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Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur” April 24, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Ben Hur, books, books into movies, historical fiction, Lew Wallace, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Uncategorized.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

“Ben Hur” the film, made in 1959, was an appropriately honored and revered film, made from Lew Wallace’s best-selling book of 1880. The film was a masterpiece, and holds up well in 2011, over fifty years later, with its visually riveting chariot race and sea battle, still bristling with energy and drama after all this time. In some ways the film is a textbook example of how to turn a book into a movie, with good choices made to make a movie masterpiece:

  • The film version eliminates a romantic triangle that would have bogged down the three-hour plus movie.
  • The film version eliminates a subplot involving Simonides in Antioch, which would also have been a distraction.

The screenplay adaptation preserves the themes and tone of the book, and its epic scope, reducing long dialogue and narrative passages to prescient images without reducing the quality or intent of the story. 

It would be tedious to try to itemize every difference between the book and the movie. I will first list differences that struck me as particularly notable. I will then offer a basic synopsis of the book to allow readers another way of comparing the book to the movie, particularly for readers of this blog familiar with the movie (I suspect many are very familiar with this incredible movie). 

Notable differences between the book and the movie: 

  • The entire “Book First” of the eight books of Ben Hur tells the story of “the three wise men” visiting Jesus at his birth. The three wise men from the New Testament are depicted in the movie, but in much less detail than in the book, almost as a prologue, and before the opening credits.
  • The first scene in the film with Messala has references to John the Baptist and Jesus already beginning their legendary actions. In the book, years pass before Jesus and John the Baptist start their public activities.
  • There is no spear-splitting scene in the book. “Down with Eros; up with Mars” is mentioned in the book, but in a different context, as Messala boasts of Rome’s superiority over everyone. In the movie, it seems more like a cheer shared between Messala and Judah Ben-Hur.
  • Messala and Judah Ben-Hur are older in the movie.
  • In the book, there is no gift of a horse to Messala, or Messala asking Judah Ben-Hur to identify rebels, followed by a huge confrontation.
  • Simonides visits from Antioch early in the movie. In the book, Ben-Hur uncovers Simonides’ relationship to his father’s fortune. In the movie, Simonides is clearly a “slave” of Ben-Hur from the beginning, though Ben-Hur makes it clear he does not consider either Simonides or his daughter Esther to be “slaves.” In the book, there is no arranged marriage pending between Esther and another merchant. Ben-Hur does not meet Esther in the book until after his experience as a galley slave.
  • In the book, after the tile hits the Prefect, there is a riot in the city. This explains the Roman harshness after the incident. In the movie, there is no riot.
  • In the book, there is no scene with Ben-Hur holding Messala at spearpoint just before he is shipped off to be a galley slave.
  • Simonides, in the movie, is not taken into custody by Messala right after the tile incident (because Simonides is not introduced to the story until later in the book.)
     
  • With some minor variations, the galley slave section of the book matches the movie.
     
  • In the movie, Ben-Hur is on his way straight from Rome to Judea when he stops off in Antioch. The dynamics among the various characters in Antioch are different. He meets Balthasar in Antioch, who literally asks him if he is Jesus. As in the book, he does become associated with Sheik Ilderim, who has horses and runs them in chariot races.
  • The movie moves the chariot race from Antioch to Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, Lew Wallace understood that such an event in Jerusalem was not really possible given the historical realities at the time. There was no arena to contain this event, and the idea that an event that could excite the crowd’s passions in a nationalistic/patriotic way would be allowed in an area so rebellious to Roman rule is far-fetched.
  • In the movie, Esther is the servant who remains at the Hur home throughout Ben-Hur’s absence and the imprisonment of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. In the book, there is a servant named Amrah. Esther takes her role in the book, combining it with her role as Simonides’ daughter.
  • In the book, Simonides is taken and tortured to reveal where the Hur wealth is. This is mentioned, but almost in passing, in the movie. And in the book, he is a resident of Antioch, servant of the House of Hur for their merchant enterprises.
  • In the book, Messala and the Roman governor of Judea, Gratus, take the Hur wealth, as much of it as they can get their hands on, and there’s a clear implication that appropriating their wealth is part of the motivation for their harsh dealings with the family. This does not appear to be part of the story in the movie.
  • Malluch in the movie is a large, tongueless man, joined with crippled Simonides to make “one whole man.” In the book, Malluch is a servant of Simonides who helps him investigate Judah Ben-Hur in Antioch.
  • In the movie, there is no Iras, Balthasar’s beautiful Egyptian daughter. An attractive dark-complected woman is seen with Ben-Hur briefly during his time in Rome, but there is no development of this story angle. In the book, Iras serves as a romantic rival to Esther, and appears to be ahead of Esther in trying to gain Judah Ben-Hur’s affections.
     
