Ben-Hur: A 2016 Film Apatation of a Popular 1880 Novel

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

With today being Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is now 6 weeks till Easter. The purpose of Lent (Quadragesima : Fortieth) is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgivingatonement, and self-denial.

Because of this religious theme we thought we should experience the origins, in at least a film setting. That is why today we journey back to Ancient Jerusalem as we experience the newest take on Ben-Hur!

Ben-Hur is a 2016 American historical epic film directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley. It is the 5th film adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace following the 1907 silent film, the 1925 silent film, the Academy Award-winning 1959 film and the 2003 animated film of the same name.

It has been termed a “re-adaptation”, “reimagining”, and “new interpretation” of the novel. The film stars Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur), Morgan Freeman (Sheik Ilderim), Toby Kebbell (Messala), Nazanin Boniadi (Esther), Haluk Bilginer (Simonides), Pilou Asbæk (Pontius Pilate), and Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus).

Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur

The story is of a Jewish nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are best friends despite their different origins. While racing horses, Ben-Hur is hurt and Messala carries him back to their family home in Jerusalem.

Despite the hospitality of Ben Hur’s mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the affections of sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), Messala feels alienated in his adopted family. He enlists in the Roman Army (Exercitus Romanus) and fights in the Roman Empire‘s wars in Germania.

Ben-Hur also develops feelings for the family slave Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) although their different station in life compels him not to pursue her. But when her father Simonides (Haluk Bilginer) seeks to marry her off to a Roman, Judah declares his love for her and takes her as his wife.

Toby Kebbell as Ben-Hur’s adoptive Roman brother Messala

Three years later, Messala returns as a decorated Roman Officer but his return coincides with a rising insurrection by the Zealots, who are opposed to Roman rule. Judah treats and shelters a young Zealot youth named Dismas (Moisés Arias).

Messala reunites with Ben-Hur and attempts to convince his adoptive brother to serve as an informant. Following a reunion dinner with Ben-Hur and his family, Messala informs them that a new Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) will be taking residence in Jerusalem and that no incidents must occur.

Days later, Pilate marches into Jerusalem with Ben-Hur and his family watching from a balcony. The Zealot Dismas attempts to assassinate Pilate with a bow but fails.

Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus Christ in Ben-Hur

In retaliation, the Romans storm Ben-Hur’s household and arrest him and his family. Rather than betray a fellow Jew, Ben-Hur takes responsibility for the assassination attempt and is sentenced to be a galley slave aboard a Roman boat.

Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were sentenced to be crucified, all of which causes Ben-Hur and Messala to have a falling out. While being led to the galley, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), who fetches him some water.

Ben-Hur as a galley slave

Ben-Hur endures 5 years of slavery as a rower aboard a Roman galley under the command of Quintus Arius (James Cosmo). During a naval battle against Greek rebels, Ben-Hur’s galley is destroyed and he manages to cling to a floating mast.

Ben-Hur washes ashore and is found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who recognizes him as an escaped slave. Ben-Hur manages to convince Ilderim not to hand him over to the Romans by treating one of the Nubian‘s racing horses.

Ben-Hur with Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman)

After Ben-Hur develops a bond with the 4 racing horses, a grateful Ilderim then trains Ben-Hur to be a chariot racer. Ben-Hur and Sheik Ilderim later travel to Jerusalem to take part in a grand chariot race at the newly built Roman circus.

Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) at the Circus for a race.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ preaching ministry draws the attention of Governor Pilate and Messala, who is now the commander of the Roman garrison and a champion chariot racer. While visiting Jerusalem, Ben-Hur encounters Esther, who has become a follower of Jesus and is involved in charity work.

Esther tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are dead. Despite their reunion, the pair are kept emotionally apart due to her new cause which is contrary to Judah’s insistence on seeking revenge against Messala.

Ben-Hur leading in the big race versus Messala.

There is, of course, a huge race that brings everything all together. In the end, the message of love and peace over all that Jesus has preached rings true.

In 2013, MGM acquired Keith R. Clarke’s script, an adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, which was in the public domain. In April 2014, Paramount Pictures and MGM announced that they would co-produce a new version of Ben-Hur, based on the novel, with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey serving as producer and executive producer, respectively.

