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I watched 6 Christian Purim movies so you wouldn’t have to

Esther’s story is a very Jewish one, but Christians have made more movies about it

Every year on Purim, Jews are commanded to hear the story of Esther twice — and get sloshed to the point where we garble the details like we’re on an episode of Drunk History. But lately I’ve been picking up references to this ancient tale of poetic justice and averted genocide from an unlikely place: Christians.

In Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, a framed quote, “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created,” from a Christian translation of the Book of Esther, has pride of place in the home of Fielder’s born-again co-parent, Angela. In Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ response to February’s State of the Union, she paraphrased the same line, first delivered from Mordecai to Esther: You and I were put on earth for such a time as this.” The words are catching, against all odds.

The Megillah has an interesting place in the Christian canon. Martin Luther abhorred it, writing it “Judaizes too much,” which, yeah dude, it’s a Jewish story for Jews!  It is the only book of the Bible that lacks any allusion to the main shared feature of our faith traditions: God. There’s not much you’d expect gentiles to love in a story where the oppressed Jews rout their non-Jewish enemies. And, for evangelicals, the story’s particulars are a bit racy.

And yet, Trump’s favorite pastor compared him to Esther (and so did Mike Pompeo),  a flawed hero destined to save Israel. In recent years Christians have seen the Purim heroine as a model for trying times that demand a great deal of faith. Given Esther’s recent popularity, it’s unsurprising that though Jews have long been in the business of spieling the Purim story, Christians have dominated the market when it comes to cinematic retellings. 

As a follow-up to last year’s trip to see an evangelical Esther pageant, I decided to sample Christian adaptations of this very Jewish story. Each vary wildly in competency and tone. One’s entire cast might be found at a farmers market, another is a musical and there’s even one that reunites the cast of Lawrence of Arabia. Here are six Christian takes on Esther, complete with groggers for how bad they are. 

I have also included a “Haman hat check,” indicating how these films fail to give the villain a head-covering that looks like his namesake crumbly treat. They should have consulted the Jews.

Esther and the King (1960)

Directors: Raoul Walsh and Mario Bava

This one is kind of cheating, in that one of the screenwriters, Michael Elkins, was Jewish and even helped smuggle weapons to the Haganah. Despite his involvement, the film’s plot departs significantly from the one we know. Mordecai begins the story as one of Ahasuerus’ advisers. Esther is engaged to a Jewish soldier named Simon (and abducted to enter the king’s harem on her wedding day). A love triangle (or should I say hamantash) and some cloak and dagger involving military secrets make the plot needlessly complicated. If you can look past the awful dubbing of the Italian actors, Joan Collins’ outrageous bouffant and the fact the whole thing looks way more Roman than Persian, it may be a cool thing to play on mute in the background of your Purim party.

Groggers: 2 out of 5

Haman hat check: None to speak of.

The Bible Collection: Esther (1999)

Director: Raffaele Mertes

One of a series of made-for-TV films that played on TNT, this one is very concerned with connecting this stand-alone story to the broader arc of biblical history. For that reason, Ezra (who is weirdly just as xenophobic as Haman) and even the prophet Nehemiah, training as a cup bearer, have cameos. Oh, and we’re told up top that this all went down “nearly six centuries before the birth of Christ.” The movie is most notable for having a bewigged F. Murray Abraham delivering maybe the worst performance of his career as Mordecai. Subtext and subtlety have been banished from the kingdom along with Vashti. Also, Ahasuerus is the ultimate failson — impetuous, ineffectual, at one point draping himself in a curtain and sobbing. Inexplicably Esther likes him anyway.

Groggers: 4 out of 5

Haman hat check: No hat — a sort of turban. We do see Esther with a platter of hamantashen at the end, though.

