Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences
Edited by Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir
Syracuse University Press
ISBN 978-0815634034 (Paperback)
With the latest cinematic version of in cinemas at the moment, readers might be interested to read Barbara Ryan & Milette Shamir's "Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, & their Audiences, which looks at the forerunners to the latest version, from the book, through stage plays to some of the other filmed versions, including Fred Niblo's 1925 silent movie and the, now more famous, 1959 adaptation, directed by William Wyler. (See all my Ben-Hur related posts)
There's a good range of experts here from Ancient World in film scholars such as Jon Solomon, whose work will be familiar to many readers here, through to historians such as Eran Shalev. As Ryan and Shamir put it in their introduction "They offer insights to students of popular Christianity and Judaism; to scholars of reading, reception and fandom; to those who investigate the a United States' sense of the Middle East and of Zionism; to researchers who probe the intersection of education and entertainment on stage and on screen; to chroniclers of ways of imaging Jesus Christ, femme fatales, and masculine performance" (p.2) Certainly it's interesting reading scholars from different pools coming together to offer their own insights on different facets of the phenomenon that is all things Ben-Hur.
The book's subtitle suggests a two or three fold division between the book and its adaptations (and their audiences) but in fact things are much more fluid than that. Whilst Eran Shalev in the book's first main chapter, "Ben-Hur's and America's Rome: From Virtuous Republic to Tyrannous Empire" restricts herself to the book, some of its forerunners and the changes in cultural context in the century or so before the books release, other chapters are content to switch from talking about the book to talking about one of the stage or screen adaptations. Despite Milette Shamir's "Ben-Hur's Mother: Narrative Time, Nostalgia, and Progress in the Protestant Historical Romance" being only the second chapter it ends with a coda reflecting on how the subsequent 1925 and 1959 film adaptations built on the book's portrayals of women as discussed in the rest of the chapter (pp.50-51).
Not dissimilarly whilst the primary thrust of the first four chapters is to explore key issues relating to the book, both chapters three ("Retelling and Untelling the Christmas story: Ben-Hur, Uncle Midas, and the Sunday-School Movement" by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall) and four ("Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" by Hilton Obenzinger) touch on screen adaptations. Obenzinger offers some interesting observations on Wylers mise en scène in the 1959 film and Gatrall discusses the portrayals of Jesus in the 1925, 1959 & 2010 versions (pp.71-72).
Indeed whilst various essays mention the 2010 Television adaptation in passing (pp.xi,14 and 181) Gatrall is the only one to offer any brief analysis of it. This is something of a strange omission, not least given that the book has ended up as a part of the "Television and Popular Culture" series. Whilst the 2010 adaptation ultimately reached only a limited audience, it would have been nice to see some more, in depth analysis of it.
The impression left by this omission is that diverse and developing Ben-Hur tradition ground to a halt shortly after 1959, rather than being something that continues to evolve. Similarly the 1988 animated version and the recent arena adaptation (p.14), complete with it's own chariot race round the venue's massive internal space, are important continuity markers in this developing tradition but are again, largely overlooked. This is particularly disappointing given Ryan and Shamir's excellent observation in their introduction that "As each Ben-Hur builds on the last, and strives to top it, the results move ever further from Wallace's years of study toward treating his fiction as an historical narrative to rework." (p.14). It certainly raises the question of how this is true for the biblical epic genre in general and the distance between adapting the text and seeking to outdo previous epic movie for size and spectacle grows and grows.
Whilst more recent film adaptations of biblical narratives might, at first, appear a far cry from the book's next chapter ("In the Service of Christianity: Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theatre, 1899-1929" by Howard Miller), it could hardly be more relevant. Miller details the extensive marketing strategy utilised by the stage-show's producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in order to promote their film to the widest possible audience. Klaw and Erlanger realised that the key to making a strong return on what was a hefty financial investment was to entice the devout Protestant / Evangelical population to overcome their principled objections to the theatre as a whole.
Miller's account will resonate with anyone who has watched the marketing of faith-based films from The Passion of the Christ through to Timur Bekmambetov's latest cinematic adaptation of Ben-Hur (2016). The tactics used, reassurances provided, endorsements given and success achieved are eerily familiar and whilst no film has since come close to reproducing the success of The Passion, it seems that much of the tickets sales the various biblical films have achieved in the intervening period, has been due, in part to production companies employing these tactics.
Chapters six to nine, then, deal with the film adaptations, though as with the first four chapters there's a good degree of discussion around the other, preceding, works. What's strangely absent, though is any substantial discussion of Kalem's 1907 film adaptation. Again a few of the chapters mention it in passing, it was after all a landmark case that cast it's shadow across all subsequent adaptations in general, but the collection of essays would feel more complete had there been a chapter on some aspect of this ill-fasted production. For example, Ryan and Shamir's introduction references Ted Hovet Jr.'s paper on "The Case of Kalem's Ben-Hur (1907)" (pp. 12-13). Whilst it may not have been possible to reproduce this particular essay, some analysis of the case and its enduring impact would have been most welcome.
The four chapters begin instead with couple of essays on the 1925 film. In "June Matthis's Ben-Hur: A Tale of Corporate Change and the Decline of Woman's Influence in Hollywood", Thomas J. Slater details the way the movie's original producer and screenwriter, June Matthis, became a scapegoat (p.119) for the struggling production having been given an "impossible task". Matthis had previously enjoyed great success and her successor on Ben-Hur was given a far greater budget with which to create a profitable film. For Slater Matthis's tale is a microcosm of a wider trend that was happening in Hollywood at the time where the numbers of women in significant and influential positions declined substantially.
