A screenplay by Ren A. Hakim © Ren A. Hakim
this multitude of men, there was not one who,
for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes
himself to wield so vast a power." ~ Herodotus
"Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies"
Few true Love Stories in History have determined a People's Destiny, tested Iron Wills or so positively catalyzed a Nation's Identity so as to last centuries and fill in its most glorious chapters as well as inspire artists, poets and writers through the Ages...
The Story of Esther & Xerxes (Ahasuerus) has been an Inspiration for many great
European Artists such as Rembrandt, Theodore Chasseriau, Valentin Lefevre,
Jan Victor, Francesco Caucig, Pompeo Batoni to name a few that are dispersed
in museums worldwide.
I had the privilege to speak to her
on this ambitious project that she hopes to bring to the Big Screen with a cast
that would include both Iranian and
The Love Story of Xerxes and Esther is all the more remarkable in the light of historical knowledge that it was also to resist to outside pressures be them court intrigues and religious prejudice. If Paparazzi's and People Magazines had existed in Ancient Times, Esther would most probably have been the Lady Diana of her times and sadly enough the love story would have had a more tragic end with far more destructive consequences. Fortunately this story has a happy ending that would most probably be regarded by some snobbish French film critics (sic) of Les Cahiers du Cinéma as too "Hollywoodien" were it not true. For in this case Reality indeed surpasses Fiction ...
So let's try and take a closer look at this story and the reason's that motivated its author in writing her interesting version.
Darius KADIVAR (DK): Could you tell us more about yourself, your background and why you were particularly interested in this very ancient love story ?
Ren A. Hakim (RAH): Where to
start...Well, I was born and raised in
Many years ago, I remember telling
my mother that I wanted to write a story set in the ancient
If one really did their research, they would realize that Xerxes was the heir to an empire which was founded upon the creed of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds"...a son, desperate to follow his father's and grandfather's footsteps... a man, who recognized that, like all men, he would not be defined by status, but by the fruit of his works. Unlike larger than life figures, Cyrus and Darius, the title "the Great" is not often tacked on to his name, but, like so many of us, he aspired to be. That is what makes him so identifiable, his story so compelling: it's our own...in more ways than one.
DK: What were your sources in writing this screenplay ? How much of this Love Story as we know it today is authentic and recorded in History books?
(RAH): When one writes a story based in history, there is already an expectation of the final product being as authentic as possible. I did a great deal of research, spending countless hours reading the works of Herodotus, Ctesias, Aeschylus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Justin, Diodorus, and Xenophon, among others, and seeing where they corroborated one another. I also used actual palace inscriptions and, in doing so, was able to not only create a character profile of just who Xerxes was, but those who most greatly influenced his life, friend and foe alike. It was truly a painstaking process. Again, I wanted everything to be as true to life as possible.
There were a few, really minor
changes (for example, a cousin being instead referred to as a friend, or one
character being a composite of a couple of people) so as to make the story more
palatable for a contemporary audience. Of course, scenes and plot devices had to
be written to maintain continuity, as no one was there to document every little
thing that happened from point A to point B, but I think I accomplished a work
that is both entertaining, as well as educational. In fact, there is only one
part, which takes place during
The most difficult part of writing this screenplay, however, was when Esther enters the picture. For example, the Bible tells us why she was introduced to Xerxes, but what actually occurred during that first meeting? What words were spoken? We're left to wonder, and I found it profoundly difficult to make up my own dialogue when dealing with something so sacred. I recently saw another film about Esther, and was dismayed by how the writer added so many unnecessary factors to the story, like a would-be boyfriend, and diverted from the Biblical account. There were many, many historical inaccuracies regarding the Persians too, but that wasn't surprising.
This sad trend is being continued in
a new Spartan-centric film about the Battle of Thermopylae ( Warner Bros 300 ), which is factually
flawed to the point of being downright offensive. The movie's logline claims it
retells the account of how three-hundred Spartan soldiers drew the line in the
sand, defending democracy against Xerxes' million-man army. The numbers are
laughable and the premise of the story is backwards. It implies that Xerxes was
attempting to enslave
In fact, I believe, had
Though I don't believe the creators of the aforementioned film intended this, it screams, "Hey, look! Not only are the Middle Easterners out to get us now -- they've always been after the West!"
