Ben Hur: A remake that fails

… and why atheists would make better religious epics.

From the producers of the Selfie stick comes the lesson that you can be too close to something to have a good view. But then, what is the point? If you’re taking a picture of yourself, you probably want to be all up close and personal, and if you’re remaking a biblical epic, you probably want to send a biblical message. Oh, the humanity divinity!

Having seen the remake of Ben Hur while terribly sleep deprived and with no film school credentials under my belt, I won’t bore you with a review. I’m not a movie critic, and I’d hardly say I disliked the film. It wasn’t terrible, just unnecessary and unbalanced.

Toby Kebbell
Toby Kebbell

Besides, the film reviews for remakes are often (rightfully) brutal. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”

I saw the original 1959 version of Ben Hur when I was in the third grade, and all I can remember thinking was, “Wow, this is really long.” That thought entered my mind during the remake as well, but not just due to the literal length of time. Much of the remake was tedious at times, due partially to its heavy-handed dialogue but mostly to the feeling that someone was holding prayer groups right before filming, yet hoping to score a large secular audience as well … somehow.

Is it necessary to believe in the exact Christian interpretation of executive producer Roma Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, to enjoy the film? Not really. However, it’s not universal spirituality that shines through so much as the tacked on version of a particular brand of Christianity (sprinkles of overt, in your face, “convert, pretty please?” amidst all the rendered for 3-D imagery) in a largely secular film.

Watching it felt sort of like listening to someone tell a story that’s all about them with no awareness that their family or spouse may find it amusing, but the average person doesn’t know enough (or care enough) about the mundane details of their personal life to engage in that conversation. Alas, without the prior interest and knowledge in the narrative to which one side has already subscribed, it’s not a conversation but a speech. In this case, it’s a sermon, but Jesus doesn’t seem to direct the plot so much as he invades it. (Zombie invasion, anyone? Sorry, stolen irreverent joke.)

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman
Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman

I may not be religious, but I was raised that way, and I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover over fourteen times. Needless to say, I still have a strange fascination with religious material, and I get more sentimental than the average person who isn’t part of the Jesus-club when watching these kinds of movies. However, that didn’t stop me from noticing the glazed eyes of my fellow filmgoer or thinking about why the movie didn’t quite work.

My uneducated guess is that an attempt at universal appeal is responsible for the lack of artistry evident in the screenplay and strange adaptation of a famous book, with a powerful few investors forgetting that universal appeal is not just pandering to the masses or watering down the message.

The 1959 version, which boasted more than 12 versions of what ultimately became the final script, was produced by Sam Zimbalist, of Jewish heritage, who knew a thing or two about appealing to a largely “Christian” nation without sacrificing quality or stripping this particular Christ-centered story of its potency.

It’s a Wonderful Life is another example, directed by Frank Capra, a Catholic who intentionally left any mention of Jesus out of a Christmas film in order to let the film’s message broadly reach whoever would hear it.


On the other side of the subtlety spectrum is Les Misérables, a story with overt mentions of God and providence, as it exists within an epic morality tale revolving around redemption and grace. The most recent film adaptation was met with considerable success, if only because the primary goal seemed to be met with ease.

The purpose of any film should be, first and foremost, to tell a story—and secondly, to entertain. If you have a deeper message, that’s great, but try not to let an agenda take the reins and crash the chariot.

Holy language and stilted dialogue combined with overt biblical references did not destroy the 1959 Ben Hur perhaps because making a great film still seemed like the primary incentive. Despite the story’s religious content, most people remember the thrill of the chariot scene rather than some odd “happy ending” that serves neither to win converts nor appease Christians.

Spoiler alert in the form of compare/contrast analysis: The 1959 ending didn’t cave to Hollywood Christian standards where Jesus makes all things right. It also didn’t feel tacked on, for that matter.

The reason why prominent atheists can still tolerate Jesus quotes can be summed up in the bumper sticker that reads: “Jesus, save me from your followers.”

Jesus never watered down his message, but he was also pretty efficient. Only 33 years on this earth and the man came up with a lasting religious creed, not to mention providing source material for a Bestseller … and a million songs and quote magnets. This film, although shorter than its predecessor, felt like it spent more time exchanging cheesy lines between the brothers (as well as random excerpts from the world’s most famous carpenter) than establishing reasons for us to care about the fate of the main characters.

Having Touched By An Angel Roma Downey as a producer was a mistake.

Ben Hur4Very rarely can a movie’s message depend on the audience’s prior experience with the subject matter. That’s why movies based on books are (usually) judged by how well they “stand alone” rather than how closely they follow the material. Christmas movies don’t rely solely on belief in Santa Claus; Otherwise, we would only have movies for children and a few deranged adults.

For a better example, consider the success of Peter Jackson’s handling of The Lord of the Rings versus the movie attempts at The Chronicles of Narnia. One series did well, with storytelling at its center, and the other did poorly, because its focus was split: The goal seemed to be spreading the gospel … and giving “Harry Potter” some competition. It didn’t work.

Here, I’d wager that an agnostic or atheist probably would have been able to discern between the need for a three-dimensional film and three-dimensional characters, and screenwriting that supported the epic story not just the corny message.

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Ben Hur stars Jack Huston, toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk and Morgan Freeman.

Photos are screen shots from official trailer unless otherwise noted.