New version of Ben-Hur to feature more Jesus?

Big news for Bible-movie buffs today. Deadline reports that the once-moribund MGM, now flush with cash from the billion-dollar successes of Skyfall and The Hobbit, is thinking of making a new adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

The film would be based on a script by Keith Clarke, whose only big-screen credit to date is the Peter Weir film The Way Back (2010) — and, according to Deadline, while the new film will of course focus on the rivalry between Judah Ben-Hur and his Roman ex-friend Messala, it will also place greater emphasis on the parallel story of Jesus than the famous Charlton Heston-starring 1959 adaptation did.

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Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (dir. Fred Niblo, 1925); Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler, 1959)

General Lew Wallace had lived a colorful life of his own before his novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880. By then, he had defended Washington, D.C. from Confederates during the Civil War, served on the court-martial that tried Lincoln’s assassins, and, as Governor of New Mexico Territory, dealt with outlaws like Billy the Kid.

But what he really wanted to do was write — and so he wrote his novel about a Jewish prince who is betrayed by a Roman tribune during the time when Jesus lived. Ben-Hur was spurred by Wallace’s love of stories like The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was also motivated by an encounter with Robert Ingersoll, a famous agnostic who was passionately opposed to Christianity. Until that meeting, Wallace had been indifferent towards religion, but afterwards, he felt he needed to research Christianity for himself — and thus he became a believer.

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Jesus at the Movies

In Jesus of Montreal, Denys Arcand’s witty satire about a group of actors who put on a revisionist Passion play, the church sponsoring the play sends in some security guards to call off the production in mid-performance. The actors have tinkered with the Gospels too much; their reconstruction of the historical Jesus challenges church tradition at nearly every point, so out it must go. But the audience objects; one woman says she wants to see the end, and the head of security replies, impatiently, “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal. Talk about slow!

The scene neatly sums up one of the main challenges faced by films about the life of Jesus: namely, overfamiliarity. Jesus has been represented in paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows for centuries; since the invention of moving pictures in the 1890s, he has also been a perennial subject in films and television. All these portrayals tend to fuse together in the popular imagination; audiences think they’ve seen it all before, and they can remain blind to the unique perspective each film sheds on the life of Jesus and his relationship to modern moviegoers.

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