warning: this is likely to develop into a rant given my feelings for the 1959 version of the film, there will also be some plot spoilers for that version of the film.
First to finish, last to die, REALLY PEOPLE???
Well, whether we wanted one or not, a remake of the 1959 epic film Ben-Hur has been made and is due to hit theaters in August of this year. The first trailer for this film was released last week and….oh boy, where do you even start??
On the plus side, the trailer does an adequate job setting up the basic plot of the film: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, with the unenviable task of following up Charlton Heston’s performance in the same role) is betrayed by his lifelong friend Messala and forced into a hellish life as a galley slave. That much is the same from the previous version of the film. But almost immediately, differences begin popping up (final warning: major spoilers of the 1959 version of the film follow, stop reading now if you don’t want to know!) and they’re far from little!
First of all, in the trailer, as Ben-Hur is being dragged away from his mother and sister, Messala clearly orders his guards to have them both crucified, to Ben-Hur’s horror and outrage. Unless they’re saving a plot twist (like Messala was lying), this is a HUGE deviation, not just from the 1959 version but from the source novel itself! One of the major subplots is Judah discovering his mother and sister have contracted leprosy during their long imprisonment and subsequently attempting to seek out Christ to have them healed (the main story takes place at the end of Christ’s life on earth, and intersects with the Crucifixion). In fact one of the last scenes in the 1959 version is Judah tearfully discovering that his mother and sister have been healed and they can all be a family again after all. If this new version has them crucified instead from the outset, that entire story arc disappears!
And that’s not the only plot change I noticed. See that part in the trailer where Judah is dragged out of the sinking galley ship by his chains and then lies ALONE on a piece of wreckage before encountering the Sheikh (Morgan Freeman, in the one casting choice i’m okay with)? Well….in the 1959 version, Judah is shipwrecked alright, but not before saving the life of a Roman consul. In gratitude, this consul takes Judah back to Rome with him, adopts him as his son, makes him a Roman citizen, etc. and so on and only AFTER all that, does Judah return to Jerusalem, meet the Sheikh, etc. There’s also a rather pivotal moment where Judah makes the acquaintance of Pontius Pilate while in Rome. The trailer is strongly implying that we’re skipping from Judah as galley slave to immediately meeting the Sheikh and preparing for the climactic chariot race, leaving out the entire Rome subplot as well. So at this point we have two MAJOR story elements (the leprosy and going to Rome) that are apparently totally missing!
And then there’s the chariot race itself…oh boy…if you’ve read my post When silence speaks volumes: The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) then you know how I feel about the chariot race (it’s an amazing feat of filmmaking). I felt nervous up until this point in the trailer, but once the race scenes started appearing, I began to feel downright despair! Why? Those scenes, even the glimpses, confirmed my worst nightmares about what this remake might turn out to be! Part of what makes Ben-Hur (1959) so special is the realistic effects and backdrops. Like the fact that the racing track in the movie is real (including that huge sculpture piece in the middle, yes it’s real). It only takes one look at the trailer to verify that the track is CGI (the eye always knows the difference). That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t also clear that this is not going to be a simple race (a horse up in the stands, seriously??) What also worries me is that the ENTIRE film seems to be building up to this race, whereas the race is supposed to be just a stepping stone from Judah only desiring vengeance, to discovering forgiveness when he witnesses Christ’s crucifixion. The trailer is overemphasizing the vengeance element, whereas so far we only get two glimpses of the crucifixion (which gives me a sliver of hope, but not too much).
In closing, I should add that this is only the first trailer for the film, it is still possible (though unlikely) that there are some plot elements that have been left out that might make the film better than it first appears (wishful thinking I know, because deep down I doubt it). I do feel some sympathy for Jack Huston though. I’m sure he did his best during filming, I really do, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, could ever hope to match Charlton Heston’s performance, I don’t care who it is.
P.S. Did you know that the 1959 version is itself a remake of the 1925 silent version with the same name? In fact, the first film version of Ben-Hur was released in 1907 (the 2016 version will be the 4th version of the story on film).
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