BY ROGER THOMAS
When I first heard that filmmakers were going to remake “Ben-Hur” I immediately said, “Why?”
The very idea is equal to remaking “Gone with the Wind” or “The Godfather.” Do we need new versions of these films? Absolutely not. Then do we need another version of “Ben-Hur?”
The original film won a record 11 Academy Awards. “Ben-Hur” was best picture for the year 1959. Not until 1997, 38 years later, did any film tie the record with “Titanic.” A few years later, in 2003 “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” tied the record with the two other films.
Simply put, though two have tied with “Ben-Hur,” no film has exceeded the praise the Academy gave that film nearly 57 years ago. So again, I ask the question, why did we need a remake?
The new version alters some of the elements of the story. It is not loose tiles from the roof that cause Judah Ben-Hur to fall from wealth to slavery. The filmmakers also present Christ differently in the film than the original. Some may think it is more effective, but I prefer the original way director William Wyler presented Christ in the 1959 version.
On the other hand, some of the changes that the filmmakers chose woredk better than others. I liked the casting of Morgan Freeman as Ilderim. The scenes at the end of the film when Jesus is being crucified are the most effective in the film.
There is also a subplot with a young radical who keeps attempting to thwart the Romans. By the end of the film, that character has become more appealing than Judah Ben-Hur. In fact, I think I would have preferred a film about that boy instead of a remake of the story of a rich Hebrew who falls from the Romans’ grace.
Then there is the absence of a great deal of the story. The original film is 212 minutes not counting the intermission that cinema-goers experienced in the late 1950s. This new version is 124 minutes, so it lacks the epic feel of the original and one never becomes as invested in Judah and his family as one does in the first film.
The elements that are present in this new film, such as the scenes when Judah is on a slave ship, seem briefer and less effective. On the other hand, there is nothing in this film about Judah going to Rome, being adopted by the Roman whose life he saves or Judah becoming a citizen of Rome. In the original, one of the three wise men continues to be seen throughout the film.
There is a lot left out of this new film that made the original so epic, so complex and yet so personal.
And then there is the chariot race. With all the amazing visual effects that can be created today, the chariot race would have to be absolutely stunning. Except, it is not. This climatic moment is no more spectacular than the one from 1959. Some scenes and some films are just too good to remake.
I am not sure how old my children were when we first watched the original “Ben-Hur,” but throughout their childhood we watched it many times. They asked for it specifically. They loved every element of the story, including that amazing chariot race. But most of all, they were captivated by the compelling story of a man who was wrongly accused, who suffered greatly and who always persevered and ultimately was blessed by God through Christ.
Show your children the classic if you want them to see the best version of the life of Judah Ben-Hur.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.