Ben-Hur: The Remake Mistake

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Someone stop me from throwing myself out of a window into shark-infested waters. I have just found out that Hollywood are making yet another remake of the age-old story, Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur is no stranger to a remake. First, it was a novel published in 1880, written by Lew Wallace. But this was not just any novel, it was THE novel for over 100 years, sitting atop the bestsellers list for decades and selling tens of millions of copies. Next it hit Broadway, then a few silent film adaptations, all gearing up for the piece de resistance.

The year is 1959. MGM was nearing bankruptcy and looking for a get out of jail free card. Choosing to sink 15 million dollars into the be-all-and-end-all, they hired director William Wyler, alongside a cast including Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) Stephen Boyd (Messala) and Haya Harareet (Esther). And it goes without saying, Ben-Hur was a huge success, grossing 146.9 million dollars from initial release.

Although this is well and good, the financial aspect of film-making is not what I want to address today. Rather, it is the integrity of film-making.

The 1959 Ben-Hur was a cinema spectacle, the likes of which had never before been seen. The film had over 300 sets, took 5 years to complete and won 11 academy awards. That’s right, 11 Academy Awards. The only others films to achieve that are Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003).

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the chariot race. They say the Melbourne cup is the race that stops a nation, but Ben-Hur’s stopped an empire! The scene took 5 weeks to film, included 15,000 extras and had a 263-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every 1 foot kept).

It’s a long film, clocking in at 212 minutes, but it is an epic, a classic, and worth every minute.

Of course I’ve only seen the trailer for this most recent adaptation – being released in August this year – however during my many viewings, my eyes rolled so far back into my head I could see myself thinking about how much I hated it. It looks like someone welded ‘Clash of the Titans’ and ‘300’ together with a hot spoon.

Ben-Hur
The great movie from 1959
Credit: kulturadobra.pl

The trailer displays famous scenes such as the slave boat, the chariot race, and the meeting with Sheik Ilderman – played by Morgan Freeman – all of which have been morphed into an over-dramatised game of who can play with CGI the most. The film seems to have lost all nuance, and has been degraded to nothing more than a fast-paced action movie, instead of a slow-paced work of art.

Which leads me to my next concern. Who in Hollywood keeps letting great films be remade?

Have we all forgotten about Gus Van Sant’s rendition of Hitchcock’s Psycho? Another classic that fell victim to a modern adaptation.

But then there are the great remakes. The Departed and Sweeney Todd: Demon barber of Fleet Street, to name a couple, who restore my faith in bringing old tales back to life.

Ultimately, films should not be remade if they have already had immense success. If you take a foreign film and Westernize it, or a play and bring it to the silver screen, that’s fine. Just, whatever you do, don’t touch the world’s most prized film possessions. Let them rest in their greatness.

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