The latest movie adaptation of Ben-Hur is a fine film that has been panned by many critics and is being called one of the biggest box office busts of this summer. I knew none of those things as I sat in the theater munching too much popcorn and thoroughly enjoying myself. I got excited. I felt things. I remarked at what a great job the filmmakers had done, particularly in recreating the epic naval battle and climactic chariot race.
Then I went home and realized no one was even talking about Ben-Hur, not even to say bad things about it. Was I the only person who had gotten excited about this blockbuster?
Here’s the simple truth: Had I known the new Ben-Hur movie was executive produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey–who produced The Bible miniseries for History Channel and an NBC followup that got cancelled after one season–I would have approached this cinematic remake with a high level of scrutiny. Not that I have anything against Burnett and Downey. It’s not like they’re Pureflix (the God’s Not Dead people) or Sherwood (the War Room people), but I would have thought of this film as more of what critics apparently saw–a Christian movie for Jesus people and not a $100 million dollar blockbuster made by Paramount and MGM Studios.
But even now, knowing that Burnett and Downey helped steer the ship and that the marketing team did turn to churches for support a good bit in months leading up to the premiere, I still think Ben-Hur 2016 is a strong film with a universally positive message.
Sure, it felt a bit faith-y at moments. Jesus of Nazareth certainly appears and speaks more here than he did in the 1959 version. And yes, there is a touch of clunky narration at the end (even if it is Morgan Freeman’s voice) that sounds like it was inspired by the t-shirt rack at Family Christian Stores.
But the majority of this Ben-Hur features the classic tale that’s been powerful enough to stick around for more than 125 years. Brother against brother. Slave against empire. Love and forgiveness against hate.
So what exactly worked for me? Here are a few high points.
1. It all starts with a good story, and Lew Wallace’s novel has hung around since he first published the book in 1880. Hollywood’s made five versions now. I appreciate how they subverted the most famous adaptation, the Charlton Heston epic of 1959 which set the record for most Oscars won (11, a feat not matched until Titanic also got 11 in 1997). Not easy to find an original angle on a classic story.
2. The script comes courtesy of Keith Clarke (The Way Back) who got help from John Ridley. All Ridley did recently was win Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave.
3. The cast is quite strong and capable. As far as leads go, Jack Huston is grand in the title role. I’ve been a big fan of his since I got hooked on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Toby Kebbell did a great job opposite as Massala. They may not be household names but give strong performances. And Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim is a HUGE upgrade from the blackface 1959 version played by Hugh Griffith way back when Hollywood didn’t even pretend diversity mattered.
4. The supporting cast ain’t slouchy either. When James Cosmo (Game of Thrones, Braveheart) is only in the film for a few minutes, you know they’re gonna be great minutes. Pilou Asbæk, who plays Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones makes an intimidating Pontius Pilate. Ayelet Zurer (Munich) and, well just about everyone here, has significant acting experience.
5. Technically it’s pretty great. They went big on production as I mentioned earlier, and everything looks spectacular on the big screen. Shame so few people are getting to actually see the spectacle. Man, that galley slave sequence is heart-stopping.
6. It’s timely thematically. Of course the world will always contain violence and hate, but the picture of Rome as tyrannical overlord allows for everyday, 1st century residents to consider how leaders use fear to manipulate the masses. Ideas about fear, bloodlust, and the hearts of people in a powerful society make this ancient epic seem more relevant than you might expect.
But all of these pluses mean nothing if no one: A) goes to see the film or B) even knows it exists. So what went wrong?
Variety does a decent job of explaining why Ben-Hur is flopping at the box office. Yes, the critics haven’t been kind (which is putting it kindly). Plenty of critics lacked objectivity and seem ready to pan the film with glee, presumably (or in their own words) because they simply think anything with Jesus in it (and not directed by Scorsese) is stupid. But it wasn’t attacked so much that negativity created buzz.
There’s also the problems of young people passing and reboots failing. In a summer in which remakes of Independence Day and Ghostbusters can’t even do well, not surprising that a Ben-Hur remake–which plenty of people under 30 have never even heard of–is falling short as well. The demo in my theater certainly skewed north of 30 years old.
Variety also points to “muddled marketing” as a problem for Ben-Hur. All I know is I saw the trailer in the theater and got super excited, but A) I go to lots of movies, B) I was familiar with Ben-Hur and classic Hollywood, and C) I love Jack Huston (seriously, watch Boardwalk Empire). My perspective must be unusual.
But apparently the new Ben-Hur didn’t get anyone excited like me. And that’s too bad because the film is, in my opinion, very good and WAY more watchable in the 21st century than the 4 hour, classic William Wyler/Charlton Heston version.
At RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny wrote a fair and positive (3/4 stars) review, calling it “strangely refreshing.”
“Does the movie radically re-arrange both its source material and that material’s most famous adaptation? It sure as hell does. But I doubt that many contemporary viewers consider either of those as holy writ. This is a “Ben-Hur” of and for its time, but also a little better than its time, it turns out. I’m not qualified to say whether it’s an effective delivery system for its Christian message, but I think I can credibly pronounce it a good popcorn movie.
If this was the movie Christians have been wanting from Hollywood for years, and I would’ve bet (as Paramount and MGM did) that is was, I have no idea why they’re passing so hard when they’ll flock to see some of the other schlock going around. I think Hollywood can officially stop throwing money at Christians. It just ain’t gonna work if all they want is War Room 2: Coming Out of the Prayer Closet or something.
Anyway, the best “christian” films are never the ones whose marketing campaigns consist of getting megachurch pastors excited. Here’s a great conversation on Good Christian Movies beginning with what should actually constitute this category.
Sadly, many Christians have lost the right to be heard as a result of some ugly representations of what should be a loving message. Now even when this story comes along about forgiveness–co-writer Keith Clarke was massively influenced by Nelson Mandela who helped bring freedom to a harsh world through forgiveness–many observers only see a “christian” thing and want to steer clear.
“Ben-Hur is a wonderful and powerful story for the world in 2016.” Producer Sean Daniel
As for folks who don’t get excited about Jesus in a movie (and he’s only in about 5 minutes of Ben-Hur), this story is still exciting and beautiful. True, I value the ideas of God and love conquering hate, but I’m going to see Ben-Hur a second time because it’s just a thrilling cinematic experience.