Ben-Hur: A Remake Too Far?

Who wore it better? Jack Huston (left) and Charlton Heston (right) as Judah Ben-Hur.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon. Ben-Hur, William Wyler’s iconic biblical epic from 1959, was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film by Fred Niblo, which was a remake of an earlier adaptation from 1907 by Canadian Director Sindey Olcott. Even before the first Ben-Hur picture, Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had previously been adapted into a successful play, and probably a Hugh Jackman musical. The decades since have taught us that remakes are an inevitable fact of life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at least the films we love will be there forever. Despite all this, watching the first trailer for this year’s Ben-Hur felt very different, almost like a personal insult. I was compelled to run through the streets, possibly naked, and wail manically on the horrors of CGI and inappropriate casting decisions. More than anything, I was shocked. Shocked that of all the films in the world, they’d done this to Ben-Hur.

Beloved classics have been remade in the past, and it’s a practice that remains as common as ever. Recent years have brought Robocop, Point Break, Total Recall, Carrie, True Grit, Evil Dead, Oldboy…it goes on and on. But Ben-Hur was a film that felt untouchable. After all, the 1959 version is widely considered among the greatest films of all time, one of only three features to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It’s akin to remaking The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind – films that have been cemented in annals of popular culture, parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Father Ted.

Of course, it’s naïve to assume that anything is sacred in Hollywood, especially if there’s some money to be made. But it’s also important to remember that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing. Many of them have become classics in their own right, even if they don’t replace the original. The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, The Gold Rush, Heat, The Thing, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Departed were all derived from older films. And some remakes might not necessarily be masterpieces, but they don’t have to soil the memory of the first time around; personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), despite De Niro’s occasionally confused southern inflections. Not every “reimaging” is quite as misjudged as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-tread of Psycho.

Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in Ben-Hur (1959).

So what is it about Ben-Hur that offends me so deeply? The essential problem with remakes is that people often attach a lot of emotional baggage to films that they love, and it doesn’t feel nice when you see those memories being trampled on or replaced, particularly if the remake looks a bit naff. This goes to explain a lot of the vitriol directed towards the first trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters “reboot”; it might not be rational, but cinema means an awful lot more to people than is often sensible.

Regardless of how you feel, remakes certainly aren’t the sort of thing that should be encouraged. When there are so many fresh stories to be told, it’s always disappointing to see the industry reverting to type and pushing out the same material we’ve seen before. However, putting aside my personal attachments, what is it that makes Ben-Hur so disheartening, if not inexcusable?

Fundamentally, it’s really difficult to find any reason to be interested. Directing the project is Timur Bekmambetov, the visionary behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a truly awful film despite its postmodern pretentions) – whereas the 1959 Ben-Hur was helmed by the great William Wyler, a three-time Academy Award winner and the only director of three Best Picture winners, whose catalogue includes Wuthering Heights (1939), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Big Country (1958). The greatest affront to decency, however, is that the trailer appears to be comprised entirely of scenes and characters that were done better almost sixty years ago. I re-watched Ben-Hur (1959) recently as part of a degree module, and despite having seen the film before, I was genuinely taken aback by its spectacle and technical achievement. The famous chariot race remains as exciting and visceral as ever, while the CGI enthused sequence in the new trailer just brought out a tremendous sigh from deep within my soul.

The nine-minute chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959).

Of course, it’s only a trailer, and there are several months to go until the final product is out – if the Earth was built in seven days, who knows what Bekmambetov can do in five months. But the entire thing simply appears devoid of any respect for what came before it, or any intention of forming its own identity, as if a child reproduced The Mona Lisa with a huge, toothy grin, and plastered it around the art galleries of the world. The most important question one should ask oneself before embarking on anything, particularly if you’re going to spend a lot of money, is why? Watching this trailer, I certainly can’t answer that.

Den of Geek recently published a comprehensive list of films due to receive remakes, and it makes for sobering reading. Whatever comes of these impending updates, whether it’s Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, or even An American Werewolf in London, we may take comfort in the fact that the originals will remain exactly as they are, un-weathered by time and fate. So maybe it’s best to calm down and let the hacks and the money people do their thing; pretenders may come and go, but we’ll always have Ben-Hur.

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