their people from annihilation. The movie however seems to glorify this behavior by portraying colonization and assimilation as God’s divine plan for the Jewish people. This is interesting because some scholars have suggested the intention of the author of Esther was to mock Greek/Persian governance and to ridicule Jewish individuals who supported foreign rule. If this is true, the moviemakers seem to exalt what the book of Esther was originally meant to abase. It is worthy to note, diversity of culture and ethnicity were tolerated in Persian colonization, as long as the colonized adhered to the laws of the empire; and in my opinion, the moviemakers not only see this as a historical fact but as a fact to be applauded.
All of these factors and many more should lead viewers to ask tough questions of the movie “One night with the king”. Questions concerning, what is the underlying message the movie is conveying and what are the images influencing the young children who view this movie? The intention of this analysis is to provide a framework for which questions such as these can be examined. This is needful because religious films have the potential to shape and influence how a person views themselves in relation to their God and their community. Hopefully, this analysis has presented a clear case for the investigation of what ideologies this movie is either promoting and/or rejecting.
In the final analysis, the film “One night with the King” revealed that the moviemakers read the biblical text of Esther with a presumptuous religious, anti-sensual, pro-colonialist bias. Those who view this film should be careful to recognize these biases and not be lead astray by the subtle nature of their presentation. Nonetheless, if one is aware of these factors the movie can serve as a great resource for understanding the fascinating story of the Jewish peasant girl Hadassah, who becomes Esther the Queen of Persia.
Compassionately and Critically Yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.