It is promoting disinformation, which may very well fuel further racism, especially in light of the current state of world affairs...and for what? Entertainment?
DK: Could you shortly outline the plot and the major protagonists ?
(RAH): Why certainly! Xerxes is just that -- an account of Xerxes' life, from his rise to power, to the second Greco-Persian war, courtly intrigues, his union with Esther, his death...and beyond. Along the way, we're introduced to a slew of famous and infamous characters. Interestingly, with the exception of Haman, none of them are clearly the "bad guy". These were real people, motivated by real beliefs and whether their actions were right or wrong, everyone felt they were justified. Those that stand out to me as being the central figures to this tale are Mardonius, supreme commander of the Persian army, and the real architect behind the war; Artabanus, Xerxes' Uncle and prime minister, who was helpless to stop the military juggernaut; and the man who was truly Xerxes' greatest Greek adversary: Themistocles of Athens.
Lithography by 19th century artist Gustave Doré
DK: As you mentioned this true tale has was already brought to screen several times. The One, Swords and Sandals film buffs remember most, is Raoul Walsh's Esther and the King with Joan Collins and Richard Egan in the title Roles. How does your screenplay differ from this Technicolor version ?
(RAH): The most obvious difference is that this version is not Esther-centric. In fact, she doesn't really factor into the story till over halfway in. Apart from that, Walsh's picture is yet another example of disregard for historical authenticity. As you may recall, in his film, the Greek threat is that "upstart Alexander", who we all know wouldn't even be born for another hundred years!
Another key difference between my
version and those preceding it, is that I took a different approach to a major
element in the story: the timeline. Here's what I mean: We know that Xerxes was
married to Amestris, referred to as Vashti (which we may accept as an epithet)
in the Bible. The Book of Esther opens with Xerxes holding a lavish, six month
party to show the wealth of his empire in preparation for war. Following her
refusal to join him at a --different-- gathering, Amestris is deposed, and that
is what necessitates the search for a new queen, wherein Esther enters the
picture. The problem has been that this conflicts with Herodotus, who still
names Amestris as Xerxes' wife when he returns from
So...how did I reconcile this without disregarding either source? Interpretation -- Again, the Biblical account begins with Xerxes' party for the princes and military officials, which lasts for one-hundred-and- eighty days. It then goes on to say, "when these days were over," before painting a picture of the party Amestris refuses to attend. Most people take that line literally, assuming that the next party was immediately proceeding this extravagant display of power, probably because the six month figure is so specific. I, however, interpreted it as -- when these days of WAR were over. By doing so, every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly.
DK: How is Esther introduced to the Persian King ? Is it love at first sight for both of them ?
(RAH): As the Bible explains, after
Amestris/Vashti is deposed as queen, a search for a new one is begun. Girls
across the empire are brought to the Persian capital of
Was it love at first sight? I would say, yes, but the real question is--were either one cognizant of it? Remember, he was dealing with many terrible issues, and she was a young girl keeping a pretty major secret. I think Xerxes was in a very troubled place at the time and Esther was like the lone star in the darkest night sky.
DK: Since Cyrus the Great's edict, Jews like all other minorities were put under the protection of Persian Kings and their was never any type of hostility towards them. What changes this situation under Xerxes' rule that puts them in danger of extermination or exodus ? Is Xerxes sensitive to their plight ?
(RAH): In my opinion, the
combination of personal tragedy and a lingering obsession with
As for Xerxes being sensitive to the Jewish cries for help...Again, I think the only cries he could hear at the time were echoes of the past, still ringing in his head.
DK: How does Esther manage to win the heart of the King to join the Jewish cause against the treacherous court minister Haman ?
(RAH): Without getting into the details, she defies imperial law. I also don't think it was a matter of joining the "Jewish cause" for Xerxes -- it was a matter of protecting his people, who, in this case, happened to be Jewish.
DK: Esther's political struggle to save her people is at the source of the Purim Festivities which is as important as Christmas for Christians or Nowruz for Iranians. It is celebrated by Jews around the world to this day. Could you develop for us the rituals and traditions that are associated to this celebration ?
(RAH): As I understand it, the Book of Esther, the Megillah, is read in the synagogues and there is a great deal of audience participation. When Haman's name is read, the congregation roars with hissing and booing, for example. People don costumes and masquerade as characters from the story, gifts are given to the poor, and a Purim dinner is prepared. One of the special treats served is called hamantaschen, triangular cookies which are claimed to be made to resemble Haman's hat. Fasting is also practiced by some Jews before and after Purim, in remembrance of Esther's three days of fasting in preparation to go before the king.