John Ridley was hired to revise the script, with the new film differing from the 1959 version because of the foundational relationships of Ben-Hur and Messala growing up as best friends. Since the film was to be set in Jerusalem before the Roman Empire, Christ would have a more prominent role.

Director Timur Bekmambetov

In September 2013, Timur Bekmambetov reluctantly accepted the Director position since its predecessor had so much impact. Bekmambetov was fascinated by the 1959 film but found the focus on revenge rather than forgiveness to be the main problem, so he was intrigued by the new interpretation of the novel.

He went on that the film is not just the story of Ben-Hur, but rather the shared story of him and his brother, Messala. Bekmambetov was aware of the comparisons being made with the earlier classical adapted films, and hence felt the need to make a film that was more grounded and tangible than the 1959 version.

Ridley re-wrote the script based on an original screenplay by Keith Clarke, which itself was based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Ridley admired how Clarke went back to the source material and focused his attention on the subjects of racial slavery and colonization, and the deep relationships between the friends.

Location shooting in the Sassi di Matera (Stone City) area of Italy.

Principal photography began 2 February 2015 and finished in June 2015, like the original film, and, like the 1959 version, filming took place mostly in Italy (specifically in Rome and Matera). The Sassi di Matera in Basilicata and the Cinecittà studios in Rome were also chosen among the film’s settings.

Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett chose Matera as a location for Jerusalem, one of the same locations where Mel Gibson‘s biblical movie The Passion of the Christ was filmed. Exterior shooting lasted for 2 months.

In most instances, CGI were used extensively. Bekmambetov, however, wanted to rely more on practical effects and tried to do as little CGI as possible in moments where it was not heavily needed.

Canyon in the Coachella Valley served as one of the filming locations for Ben-Hur.

In March 2016, production staff sent a request to the Bureau of Land Management’s South Coast office in Palm Springs, which oversees federal land in the Coachella Valley area, asking if the team could shoot a horse scene in the Painted Canyon with 2 horses, several cameras, and a film crew of about 30. With the help of local lawmakers, they were able to convince the BLM to approve the request, but this time with a much-scaled down production of 8 crew members, no horses, and the use of a drone rather than handheld cameras.

The trailer was released a week after Paramount released 10 Cloverfield Lane in theaters. Although Paramount did not secure a Super Bowl commercial spot for the film, Scott Mendelson of Forbes felt that it was an appropriate film to advertise before Sony Pictures‘ faith-based Miracles from Heaven opened on March 16.

Theatrical release poster

The trailer garnered a polarized reception from critics and audiences, with comparisons being made to 300: Rise of an Empire, Gladiator, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand. In its first week, the trailer was viewed over 8.2 million times across YouTube and Facebook, making it the 4th most viewed trailer of that week.

The Hollywood Reporter placed Ben-Hur among the biggest summer box office risks of 2016, while Forbes deemed it “the summer’s most predictable miss/catastrophe”. Critics pointed out that a lack of star power, its August release date, competition, negative reviews (both from critics and audiences), and a lack of marketing, were potential causes for the film’s underperformance.

Ben-Hur premiered 9 August 2016 in Mexico City and was released theatrically by Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 19 August 2016 in the United States in 2D, 3DRealD 3DDigital 3D, and IMAX 3D.

Cast at the Mexico City premiere

The film received generally negative reviews by the professionals. With a $100 million production budget plus a large amount spent on marketing and distribution, the film was considered a box office bomb grossing $94.1 million worldwide.

Due to its underperformance at the box office, executives at rival studios believe the film lost around $100–120 million theatrically. Sources close to the film, however, believe the ultimate losses were likely $60–75 million, noting the film could do well on DVD and other home entertainment platforms.

Crucifixtion of Christ as seen in Ben-Hur.

According to Variety, the film was unable to expand beyond its core Christian audience. It performed well in areas of the US that are more religious, but did not do as well in more secular regions of the country.

As a result of its debacle opening, Ben-Hur joined various other films set in ancient times to underperform at the box office, especially recent big-budget movies from major studios – Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Legend of Hercules (2014), and Gods of Egypt (2016).

