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Peter T. Chattaway

Racing with Chariots

The many lives of "Ben-Hur."

Today, Ben-Hur is best-known as the 1959 film that grossed millions of dollars, won eleven Academy Awards and, coming three years after The Ten Commandments, cemented Charlton Heston's position as the personification of 1950s Bible epics. But the story of Judah Ben-Hur, and his quest for revenge against the childhood friend who betrayed him, had been immensely popular in a variety of media for almost eighty years before that film came out, and there have been several new tellings of the story in the decades since—culminating this year in a 3D action epic from the producers of The Bible, the Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave, and the director of such films as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The new film's rather eccentric pedigree speaks to how this story has appealed to people on very different levels—some sacred, some unabashedly secular—ever since Lew Wallace's novel was published in 1880. As I write, the release of the new film is still several weeks away, so I cannot comment on it in detail here, but I just finished reading Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, Its Adaptations & Their Audiences, a collection of essays that look at everything from the original novel to the miniseries that aired on Canadian television in 2010. It has been fascinating to see how Wallace's story has evolved over the years and how the people who adapt it have often sold it as pure spectacle to a mass audience on the one hand while making a special pitch to Christians on the other hand. The story might morph over time, but the marketing has been remarkably consistent.

The parallels come through most clearly in Howard Miller's essay on the hugely successful stage adaptation that opened on Broadway in 1899 and toured the country until 1920. Consider: the play was marketed heavily to a religious audience that, until then, had avoided and even condemned the theater,[1] while the new film has actively courted the same "untapped audience" that made The Passion of the Christ a big hit 12 years ago; publicists for the play promised that it would function as a "sermon" for its audience, while publicists for the film have talked up its potential as "a powerful evangelism tool";[2] and renowned evangelists like Billy Sunday endorsed the play in newspaper ads, while the new film has a website filled with endorsements from pastors and parachurch ministry leaders.[3] (One key difference: the publicists for the play took pains to distance it from the Catholic Passion Play tradition, but the new film has been promoted across church boundaries at a time when many evangelicals have openly embraced Mel Gibson's cinematic contribution to that very same tradition.)

Miller's essay is one of the book's highlights, but there are some other fascinating essays here that situate Wallace's novel within the various historical trends of its time. For example, Jefferson J. A. Gatrall explores how the novel came out near the peak of the Sunday school movement and was featured prominently in its libraries and curricula (back when Sunday schools were still considered a "movement"), while Hilton Obenzinger looks at how the novel's focus on one Jew's efforts to return to his homeland anticipated the rise of Zionism by just a few years.

Eran Shalev sets the book's treatment of the ancient Roman Empire against the evolving attitude toward ancient Rome within American society. He notes that the American founding fathers revered the Roman Republic and sought to emulate its political institutions, but by Wallace's time people had come to focus on the tyranny of the Roman Empire even as America itself was on the verge of imperial adventures of its own in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Something of the "good Roman" remains in Wallace's novel, most notably in the character of Quintus Arrius, the nobleman who adopts Judah as his son,[4] but it is the injustices of the Roman Empire that drive the story, from the torture and imprisonment of Judah's family and friends to the crucifixion of Jesus himself.

Co-editor Milette Shamir makes a similarly compelling case that Wallace's novel combines two kinds of narratives, both of which were very popular at that time: a future-oriented "progressive" plot, in which Judah achieves maturity as he moves out of Judea and into the heart of Roman society, and a nostalgic "regressive" plot, in which the hero returns home and tries to reunite with his mother and sister. In the end, these two genres are synthesized when Judah uses his wealth to support the budding Christian community in Rome—a plot element that has been left out of every Ben-Hur movie to date—and the reader is reminded that Rome itself, which once represented the future, now lies in the past, while religion, which had been associated with the past, is revealed to be the way of the future.

One thing that comes through fairly clearly in Bigger than Ben-Hur is that Ben-Hur has always been a visual telling of the Jesus story. Wallace's book was aimed primarily at Protestants, many of whom were uncomfortable with visual depictions of Jesus, but it offered detailed descriptions of the Holy Land (which Wallace would not see for himself until after the book was published) and it even described the appearance of Jesus himself. The 1899 stage adaptation substituted a beam of light for Jesus but was nevertheless filled with visual spectacle, from an onstage chariot race, in which real horses ran on treadmills, to miraculous portents in the heavens achieved through theatrical lighting effects. The transition to film, with its capacity for even larger, bloodier, and more realistic sea battles and chariot races, was inevitable. Audiences of a certain era may have been reluctant to see an actor play the Son of God, but they certainly wanted to feel what it was like to live in Jesus' world.

The essays that focus on the films, alas, are more of a mixed bag. The first feature-length adaptation of Wallace's story was produced in 1925, and Thomas Slater draws our attention to the fact that the woman who initiated the development of that film was one of many who lost their influence in Hollywood as the studios entered the corporate mainstream. It's an important piece of film history, but the excerpts from June Mathis's script don't necessarily persuade us that her version of the film would have been better than the version that got made. Richard Walsh makes some insightful points regarding the same film's treatment of Judah Ben-Hur as both a Christ-figure and a Judas-figure, but he tethers these points to assumptions about supersessionism that not all readers will share.

And Ina Rae Hawk provides the obligatory consideration of the homoerotic subtext, intended or otherwise, of the 1959 film and its half-naked galley-slave Heston. Gore Vidal, who worked on the screenplay, famously claimed that Stephen Boyd was privately instructed to play Messala as though he were a spurned ex-lover of Judah's, and frankly, it's impossible to see Boyd's performance in any other light once you've heard that story. There is also ample room to discuss the sexual subtexts of ancient gladiator epics and the like in general. But Hawk stretches ideas like these to the breaking point when she claims that the various father figures who encounter Judah throughout the story all represent "departures from heteronormativity" because they are never seen in the company of wives or lovers.

The strangest essay by far is a piece by co-editor Barbara Ryan, who argues at length that John Buchan's novel Sick Heart River (1941) was in some way a response to the Ben-Hur phenomenon, though she has little to go on beyond the fact that a character in Buchan's novel is named Lew.

Bigger than Ben-Hur concludes with two chapters that take stock of the past and look to the future. In one, Jon Solomon charts the phenomenal popularity of Ben-Hur by listing all the various products and companies that have been named after Wallace's novel, with or without his estate's permission,[5] going back to the 1880s, from Ben Hur Cigars and Ben Hur Bicycles to Ben Hur Whiskey and Ben Hur Sewing Machines.[6] And in the other, David Mayer expresses the hope that future films will pay more attention to aspects of the novel that have often been overlooked, such as the central role that wealth plays in the story and a subplot involving a temptress who flirts with Judah before turning to Messala. Whether either of those wishes are fulfilled in this year's film, I cannot say, but no doubt there will be more opportunities to tell this story down the road.

Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.

1. Miller notes that Christians who had never been to a play before refrained from applauding, because that simply wasn't how one behaved during a sermon—and on at least one occasion, the regular theatergoers in the audience tried to "rally" the churchgoers "into a vigorous encore."

2. http://www.benhursimulcast.com/

3. http://sharebenhur.com/

4. Interestingly, it looks like the new film will be the first major adaptation of the story that drops the Quintus Arrius subplot altogether. Do we find it harder to imagine a "good Roman" now?

5. The first screen adaptation, an unauthorized short film produced in 1907, sparked a copyright-infringement lawsuit that set the precedent for all subsequent film adaptations of published works.

6. Curiously, Bigger than Ben-Hur acknowledges the existence of an animated version of Ben-Hur produced in 1989 but never mentions the animated film that Charlton Heston himself produced in 2003.

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