MARCH / APRIL 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
The first time I saw One Night with the King (2006), I spent an enjoyably splenetic evening ranting about all the ways the filmmakers messed up the story. I lumped it with other recent Hollywood depictions of Biblical events that strayed from the characterizations and events described in the Bible in an effort to “improve” them, to make them more exciting, more interesting.
Then I read the book of Esther for the first time in many years, and John F. Brug’s commentary* on Esther. From them, I learned many of the things I’d assumed were modern embellishments are actually part of the Biblical account. Others came from the Greek historian Herodutus and other historical texts about the Persian Empire. Now, I am impressed by how little the filmmakers “improved” on the story. This is not to say they didn’t change a few things, but overall, this is one of the more faithful-to-the-text “Bible movies” I have seen.
One Night with the King tells the story of Esther (Tiffany Dupont), a beautiful young Jewish woman orphaned as a child, raised by her uncle Mordecai (John Rhys-Davies), who eventually became queen of Persia. Once queen, she uses her influence to save her fellow Jews from being killed by a genocidal maniac.
For the most part, the story follows the scriptural narrative—Queen Vashti refuses to appear at a drunken revelry to show off her beauty for her husband and his advisors. Concerned that this act of disobedience will inspire other wives to similar actions, the advisors encourage King Xerxes (Luke Goss) to decree that she is no longer queen, and he will choose a new wife from among the kingdom’s virgins. Esther is rounded up with the rest, and sent to the palace. Mordecai encourages her to hide her Jewish heritage, and go by her Persian name (Esther instead of Hadassah). There is an anti-Semitic fanatic, Haman (James Callis) running around stirring up trouble for the Israelites, and Mordecai cannot protect her inside the palace.
The story deviates from the Biblical account only in inventing creative filler to explain some of the plot twists in scripture—including an assassination plot against the king, which Mordecai foils. This Esther loves to read; this interests the man in charge of caring for and beautifying all these possible new queens, Hegai (Tommy “Tiny” Lister). The Biblical account says Esther caught the attention of Hegai and gained his favor, so he helped her figure out what the king would like best. Here, Hegai selects Esther to read to Xerxes when he’s having trouble sleeping. They have a non-sexual first encounter, which makes her much more interesting and memorable to him than the other girls who are in his presence for one night and one purpose only. (Though they’re not overt about it, they do make clear that the way Xerxes is choosing his new queen is to sleep with each virgin, intending to choose the one who pleases him the most.)
The Greek historian Herodotus characterized Xerxes as “a rash, impetuous man with a roving eye […] easily swayed by feminine beauty” (Brug, p. 80). This is precisely how he comes across in the movie. He desires Esther and is interested in the story of Jacob and Rachel, which she tells him the first time they meet. He decides he’s madly in love with her and she needs to be the next queen. Later, he jumps to the conclusion that she’s cheating on him and all but banishes her. He’s moody and unpredictable.
While the Bible makes no mention of any relationship problems between Xerxes and Esther, this ups the tension, since pretty soon Haman has his plan in place to kill all the Jews. Mordecai sends word to Esther that she needs to get the king to stop this or she’ll die as well. So now Esther has to go before a moody, unpredictable, jealous, angry king and hope he allows her to approach him instead of sending her to her doom. Since anyone who’s read even a children’s version of the Bible story knows how this ends, this creates additional tension.
They change the ending a bit, to make it more exciting, I assume. Instead of throwing two banquets and inviting Xerxes and Haman, Esther throws only one banquet, and tells the king right away that Haman is trying to kill her and her people. And the ending bothers me the most about this, because they’d so built up Esther’s unrequested appearance before Xerxes that everything after it feels like a let-down. It was a brave thing to do, since in the Persian Empire, coming into the king’s presence uninvited meant certain death unless he signaled with his scepter that he would accept you, but having her would-be killer there at a feast and accusing him in his own hearing is also a gutsy thing to do, and it just felt a bit flat to me.
Still, One Night with the King manages to bring people from the Bible to life and present their story in an understandable, attention-holding way. And I’ve learned my lesson not to spout off about a film’s inaccuracies before being sure I’ve studied up on what it’s meant to be portraying first. ♥
*Brug, John F. The People’s Bible: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, WI. 1985.
Rachel Kovaciny passes the time by writing, reading, baking, watching movies, crocheting, blogging, and homeschooling her three children. Her least favorite activities are house-cleaning and wearing shoes, and she’s been known to go to great lengths to avoid both. She blogs about books, and also has a personal blog that talks about movies and other important things.