VeggieTales: ‘The Girl Who Became Queen’ (2000)

Director: Mike Nawrocki

A little over a year ago there was a popular TikTok sound warning of “a sneaky little family who do sneaky little things.” This installment of VeggieTales, low-key Christian retellings of the Bible featuring animated fruit and veg, is the source of it, and you’ll notice that, just as the Megillah never says “God,” this amusing riff never mentions the word “Jew.” Instead, Esther, a leek, is worried about her “family,” Mordecai, a grape with a Yiddish accent, being banished to the “Isle of Perpetual Tickling.” Maybe Christians like to ease their way into discussions of genocide with their kids — or maybe it’s just too weird to have Haman, a gourd dressed like a 1930s gangster, out for Jewish blood/veggie juice. In any case, this one is fun and light on Jesus if heavy on God. It also sidesteps the risque midrash on the king’s demands of Vashti by simply having her refuse to make him a sandwich at 3 a.m. (what is in that sandwich, given the vegetal nature of our characters, is potentially troubling, however).

Groggers: 0 out of 5 (it’s great!)

Haman hat check: He has one! But it’s a fedora, not a tricorn. 

One Night with the King (2006)

Director: Michael O. Sajbel

Regrettably, this is not about Elvis. Based on a popular Christian novel, One Night with the King kicks off with a Lord of the Rings-esque prologue (narrated by Gimli himself, John Rhys Davies) that explains that Haman’s beef with the Jews goes all the way back to a time King Saul failed to kill the wife of the Amalekite king Agag. A physical sign of Haman’s hate, which we see forged a la The One Ring, is a kinda swastika snake emblem. (Haman also killed Esther’s parents; go figure.) 

For some reason Christian adaptations of the Megillah like to bulk up on prequel info, establishing Esther’s family and Haman’s long-running ancestral feud. To be fair, there’s midrash on the matter, but it feels a bit more Star Wars here than Shabbat Zachor. This is probably the best-made of the films, with a charming, free-spirited Esther (Tiffany Dupont) who feeds her pork lunch to monkeys in the garden and woos Xerxes with Bible tales. It also has David Lean epic alums Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in late performances and a shoehorned-in subplot about Greeks and Jews conspiring out of a mutual love of democracy. If you can handle a bit of absurd spectacle and Jesus foreshadowing, you could do way worse.

Groggers: 1 out of 5

Haman hat check: He wears a turban later on, hiding actor James Callis’ lustrous, Pantene model mane.

Liken: Esther and the King (2006)

Director: Dennis Agle Jr.

This movie comes closest to the energy of a JCC Purim-spiel. There are puns (a sign pointing to “Shushan shoeshine”), wacky Flinstonian props like a sundial wristwatch and some funny patter. It’s also a musical, with big, box-stepping musical theater major energy and a kid-friendly message about being yourself. The one big drawback is that the Esther story is attached to a framing device about a contemporary child trying to summon the courage to invite her butler to church, which she finds the strength to do by fasting on her mother’s suggestion. So, Jesus and a possible recipe for disordered eating. Hard to recommend to landsmen, but an easy fast to those observing Ta’anit Esther.

Groggers: 3 out of 5

Haman hat check: He wears a crown, and not a particularly triangular one.

The Book of Esther (2013)

Director: David A.R. White

Within the first two minutes, visions of a church steeple and a cross flash across the screen, a kind of premonition from Mordecai, who orders the young Hadassah to “never reveal to anyone that you are a Jew from the Tribe of Benjamin.” A low-budget flick with some PlayStation One-caliber CGI, White, the Tyler Perry of explicitly Christian programming, shrinks down the stakes and makes things more personal. Haman now has a daughter he wants to marry the king, but Esther, after a kind of informal rose ceremony, instead befriends her and makes her her lady-in-waiting. The film is largely about marriage dynamics, with Esther establishing a healthy give-and-take, and something like gender parity, with her husband. Weirdly, it is Haman and his wife Zeresh who are modeling couple goals, very comfy with each other and equal partners in plotting the mass murder of the Jews! You kinda are pulling for them, even if the voice of God tells Esther that they won’t win out.

Groggers: 5 out of 5

Haman hat check: He has a couple looks, a turban and a sort of brimless cap. Nothing that looks like a toothsome, jam-filled cookie. Though I guess his ears were kinda pointy.

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