Ben-Hur to become a mini-series.

First, The Ten Commandments was a silent film produced in 1923. Then, it was a blockbuster starring Charlton Heston produced in 1956. And then, it became a TV mini-series produced in 2006.

Now Ben-Hur looks set to repeat the pattern. First, it was a silent film produced in 1925. Then, it was a blockbuster starring Charlton Heston in 1959. And now, according to Variety, it is about to become a TV mini-series — produced by David Wyler, whose father William was an assistant director on the 1925 film and won an Oscar for directing the 1959 film.

Here’s another trajectory the mini-series will follow: The 1925 film was pretty explicitly Christian, and the 1959 film toned down those elements in favour of a more generically pacifist, humanist message. Now, says Variety, the mini-series “will be based more specifically on the 1907 Lew Wallace source novel than either the 1959 version or earlier 1925 adaptation,” but it “will also likely downplay the religious aspects of the source material.”

Says Wyler: “We want to look at the spirituality within the piece rather than directly relating it to a specific religion. . . . It’s a very complex story. It’s been 50 years since my father’s version and we think we can bring something new and contemporary to it in the same way that ‘Gladiator’ did for that genre.”

So, what, Judah Ben-Hur will now be a generic pagan who dies dreaming of a vague afterlife with his leprous mother and sister?

Oh, and fact-check: Lew Wallace’s novel was published in 1880, not in 1907. However, the year 1907 is significant because that is when an even earlier version of Ben-Hur was produced — albeit a version that didn’t amount to much more than a glorified chariot race. That version is also historically significant because it prompted a precedent-setting copyright-infringement lawsuit.

UPDATE: It turns out someone has posted the surviving footage from the 1907 film on YouTube, in two parts. So here it is:

Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

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About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).

  • Anonymous

    Ben-Hur was first a book, then a play…