The fifth movie adaptation of the classic 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be released on Friday, which surprises no one who’s been to the movies lately. Most adults remember the classic 1959 version starring Stephen Boyd (who plays Messala) and Charlton Heston (who plays Judah Ben-Hur), but most young people going to see the remake probably don’t, and that’s a shame, because the remake is specifically targeting them.
While it seems that the cast is taking great pains to remind audiences that 2016’s Ben-Hur is more an original, “modern” take on the novel than a copy of the 1959 film, their storytelling strategy will most likely end up ironically erasing all the progressive, compelling aspects of Ben-Hur, as portrayed in the 1959 version.
See, what many people don’t know about the 1959 movie is that screenwriter Gore Vidal and director William Wyler had no idea how to make the story of Ben-Hur cover a 3 hour-long epic. Two childhood friends turning on each other immediately over politics (one is a Jewish prince, the other has become a Roman commander), with no further provocation, just didn’t make sense. According to the multiple trailers, the 2016 remake seems to replace this nuance of the story with a lot of CGI horses getting flattened and an inexplicable battle in the snow, but Vidal and Wyler had a different idea.
According to Gore Vidal’s interview in The Celluloid Closet, a documentary on the history of gay subtext in cinema, Gore came up with a solution: tasked with coming up with something more potent to fuel their divide, Vidal tentatively proposed to Wyler that Ben-Hur and Messala were old lovers, and Messala (the Roman commander) subtly asks Ben-Hur to rekindle their relationship, which Ben-Hur rebuffs. Messala, heartbroken, betrays him.
According to Vidal, Wyler approved the angle after some persuasion (the director allegedly conceded with “It’s certainly better than what we’ve got”), and told Vidal to tell Boyd but not Heston, since they knew Heston, a staunch conservative, probably wouldn’t approve.
Of course, Vidal wasn’t the only writer working on the script, and debate over whether Boyd’s take with Vidal’s subtext was used, which writer had the final claim to Ben-Hur and Messala’s reuniting scenes, and even whether the director ever approved of Vidal’s story angle has been debated by critics, the screenwriters, and of course Charlton Heston, since Vidal made the claim. However, there are two pretty compelling pieces of evidence in favor of Vidal that pretty much seal the deal: firstly, film critic F. X. Feeney concluded that Vidal made extensive, lasting contributions to the script after studying and comparing multiple Ben-Hur drafts, compared to the other screenwriters working for the film. Secondly, the publicity director of the film, Morgan Hudgens, wrote to Vidal in 1958 about the reuniting scene: “… the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your ‘first meeting’ scene yesterday. You should have seen those boys embrace!” But the most compelling evidence, by far, is the movie itself.
So now that we’ve concluded a few things about the original, what does the remake, in the year of 2016, say about us? We have a recent history of action-saturated remakes and a handful of trailers to glean the depth of Ben-Hur 2016, which is enough to be concerned. As a person who is passionate about film, Hollywood, and the art of storytelling, this is the one sure thing I know most film buffs can agree on: the best story to tell is the one that is most honest about the experience of being human, especially the parts that are usually concealed. It’s the story that looks the closest at the parts of human nature that are most deeply felt, whether it be hatred or love, attraction or repulsion. Ben-Hur comes out on Friday, August 19th.