It's a very interesting chapter, not least because Matthis struggled to find work at the same level from then onwards, despite the fact "the number of her productions and critical successes easily matched those of almost any male director of her era" (p.110). Indeed many today are surprised when they learn of the far greater levels of equality in the film industry in the first two decades of the twentieth century. My only quibble would be that as interesting as Slater's observations are, ultimately they are about a different film, that is a film that is not Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but another film that, sadly, never got made.
In contrast, Richard Walsh's "Getting Judas Right: The 1925 Ben-Hur as Jesus Film and Biblical Epic" focuses squarely on the final adaptation. Walsh points out the similarity between the two names Judah and Judas - effectively "English versions of the same Hebrew name" (p.125). Walsh's point is that Niblo's film "'gets Judas right' by offering an empathetic, modern account of Judah/Judas" (p.136).
The key similarity between the Judas of most Jesus films and the Judah of Niblo's film is the way Judas is often portrayed as a revolutionary trying to raise an army to overthrow Rome. A similar subplot features in both Wallace's novel and Niblo's 1925 adaptation (though not in Wyler's). The pivotal contrast however is that whereas in the Jesus films judas carries on trying to force Jesus' hand, in Ben-Hur (1925) Judah submits his rebellion to the will of Jesus and halts the revolt. The chapter also contains a table comparing the novel, Klaw and Erlanger's play and both film adaptations (p.128-131).
The following chapter is Ryan's own "Take Up The White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur". Ryan investigates the ways in which a John Buchan's 1941 novel "Sick Heart River" resists "Ben-Hur" as well demonstrating that "some Christians have trouble seeing Jesus as Jewish (p.143). Rather than being about either film in particular it focuses on the time between Niblo and Wyler's versions
Whilst it raises some interesting points it does not, even by its own admission, "offer irrefutable evidence" of the link between the two novels (p.143). Personally I'd go further, far from being "irrefutable" the link seems rather tenuous, and very little evidence for it is offered. This isn't to say the hypothesis isn't interesting and it's good to have a chapter chronicling some of the dissent to Wallace's novel in contrast to overall positive reception by the Christian community.
This leaves the only essay primarily about the 1959 adaptation, which will, of course, be the first access point to the 'Ben-Hur tradition' Ina Rae Hark's "The Erotics of the Galley Slave: Male Desire and Christian Sacrifice in the 1959 a Film Version of Ben-Hur". This offers a closer inspection of Wyler's film, in particular how it makes Judah "an erotic spectacle and attracts the desiring gazes of other men in the film" (p.178). In doing so, Hark observes how doing this is effectively "deflecting Christ's eroticism" (p.166) as well as delineating the complex network of "fathers and sons" that the story presents"
So much has been said about Wyler's film, not least in the volume in question, that it's good to have an essay that covers the film in detail, but from a specific angle, albeit one that is mentioned at several other points in the book. As Wyler expert Neil Sinyard points out in the foreword, the film's "homoerotic subtext" overcomes the problem inherent in the novel of how to "explain the motivation behind Messala's malicious treatment of his firmer close friend" (p.xv).
As someone approaching the subject from the discipline of film rather than literature it would also have been good to have heard a little more from Sinyard whose recent book "A Wonderful Heart: The Films of William Wyler" (2013) is amongst those seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of as one of the finest American directors. He offers some great insights here.
The tenth chapter, David Mayer's "Challenging a Default Ben-Hur: A Wish List" hopes to persuade future adaptations to rehabilitate several aspects of the novel that all of the previous screen adaptations have overlooked. The first is to ask for a bigger focus on the investment skills of Simonides and Malluch whose wise investments mean that towards the end of the novel Judah Ben-Hur has become one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. The other main area Mayer puts on his wish list is the character of Ira, the "adventuress" who is absent from screen productions ("deliberately pushed aside" p.186). This daughter of the wise man Balthasar contrast strongly with the three other female principals, Judah's mother, sister and wife (Esther) and their seemingly infallible purity.
Finally Jon Solomon's quirky, yet illuminating "Coda: A Timeline of Ben-Hur Companies, a Brands and Products" forces home the extent to which the name Ben-Hur has far outgrown the significance of Wallace's fairly unremarkable novel. As well providing a little light relief it also amply illustrates the breadth of the impact the novel has had from its initial publication in 1880 to the present day. There's also an additional list of various aspects of Ben-Hur paraphernalia and places that gave been named after it on page 4. Evidence indeed that the 'Ben-Hur tradition' has truly become far, far "bigger than Ben-Hur".
Ryan and Shamir have pulled together an interesting collections of essays, which will particularly appeal to those who have already studied some more introductory literature on the book or its various adaptations. Overall it's good that they don't spend long retreading basic analysis, particularly given that space is always at a premium. Whilst above I've suggested certain aspects that perhaps ought to have been covered by this volume, I do concede that space is nearly always limited. And the two editors manage to strike a good balance between avoiding tedious repetition from essay to essay, but managing to give the impression of collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas from the impressive range of disciplines represented by this enjoyable book.