This year, Purim begins at sundown, March 3rd.
Iranian American actor Eric Etebari may walk in the footsteps of previous
performers in the role of Xerxes such as Richard Egan and David Farrar
DK: Since the success of films like Gladiator, and Troy in recent years, Swords and Sandals films have proved their Box Office potential. The use of CGI also allows a cost effective creation of sets and extra's that can then be duplicated efficiently for action scenes. At this stage have you found a producer for your film ? Who will be directing it ?
(RAH): Film is ever-evolving, and there are a lot of new exciting ways of bringing the page to the screen. We currently have a little Xerxes team assembled, looking to obtain independent finance for the film so as to maintain historical integrity. As far as directors go, no one is currently in place, but there are a number of visionaries who could create a bona fide epic masterpiece. All of the usual suspects come to mind, of course, as does Persian writer/director Farhad Safinia (Apocalypto).
DK: You expressed your desire to see an Iranian actor Eric Etebari cast in the role of Xerxes. Who do you have in mind for the other characters and particularly for Esther?
(RAH): I think Esther would be best portrayed by an unknown who can play the balance between grace and strength with a subtle eloquence, à la Sophie Marceau. When I think Amestris, I tend to picture Catherine Zeta Jones. As far as other prominent characters, throughout the writing process, I envisioned Kenneth Branagh as Xerxes' counterpart, Themistocles. Mardonius is another, extremely important role. Rufus Sewell would undoubtedly be amazing in the part. He seems to get typecast in these period pieces, as he's admitted, but it's for good reason.
What's so wonderful about this story, casting-wise, is that there is no shortage of juicy, dynamic roles to play. I would love to see an internationally recognized cast, bringing in fan bases from all over the world, because this story is not just a Persian tale, or a Greek tale, or a Jewish tale. We all share this history and we can all benefit from it.
Iraqi Jewish community representatives Naim and Renee Dangoor (Right) being
received by Iranian Ambassador and lady Avshar and their daughter at the
©dangoor.com Journal of Babylonian Jewry (*)
(RAH): Wow, what
an amazing question, and one which I find so difficult to answer for multiple
reasons. I suppose I should start by repeating what has seemingly come to be an
unspoken prerequisite when speaking of foreign policy: I am not anti-American. I
love my country, and my heart breaks when that for which it is supposed to stand
is manipulated, unthinkable actions justified, and dissent written off as
offensive or unpatriotic. I'm tired of it. I'm offended by those who would
silence what is so blatantly obvious -- the
To be clear: that does not justify "payback". It begs reconciliation on all fronts, by all parties. There is so much I could say about this topic, so many quotes and facts racing through my head. It's hard to know where to start, how much to impart.
The Iran-Iraq war
is one of the greatest disgraces in recent history. Two educated, beautiful
countries entrenched in a grisly war, fueled by paranoia and pride, and the West
sat back, supplying weapons and intelligence to both sides. Meanwhile, former
U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who's still embraced by
It's so sad. Equally sad is that many people honestly believe the line, "they hate us for our freedom." Again, I'm not justifying any terrorist action or hate speech. I'm simply trying to say, listen, there are legitimate reasons we were not greeted with flowers and candy, and legitimate reasons why the Iraqis aren't overcome with thankfulness for our gift of "freedom".
When military action in Iraq was initially being debated, there was an episode of Oprah in which a soccer-mom type in the audience expressed her viewpoint, likening herself to a momma bear protecting her cubs, and that if that meant waging war against Iraq, so be it. I was stunned and reminded of Madeline Albright's outrageous quote on 60 minutes. She had been told that over half a million Iraqi children had died under sanctions, yet went on to respond that the "price was worth it."
The crimes of
Saddam Hussein are often cited, but when I hear the term "mass graves", I also
think of the Iraqi soldiers buried alive in their trenches during the '91 war.
Weapons of mass destruction bring to mind depleted uranium munitions dumped
It may be of interest to note that, though I know I have the right to express these views, to feel this way, a part of me remains wary of offending anyone. It's bemusing...and telling. I do want to say that my heart goes out to the men and women stationed overseas. I admit that I couldn't possibly know what life is like for them. They, like the civilians they are charged with protecting, sacrifice so much. Every day, the news is rife with harrowing reports.