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 25% based on 160 reviews; the average rating is 4.6/10. The site’s consensus reads:

How do you fight an idea? By filming a remake that has too few of its own, and tries to cover it up with choppy editing and CGI.

Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote:

Overseen by a director not known for his human touch and lacking a name star, except for Mr. Freeman, Ben-Hur feels like a film made on the cheap, although it looks costly.

Richard Roeper gave the film 2 stars out of 4, writing:

Ben-Hur struggles to find an identity and never really gets there. The well-intentioned efforts to achieve moving, faith-based awakenings are undercut by the casually violent, PG-13 action sequences.

On the other hand, Sister Rose Pacette wrote one of few positive reviews of the film for the National Catholic Reporter. Her only objection was for the anachronistic costumes worn by Jewish women in the film.

For our part, we felt Ben-Hur to be entertaining. So it wasn’t a word-for-word visual representation of Wallace’s novel, nor was it busting with stars.

The 2016 Ben-Hur filled a void. It will probably inspire others to view the 1959 version as a comparison, and just may get some people interested in Ancient Rome.

As for its religious connotation, I was more of a film that happened to have a character named Jesus in it than be a film based upon Jesus. People nowadays need to relax about religion as a whole.

Remember what offends you, may not offend someone else. So instead of possibly ruining another person’s positive experience, please commiserate to yourself.

Thanks for stopping by and joining us on today’s journey. Be sure to check back again with us soon for you never know where or when we’ll be traveling.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Cieply, Michael. “Paramount Promises Respectful Portrayal of Jesus in ‘Ben-Hur'”The New York Times. 25 June 2015.

D’Alessandro, Anthony. “‘Ben-Hur’s Weekend Apocalypse: Is There Redemption For Faith-Based Epics At The B.O.?”Deadline.com.

Debruge, Peter. “Is ‘Ben-Hur’ a Dark Horse in the Chariot Race for Global Audiences?”Variety. 10 August 2016.

Fleming Jr, Mike. “Sweet Chariot! MGM is Rebooting ‘Ben-Hur'”Deadline.com. 14 January 2013.

Ford, Rebecca. “‘Ben-Hur’ Director on How His Remake Differs From Charlton Heston’s Film and How He Found His Judah”The Hollywood Reporter.

Funaro, Vincent. “‘Passion of the Christ’ Film Location Helped Bring ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake to Life”Christian Post. 15 October 2015.

Giroux, Jack. “Don’t Expect to See Any Slo-Mo Chariot Races in the ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake”. 29 March 2016.

Harrod, Horatia. “Jesus meets the Fast & Furious: remaking Ben-Hur for 2016”The Daily Telegraph.

Kirchgaessner, Stephanie. “Ben-Hur remake filming banned from Rome’s Circus Maximus”The Guardian. 9 March 2015.

Mendelson, Scott. “Box Office: ‘Ben-Hur’ Bombed (In America) Because No One Wanted To See It”. Forbes.

Nussbaum, Daniel. “‘Ben-Hur’ Producer Mark Burnett: Faith-Based Films Need ‘Epic’ Feel to Attract Secular Audiences”Breitbart News. 7 August 2016.

Pena, Xochitl. “Palm Springs area plays backdrop for new ‘Ben-Hur’ film”The Desert Sun. 12 August 2016.

Siegel, Tatiana. “Why Religious Movies Are Luring Mainstream Stars”The Hollywood Reporter.

Truitt, Brian. “Sneak peek: Jack Huston takes reins of new ‘Ben-Hur'”USA TODAY. 14 March 2016.

Truitt, Brian. “Everybody got down and dirty for epic ‘Ben-Hur’ race”USA Today.

“‘Ben-Hur’ remake set for 2016 release”USA Today. 25 April 2014.

“Ben-Hur: Italy’s Matera the film location of choice”. theaustralian.com.au. 27 November 2015.

“Pope Francis blesses actor playing Jesus in ‘Ben-Hur’ film”Christian Today. 18 April 2015.

Official website

Ben-Hur at the Internet Movie Database

Ben-Hur at Rotten Tomatoes