  • In the book, there is no pre-chariot race confrontation between Ben-Hur and Messala.  Messala finds out about “Arrius” less directly. And he does not tell Judah Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are lepers. In the book, Ben Hur’s mother and sister are deliberately walled up in an unmarked cell where leprosy is known to be virulent.  There is no such event in the movie.
  • In the book, Judah Ben-Hur is not told until after the chariot race (falsely) that his mother and sister are dead. In the movie, this piece of information motivates him to race against Messala.
  • In the book, we have a clear indication that Ben-Hur has a plan not just to win the race, but to kill Messala in the process, and that his plan to leave Messala as a trampled wreck is a success. The movie hints at this, but it is Messala who is the aggressor during the race. Ben-Hur’s triumph at the end seems less obviously the result of deliberate planning by him, and more created by Messala’s aggressiveness. Messala does not die right after the chariot race in the book.
  • The movie is not specific about Ben-Hur’s activities after the chariot race. In the book, he trains legions to rebel, and has them standing by. He considers whether “the Nazarene” could be a king in the material world, not just the spiritual world. In the movie, he talks of rebellion, debating with Esther and spurning overtures of friendship from the new governor Pontius Pilate. In the book, he is more obviously willing to act on his hatred of Rome.
  • In the book, Jesus heals Ben-Hur’s mother and sister before his crucifixion. The crucifixion serves at first as a disappointment, and then a transformation for Judah Ben-Hur her as he watches Jesus’s apparent acceptance, and possibly even his orchestration of the events. The crucifixion does not act as a healing agent for his mother and sister—they are already healed at this point. 

A Synopsis of Ben Hur:

Book First: Three spiritual men from three separate areas of the world meet together, following a bright star, an apparent sign that a special child has been born or is about to be born. They are Gaspar from Greece, Balthasar fromEgypt, and Melchior from India. They bring separate spiritual traditions, but are drawn by the sign in the sky. (Wallace has Melchior traveling through “Baghdad” on the way to his meeting with others near Jerusalem; Baghdad was founded centuries later, after the start of Islam.) They meet a child in Bethlehem, born to Joseph and Mary. Joseph is a carpenter from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, descendent from King David. He is much older than his very young wife, Mary, so much older that he is mistaken by some for her father. They have come to Bethlehem to be counted for the census, ordered by the Roman emperor. Bethlehem is so crowded that they end up in a cave, in a manger. After a brief visit with aging King Herod, the three traveling spiritual men greet the child, shortly after the child is born. (Yes, this is a very familiar story to Christians!)

Book Second: The story moves forward twenty-one years. Messala (sometimes referred to as “the Messala”) returns from five years of training in Roman schools away from Jerusalem. He meets with his childhood friend Judah, son of Ithamar, of the House of Hur. From the efforts of Ithamar, Judah’s family is wealthy and prosperous, well positioned despite the Roman occupation of Judea. The two young men are in their late teens. But Messala demonstrates, through long lectures about Roman power and superiority, that he has changed. Judah is disgusted by the changes, and tells him he does not believe they can remain friends. Messala seems almost confused by the rebuke, especially when Messala suggests to Judah that he could rule the area in a sort of partnership, with Judah installed as high priest of the temple at Jerusalem.

At the Hur home, a spacious multistory dwelling in the heart of Jerusalem, we meet Judah’s mother, and his sister, Tirzah, and a servant girl, Amrah. A commotion captures the family’s attention; there is a procession of Roman soldiers. Judah goes to the top of his home and accidentally dislodges some loose tiles which hit the Prefect, injuring him. This triggers a riot, necessitating Roman soldiers to quell the disturbance. Roman soldiers storm the house, ransacking it, and taking custody of the family. The servant Amrah eludes capture. Judah begs Messala to release his mother and sister. Messala refuses. Judah prays for God to grant him vengeance. Judah is condemned to serve as a galley slave.

On his way to the coast, roughly treated as he is marched to begin his service (which is supposed to be as good as a death sentence) he encounters the son of carpenter Joseph, who gives him water during a stop in Nazareth. Judah’s treatment improves after the incident.

Book Third: Judah Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave. Quintus Arrius, a Tribune, commands a naval expedition. Ben-Hur serves with numerous different galley slaves, from all over the area. Quintus Arrius takes notice of Ben-Hur: “A Jew! and a boy! A Jew is not a barbarian. I will know more of him.” He speaks to Ben-Hur and seems moved by the injustice of his story. But he sees no way to commute Ben-Hur’s sentence in the middle of the expedition—among other issues, he is their “best rower.” Quintus Arrius knew Judah Ben-Hur’s father, and heard about the attack on the Prefect in Jerusalem. Just before a major engagement, the rowers are chained to the ship. Quintus Arrius instructs the “hortator” that Ben-Hur is a better rower without the chains. The ship goes down, and Ben-Hur nearly drowns. As he surfaces, and clings to life, he sees the Tribune Arrius and pulls his head above the surface of the water. Rescue appears to be imminent. Arrius tells Ben-Hur to drown him if pirates will capture him. It is a Roman ship that rescues them. Quintus Arrius adopts Judah Ben-Hur as his son.

