Numerous stage and film adaptations of this best-selling novel were spectacularly successful. In 1899, the Broadway Theatre sold 25,000 tickets per week. One stage adaptation was seen by 20 million people. Author Lew Wallace was, at first, resistant to the requests to dramatize the book as a stage play, arguing that no one could realistically portray Christ on stage. Dramatist William Young suggested a solution to represent Christ with a beam of light, whereupon Wallace signed an agreement.
The Need to Honour Christ in Film
Envisaging that the time would come when film makers would want to put the book to film, Lew Wallace specified in his Will, that the face of Christ should never be depicted. This was honoured in the film adaptations of 1925 and 1959. However, it has definitely not been honoured in this latest 2016 version.
The Greatest Film Ever Made
The 1959 film adaptation of Ben Hur was shot on location in Italy. At a cost of over US$15 million, the most expensive film ever produced to that date, the MGM production included: 100 wardrobe fabricators, 200 artists, 200 camels, 2,500 horses, 10,000 extras. Ben Hur became the second highest grossing film in history (after Gone With the Wind). Ben Hur won a record 11 Academy Awards, and has often been hailed as one of the greatest films ever made. Its spectacular sea battle and intense chariot race became some of cinema's most famous sequences and most exciting stunts ever filmed.
For anyone to attempt to remake such a spectacularly successful and beloved classic as Ben Hur, may be considered fool-hardy or presumptuous. However, one would have imagined that, 58 years later, our technological advances could enable one to build on the excellent and gripping character development and story in the book and ground-breaking successes of the inspiring 1959 MGM film production.
Falls Flat on its Face
Tragically, the new Paramount/MGM production, produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, fails on every level possible. Seemingly determined to break with every convention and change the story at every point, Burnett and Downey fall flat on their faces - just as their erstwhile hero, Jack Huston, playing Ben Hur, does in the opening scene of this failure of a remake. With the opening scene of Ben Hur and Messala hell-bent on beating one another in a horse race ending with Ben Hur's face firmly planted into the soil, that symbolises the abject failure of what should have been a magnificent movie.
An Epic Failure
If the 2016 remake script writers, Keith Clarke and John Rudley, had just stuck to the brilliant story and dialogue in the 1880 book, and/or built on the best of the beloved 1959 classic film, they could have had a winner. However, they seemed determined on destroying every vestige of the great story of Ben Hur. Burnett and Downey's remake is an abuse and massacre of a great book and an honoured character in film making. In so doing, Burnett and Downey have alienated many millions who love the classic book and the 1959 blockbuster.
Innocent Victim or Guilty Subversive?
The film does not even make sense to those who know nothing about the book, or the film. The logical inconsistencies and plot-holes in this 2016 disaster are legion. For example: In the book, Roman governor of Judah, Valerius Gratus, is injured by a lose tile which falls accidentally from the roof of the home of Ben Hur. Messala betrays his boyhood friend by imprisoning Judah's mother, Miriam, and sister, Tirzah, and condemning Ben Hur to work as a slave on the Roman gallies. However, in this new film, Ben Hur is actually harbouring a zealot who has been involved in massacring Roman soldiers, already a serious crime. Then he fails to restrain his house guest from using his own bow and arrow to shoot an arrow into Pontius Pilate! (Who obviously was not anywhere near Judea in AD26). But then Ben Hur goes even further in helping this assassin escape. In this way, one could see that the modern Ben Hur actually brought the catastrophe upon himself and his family by aiding and abetting a revolutionary subversive assassin and then lying to conceal the identity of the one who just attempted to assassinate the Roman governor!
The Missing Plot
Another colossal plot-hole in the modern mess is that it completely ignores the critical role of the Roman Tribune, Quintus Arrius. In the book Arrius is impressed by Ben Hur and decides to question him about his life and story. As a result Arrius unlocks Ben Hur's chains at the start of the battle so that he has a chance to survive the battle. Ben Hur in turn ends up saving the Roman commander from drowning. They share a plank as a makeshift raft until being rescued by a Roman ship. When they hear that the Romans were victorious in the battle, Arrius is hailed as a hero. Arrius adopts Ben Hur as his son, making him a free man and a Roman citizen. He then trains Ben Hur in wrestling and chariot racing in the Palaestra in Rome. All this is critical as it enables Ben Hur to return to Palestine as a free man, a Roman citizen, heir to Arrius, a prominent and respected Roman leader and experienced in chariot racing.
Colossal Plot Holes
However, in Burnett and Downey's Ben Hur, Arrius shows no regard for Judah and is killed in the naval battle. Somehow, despite still being chained, Ben Hur does not drown while everyone else on the ship, including the commander, drowns. Somehow he floats across the Mediterranean, from the Ionian Sea, and ends up on the shores of Palestine! Then, on the beach, he is conveniently employed by Morgan Freeman's, Sheikh Ilderim, who inexplicably bets his fortune, not with Messala, but with Pontius Pilate, the governor, on the victory of a man who has absolutely no experience in chariot racing, for no apparent reason! Why this modern Ben Hur would not simply be arrested for being an escaped slave and condemned criminal, is not explained.