Sometimes, I feel like our leadership is living in a parallel universe. It's almost as if they think the mayhem was worth it, because they got Saddam. Hussein's execution was disheartening. An opportunity to show mercy, where so many claimed none had been shown, was wasted. What a statement THAT would have made.
I could go on and on. I haven't even touched upon the West's role in the ouster of Mossadegh. It is profoundly ironic that the Middle East, its borders and governments have been so influenced by those who probably couldn't even muster a "Hello, how do you do," in Arabic -- let alone Farsi...but to summarize...
Those who claim to be an example to the world, must lead BY that example. Some say that war is a necessary evil, but I believe, as it is written in the Bible, that evil cannot be overcome with evil. Evil must be overcome with good. For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?
I'm often reminded of Matthew, Chapter 7, in the Bible when people try to justify the war and, in particular, the following passage:
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
DK: What is your reaction to the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Iran's President Ahmadinejad towards Israel ? Is he a sad reincarnation of a new Haman ?
(RAH): I cannot understand why
anyone would waste a minute of time hating someone else, let alone an entire
people. It is written that God is love, to speak such hate is unbelievable. It's
sad and a case of true irony. To think, this was the Persia of Cyrus, who
released the Jews from captivity and is regarded by them as anointed by God; the
There's a great quote from Mark Twain, wherein he muses that history does not repeat itself -- but it does rhyme. Thankfully, I think we all recognize the tune and the machinations of Haman will not come to pass.
DK: Do you think that the
majority of Iranians share their leaders resentment of Jews or
(RAH): Absolutely NOT! The past they share has not been forgotten. Furthermore, I think the Iranian people are too busy seeking peace and prosperity in their own lives, to brood on how to destroy anothers. Peace, happiness and human respect are universal desires.
DK: What would Xerxes do were he living today ?
(RAH): I adore
this question, especially since I can let Xerxes answer that himself! Upholding
the teachings of his father, he had the following inscribed at
"I am a friend of the right, of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak. The right, that is my desire."
So, what does this mean? In my opinion, just what it says -- no matter who you may be, no matter what wealth or might you may possess, you shall be held to the same standard, judged by the same measure, as anyone else.
Top : Esther's Tomb in
DK: How do you explain that countries like Iraq, which gave birth to Hamurabi's Laws, or Persia/Iran, where Cyrus established the very first Human Rights decrees, have been reduced to what has clumsily been dubbed as an Axis of Evil ?
(RAH): I think one can answer this question quite simply: lack of knowledge.
There is such emphasis put on how cultures differ, yet so little on how they DON'T.
I have found that
events that have shaped the
That's why it is
increasingly important to speak when the opportunity to do so is presented. Wars
destroy, but education builds. That's why I felt it necessary to mention the
film. It's frustrating that the fallacy of a tyrannical
If anything good may come from it, though, it is that it may spark interest in the subject. For example, after seeing a teaser for the film, a Persian gentleman, understandably upset, was compelled to do a little research on Xerxes. He found my website and emailed me to ask whether or not the movie's depiction of Xerxes was true. Of course, I explained it wasn't and cleared up the misconceptions. He's now resolved to tell others, and, hopefully, they'll tell others and so on and so forth, so the truth may yet be brought to light.
DK: Will your beautiful country
Iraq/Mesopotamia was the cradle of
civilization. If it wants,
DK: Thank you Ren, and I sincerely hope that your screenplay will soon become the fantastic and exciting movie you have been dreaming of.
Author Ren A.Hakim © Ren A.Hakim
(*) In 1971
Ren A.Hakim: Official
- Persia? Ancient Persia's virtual absence in Hollywood By Darius KADIVAR
- Swords and Sandals Films about Ancient Persia By Darius KADIVAR
- Persian Golden Boys in Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR
- Xerxes, the opera by Cyrus KADIVAR (iranian.com)
- He is Awake: Close Up on Cyrus KAR by Darius KADIVAR
- The Persian Empire Strikes Back by Darius KADIVAR
- Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews by Houman SARSHAR (amazon.com)
- The Scribe: Journal of Babylonian Jewry (Published in London)
About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.
... Payvand News - 3/15/07 ... --