Book Fourth: Five years later, Ben-Hur has become established as the adopted son of Quintus Arrius. He travels to Antioch, a thriving port city on the eastern Mediterranean coast, described as possibly second to Rome as “the strongest if not the most populous city in the world.” He learns of Simonides, an extremely wealthy merchant who was a slave entrusted with his family’s fortune, and who has now increased that fortune after the events of five years earlier. But there is more to the story. Simonides has been tortured repeatedly by Roman authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the Hur fortune, to the point of permanent physical impairment. He has held on to the secret. He considers himself a caretaker of the fortune for Judah Ben-Hur and his mother. After the confiscation of the Hur fortune in Jerusalem, Simonides has continued his loyalty to the Hur family, not clear on the fate of the Hur widow. Judah Ben-Hur meets Simonides in Antioch. Simonides is not sure of him; he has a Roman name and no solid proof of identity. Esther, Simonides’ beautiful daughter, feels attraction to the young man. Simonides sends a servant, Malluch, to follow Ben-Hur, to assess him, to check his credibility. Malluch ends up befriending Ben-Hur in Antioch. Simonides realizes this young man appears to be who says he is. That will make him and Esther Judah Ben-Hur’s slaves. Simonides wonders—will he treat them justly after all Simonides has done to preserve the Hur fortune?

Messala hears of the son of Arrius, an adopted Jew, a freed galley slave, now present in Antioch. Messala seems to take note of the information, and its significance, but starts an orgy, as if to signal his indifference to the story.

While in Antioch, Ben-Hur comes across the arena there, and the chariot races. He has experience with chariot races inRome. He discovers Messala races in the arena. During an incident in the city, Messala’s horses nearly trample Balthasar and his daughter. Messala laughs as he rides four horses drawing a chariot right into a crowd of people. Judah Ben-Hur prevents serious injury. Messala looks right at him, but seems not to recognize him. Messala’s arrogance seems, if anything, to be even more pronounced. He treats the incident casually, and seems to care little about the harm his irresponsibility nearly causes.

Ben-Hur sees the arena as his chance for revenge against Messala. There is a wealthy sheik, Sheik Ilderim, who has beautiful, strong Arabian horses, but no one competent to ride them. Ben-Hur contacts him, and offers to ride in the arena in a race for a huge purse; Ben-Hur wants none of the purse, just the chance for revenge. This meeting takes place at the evening meal. The next morning, Ben-Hur will show what he can do with the horses.

Balthasar joins them. He speaks of his quest for the man grown from the infant he visited twenty-seven years before. They discuss King Herod’s efforts to kill the child, his “slaughter of the innocents,” but Balthasar is certain the child survives. He believes this man is the Messiah described in Jewish scriptures, and wants to be present when the child-now-grown begins to fulfill his destiny. Balthasar is on his way to Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur is disappointed when Balthasar describes a spiritual kingdom. Ben-Hur believes the Messiah will be a political-military king of the Jews, reminiscent of David, a man who will lead Jews to freedom in this world, not in some spiritual world. When Balthasar mentions Simonides as a good man who understands what the Jewish scriptures actually call for, Ben-Hur seems disgusted. “Simonides here, Simonides there; from this one now, then from that! I’m likely to be well ridden by my father’s servant…” He then hears a song from Balthasar’s beautiful daughter, Iras, but finds it reminds him of Esther, a woman he finds even more beautiful.

Book Fifth: This section tells the story of the chariot race. The section starts out with a letter from Messala to Gratus. He knows very well who Arrius/Ben-Hur is. We find out from the letter that Gratus and Messala both profited considerably from the confiscation of the House of Hur wealth. Messala also suggests that Roman authorities in Antioch will take Sheik Ilderim, placing “the Arab on the ship for forwarding to Rome.” Judah Ben-Hur demonstrates mastery over the sheik’s horses, preparing for the race. Simonides sends word that he supports the developing friendship between Ben-Hur and Sheik Ilderim, and that he has intercepted Gratus’ letter from Messala—Ilderim needs to be on the alert. Iras, Balthasar’s daughter, tells Ben-Hur stories about Egypt; its wealth, traditions and culture. Ben Hur reads the intercepted letter from Messala stating that he and Gratus completed a “plan” that his mother and sister would be set for “delivery over to inevitable but natural death.” Ben-Hur is devastated, but now more determined to seek victory in the race, and vengeance. Ben-Hur meets with Simonides, Esther, and Ilderim. They discuss Balthasar’s concept of the Messiah, but these men, particularly Judah Ben-Hur, are prepared to confront Roman power and resist it directly. Esther meets Ben-Hur privately. She wishes he would “make peace” with Rome. Esther tells Ben-Hur of her affection for him. He says “you shall be another Tirzah to me.”