Impossible and Inexplicable
In the book it is Messala who is trampled by the horses of other racers. In the modern remake they decided to have Ben Hur trampled. Yet somehow he pulls himself back up onto the chariot and wins! Not only does Messala survive this race, but is abruptly reconciled with his previous enemy, Ben Hur, for no apparent reason.
Simonides and Esther
The new film choses to have faithful household servant of Hur, Simonides, killed outright. Yet in the book, he plays a key role in maintaining the businesses and properties of the Hur family. In the book, Ben Hur gradually becomes interested in the daughter of Simonides, Esther, throughout the developing story. For no apparent reason, except to be contrary, this new film marries Esther off to Ben Hur right at the beginning and before the tragic events that sent him to be a galley slave.
Balthasar and Iras
Neither of the films deals with the role of Balthasar and Iras. In the book, Ben Hur rescues Balthasar and Iras from Messala's chariot which nearly hits them while they are sitting at a fountain. In the book, Balthasar is actually a key link from the birth of Christ through to the conversion of Ben Hur. The treachery of Iras, who becomes emotionally involved with Messala and who even attempts to murder Ben Hur, is left out of the film adaptations.
Pontius Pilate in the Book
In the book, Pontius Pilate orders a review of the prison records and discovers the great injustice done to the family of Hur. He orders the troops to find and release the mother and sister of Ben Hur, who are then found to be suffering from leprosy. Instead, the modern film decides to leave out the role of Pilate completely and attributes to Sheik Ilderim the release of Miriam and Tirzah.
Flat Dialogue and Shallow Characters
There is none of the character development which so enriches the book and 1959 film in this modern remake. Nor is there any of the build-up of tension, spectacle, shock and inspiration, which so overwhelmed and moved audiences of the classic 1959 Ben Hur. There is no real explanation of why Messala and Ben Hur became such bitter enemies and little justification as to how they could have suddenly become so reconciled at the end of this new film.
Lack of Respect for Our Lord
Most seriously of all is how producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have failed to respect the wishes of the author on whose book this is claimed to be based, in not depicting the face of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Presence of Christ
One of the most powerful scenes in film history is depicted in the 1959 Ben Hur, by how Christ Jesus, a carpenter in Nazareth, defies the Roman Centurion to provide water to the condemned slave, Ben Hur. When the centurion shouts: "I said not for him!" and moves aggressively with his whip to deal with the carpenter who dared to disobey his orders, the centurion suddenly stops rigid and staggers back, putting down the whip and turning away in apparent confusion and awe. At no time in the 1959 Ben Hur does one see the face of our Lord depicted. The impact is huge and the awe, reverence and respect for Christ permeates the entire production.
However, the depiction of the Lord in this shameful 2016 film is, in my view, blasphemous. Unbiblical words and sloppy sentiments are put in His mouth. There is nothing inspiring or reverential about the way that the Lord is depicted in the 2016 version. As with every other point, the modern Ben Hur violates history, geography and the Scriptures. Whereas the book recognises that Christ was a carpenter in Nazareth, here they now have him practising carpentry in Jerusalem.
Fraud, Failure and Farce
The magnificent script, insightful dialogues, impressive sets and powerful inspiring spiritual impact of the book and earlier films are shamefully absent. This makes it all the more inexplicable that Sophia Lee, of World Magazine, could describe this remake as "uncompromising Hollywood treatment to the Christian classic"! Roma Downey is described as saying that they knew it was the right choice to remake the beloved classic when they discovered that their own teenage children had never heard of Ben Hur! If their children have never heard of Ben Hur, whose fault is that? How could film makers fail to ensure that their children saw one of the greatest films ever made? What kind of education did they receive when they did not even know of the classic Ben Hur book? One of the greatest books ever produced in the United States. The claim that Ben Hur "has Jesus at its core", does not ring true for this film. It is a hollow film portraying a hollow messiah, with absolutely no Gospel message whatsoever. It would appear that the World reviewer, Sophia Lee, has not read the book and perhaps has not seen the classic 1959 film lately, or she would not make the incredible claim that this is "a good movie" or declare that "the film does a fine job…"
Rather Read the Book
In fact the film does not do a good job of anything, except anachronistically depicting 21st century, shallow, brattish behaviour by superficial screen characters with apparently no depth, purpose or meaning to their lives. Like Noah and Exodus - Gods and Kings, this is another example of cultural Marxism producing unBiblical and unChristian Faith based films (actually FAKE based films). It follows the Gramsci Strategy and the Frankfurt School in seeking to marxise the inner man, inoculating audiences against Biblical Christianity as cultural termites eroding foundations and breaking all ties to blood, soil, mother, father or God, violating facts of history, realities of geography, processes of logic and the Words of Scripture. Truth matters. Integrity is important. Lies enslave. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free"John 8:32. The best that we can say of this Ben Hur, is: Skip the film, read the book.
"Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things.'" Philippians 4:8
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa