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Ben-Hur: Replicating A Masterpiece

Updated on November 9, 2013

By Hannah P.

How does someone replicate a masterpiece? Some might say it cannot be done, and others might say any attempt to do so would only pale in comparison. For some, the new mini-series Ben-Hur might be just that, a paltry attempt to retell an already fantastic film adaption (the classic 1959 epic Ben-Hur , starring Charlton Heston). However, as a long time fan of the original novel by Lew Wallace, I can see qualities in the new mini-series that aren’t there in the 1959 classic movie. Most of these qualities have to do with elements adapted from the book that were left out in the 1959 film.

In order to successfully compare and contrast these two film adaptations, one must first know more about the original book and it’s author. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was first published in 1880, written by an extraordinary man named Lew Wallace. In addition to being an author, Lew Wallace was also a Civil War general (he fought on the side of the Union), Governor of New Mexico (while it was still a territory), and U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire between 1881 and 1885. With such a number of accomplishments in his life, it’s hard to believe that Lew Wallace is best remembered for writing Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ . He produced several other books in his life, such as The Prince of India, The Fair God and The Boyhood of Christ , but Ben-Hur stands out as the crowning achievement in Lew Wallace’s literary career. The book was a best seller, surpassing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as America’s best selling novel and remaining so until 1936 when Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was published.

What makes Ben-Hur so special? Perhaps this rousing tale of triumph over adversity resonates with audiences more than others. The courage, passion and spirit of the characters give life to the story and provide the reader with heroes to root for. Lew Wallace’s detailed imagery also helps set the story apart. His descriptions of people, places and times help give the reader a sense of being in the story, helping people to imagine vividly the things he illustrates. He paints a dramatic picture of the Middle East during the first century, and places his title character, Judah Ben-Hur, right in the middle of it. During the tale, Judah travels many places, starting from his hometown of Jerusalem and going to Antioch, Misenum, and Rome. The sights, sounds, people, places and events that he encounters along the way are realistic and impressive, giving a fantastic glimpse of the Roman Empire during that time. The action scenes are also remarkable; the ship battles on the Aegean Sea and the infamous chariot race being the most notable.  Since the majority of the story moves rather slowly, these sequences help provide the reader with some much needed tension and excitement.  

Because Ben-Hur was so popular, one can imagine that filmmakers were eager to adapt it when movies began to be made. The first film adaption of Ben-Hur was made in 1907, a 15 minute silent short. The second adaption, made in 1925 was also silent and was a huge success in its time. But it was the third film adaption of Ben-Hur that made a mark on history. The 1959 film has become one of the highest rated classics of all time because as a film, Ben-Hur (1959) is incredible. All of the action, excitement and splendor described in the novel are brought to life. One of the most famous scenes in movie history is the chariot race, a lengthy and intense sequence that results in Messala’s defeat. The visual splendor is awe-inspiring, and the sets, costumes, script, locations, cinematography make the film ‘epic.’ One of the things that impressed me the most when I saw the film for the first time was the use of color. Everything in the movie is very colorful, from the bright reds that the Romans wear to the blues and greens of the Jewish nobility. The bright colors stand out from the golden sands of Israel, where most of the film takes place, and makes the visuals memorable.

As a book adaption, Ben Hur (1959) also succeeds. The power and passion of the story are untarnished by the changes that screenwriters made to the script. Elements are altered, certain characters are eliminated, and the movie ends long before the book does (the book ends about 30 years after the crucifixion, the movie ends right after Jesus’ death), but the story remains just as interesting as it is in the book.

Even though Ben-Hur was successfully adapted into this classic film more than 50 years ago, moviemakers recently decided to make another version. Directed by David Wyler, the son of Ben-Hur (1959)’s director, William Wyler, the newest adaption of Ben-Hur was made in 2009 as a television mini-series. This new version isn’t as long as the 1959 one, and as a film, Ben-Hur (2010) pales in comparison to its predecessor. The visuals are less impressive and grand, lacking the scale of the epic Hollywood film. The actors’ performances aren’t terrible, but lack the passion and intensity of their 1959 counterparts. However, this film was made on a smaller budget than the 1959 film, and taking that fact into consideration gives the viewer a different perspective. When examined as a mini-series, Ben-Hur (2010) holds up well. The costumes, sets, locations and cinematography aren’t bad, in fact they are quite good. The mini-series was also adapted well from the novel, featuring characters and scenes from the book that were eliminated in the 1959 film.

One of my favorite plot points in the novel involves the character of Iras, daughter of Balthazar (one of the three Magi). Iras was extremely beautiful and Judah was very attracted to her, while still holding Esther (daughter of Simonides, Judah's chief family servant) in his affections. In the novel Judah often compared the two, wondering who was the better choice for a future wife. This love triangle plays a part in Judah's transformation from an embittered avenger to devoted follower of Christ. Iras is also a fascinating character in her own right. In the 1959 film Messala is killed in the chariot race, but in the novel he injured, leaving him a cripple for life. Messala plots revenge against his former best friend after the chariot race, and Iras betrays Judah into his hands. Judah escapes, but realizes how devious and contemptible Iras can be. Iras gets her comeuppance; after spending several years as Messala's mistress, she murders him in a fit of rage. In the end she finally sees her ruin as the consequence of her self-destructive choices, and mourns for what she might have had instead when she sees the happy family life that Judah and Esther have together. Iras' character was eliminated from the 1959 film, but is shown (at least partly) in the 2010 mini-series. In the mini-series a character based on Iras is introduced, Athene. But this character is not Iras with another name; Athene is quite different from her novel counterpart. Athene brings with her much unnecessary objectionable content because she is a professional whore hired by Messala and his father to get information out of Judah. Athene is a pawn in Messala's game of politics and revenge, and she is used to seduce and poison opponents. Such a character is clearly an invention of the scriptwriters, but elements of Iras can be seen in Athene, making her an important part of the story.

Comparing the 1959 classic and the new mini-series is hard, because my opinion will most likely differ considerably from many others. When the new adaption is viewed solely from the perspective of a 1959 movie fan, it seems unremarkable in comparison. As I said previously, the mini-series is not as grand, passionate or magnificent a film as the 1959 classic. But I approached the new film as a fan of the novel, and viewed it solely as a book adaptation. As a result, I liked the mini-series very much. It is faithful to the book and retains the essence of what made the original novel great. Although there are changes in the story, including the toning down of the religious elements, they weren’t significant enough to affect my good opinion. I greatly enjoyed seeing one of my favorite books retold, coming to life in a new way.

Ben-Hur is not simply a tale of revenge, of Judah’s quest to repay Messala for betraying him. It is a tale of redemption, both socially and spiritually. The story of Ben-Hur is deep and complex, leaving the audience with much to ponder when it ends. Both film adaptations are different in the way they address Ben-Hur’s characters and themes, history and setting. They focus on different elements of the story and each film has its strong points and its flaws. In a way, they complete one another, and I think a viewer would benefit from seeing both films and judging them accordingly.


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