Big bets are made on the race, with odds, bets that could affect Messala’s finances. The race begins with Messala getting position at the inside, the “wall.” When Ben-Hur comes up alongside him, Messala whips Ben-Hur’s horses. Ben-Hur controls his horses and pulls up alongside Messala again. They race side-by-side for three rounds. The other competitors do not seem involved. Messala starts to forge ahead. Ben-Hur maneuvers behind Messala. The part of the crowd favoring Messala cheers. Simonides says to Ilderim that he believes Ben-Hur is “about to execute some design. His face hath that look.” Messala hugs the wall to hold his position. As they make the last turn, Ben-Hur comes around Messala, squeezing him into the wall. Messala’s chariot crashes. He becomes entangled in the reins and trampled by another trailing racer. Ben-Hur wins the race. Messala is crippled for life. Gratus sends a “Northman” to kill Ben-Hur. But Ben-Hur establishes a rapport with the potential killer, and they scheme to say an already dead man is the slain Ben-Hur. The Northman takes his fee for the murder, and some money from Ben-Hur as well.

Book Sixth: Gratus is replaced by Pontius Pilate. Authorities working for Pontius Pilate review the prisons and address circumstances of all those in custody. They find Gratus has deliberately walled off Ben-Hur’s mother and sister into a cell not even indicated on the prison map, a cell known to be infested with leprosy. This was designed to kill the two women passively. By the kindness of prisoners in adjacent cells, they have been fed. But they are infected with leprosy and horribly disfigured. The new prison authority frees them. They go to their home. At the same time, Ben-Hur goes to their home as well. The place is locked. Ben-Hur falls asleep. The two women see Ben-Hur, and are glad he is well, but they do not want him to know about them. There are afraid he will join them. Their servant Amrah is still present. She finds them among the community of lepers near the city. They get her to promise she will not tell Judah where they are. Ben-Hur finds out his mother and daughter are lepers. He is told they have been stoned to death. He resolves to use his learned knowledge of Rome and Roman tactics to lead a fight to free Jews from Roman rule. He kills a Roman soldier in a duel-like altercation.

Book Seventh: Ben-Hur forms a group of fighters the size of three legions. He encounters Balthasar and his daughter Iras again. Iras tells him an Egyptian story, of man alone, finally brought out of depression and dissatisfaction when a woman is created for him by Egyptian gods. Ben-Hur seems taken in, but when he will not tell her everything about what he is doing to rebel against Rome, she withdraws from him. Balthasar takes him to the river Jordan to meet a person described as heralding the Messiah. They see John the Baptist, and “the son of a carpenter over in Nazareth,” introduced by John as “the Lamb of God.” Balthasar knows him instantly as “the Redeemer—the Son of God.” Ben-Hur surveys his “slender figure, and a holy beautiful countenance compassionate to sadness.” Ben-Hur asks “may not the Redeemer be a king also?”

Book Eighth: Esther acknowledges she is in love with Ben-Hur. She is concerned Balthasar’s daughter “has him in her net,” as her father believes. It turns out Iras is loyal to the Romans, and working with Messala. Ben-Hur finds out, and she is out of the picture. Ben-Hur is amazed at “the Nazarene’s” healing abilities. He brings his mother and sister to “the Nazarene,” who heals them. He still has legions of rebels standing by. He is present when Jesus is taken into custody. Jesus discourages any sort of rescue.

Judah Ben-Hur figures somehow Jesus will triumph. He is stunned to discover that Jesus has been sentenced to die on the cross. He is further surprised to find that many in his rebel legions have turned against Jesus, and are part of the crowd mocking him as he is abused and placed on the cross to die. But Ben-Hur comes to the realization that Jesus has gotten exactly what he has wanted, and understands now that Jesus has revealed a spiritual kingdom. Balthasar dies at the same time; “the spirit of the Egyptian accompanied that of his master over the boundary into the kingdom of Paradise.” 

The book ends five years later. Ben-Hur is married to Esther and living in a villa inherited from his adopted Roman father. Iras comes and tells Esther she has murdered Messala “for the much misery he brought me.” Simonides lives into old age. They give money to the church growing around the message of the Nazarene, Jesus.  

Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (the novel)

Ben Hur (the novel)

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Comments»

1. Regina George - September 6, 2012

Thank you so much. This has helped clear all the confusion I had with the chariot race


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