The 1959 film adaptation of Ben-Hur is widely held to be one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed it was, at the time, the most expensive and largest film ever produced, and it grossed nearly 10 times it's $15 million budget.
Based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (1880), the newest iteration of Ben-Hur is coming to screens next February. The initial announcement of the film received a mixed reception. It's easy to slate Hollywood for the consistent stream of remakes, but I remain cautiously hopeful that Bekmambetov’s version will be created relevant.
According to the press releases Ben-Hur will be a new adaptation of the original text rather than a straight-up remake of the 1959 classic, and will "return to the heart of Lew Wallace’s epic novel." It's been 56-years since the last filmic adaptation was made, and 126 since the novel was written, so I think it's been a fair amount of time to give us a new angle on the story.
For anyone unfamiliar with the tale; Ben-Hur, set at the beginning of the first century, chronicles the life of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince enslaved by the Romans after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Messala. He is eventually freed from slavery, becoming a charioteer and converting to Christianity before embarking on the journey home to his family in Jerusalem. Ben-Hur's story is paralleled with the life of Jesus Christ, unfolding alongside his own.
Judah Ben-Hur: The 1959 version starred heavyweight actor Charlton Heston in the titual role. The 2016 version will star Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire.
Sheik Ilderim: Hugh Griffith portrayed the Arab who lets Ben-Hur race his chariot in the 1959 film; in the 2016 version he'll be played by the affable Morgan Freeman.
Messala: Stephen Boyd was our villain, the childhood friend who betrays Ben-Hur in 1959, now Toby Kebbell (known for Dead Mens Shoes and The Fantastic Four) is taking over in 2016.
Esther: Haya Harareet, the only surviving cast member from 1959, was Esther - the love interest of Ben-Hur. The impressive Nazanin Boniadi (actress, biologist, activist, former Scientologist) will play her in 2016.
Jesus Christ: In the 1959 version we never saw the face of Jesus, but he was played by Claude Heater. Hopefully we'll get to see more of Rodrigo Santoro in 2016 as he takes on the role.
Tirzah: Cathy O'Donnell was Ben-Hur's sister Tirzah in 1959, in the 2016 version she'll be portrayed by Sofia Black D'Elia
Pontius Pilate: Frank Thring was the 1959 Pontius Pilate, but this time around Pilou Asbæk is taking the reigns in 2016.
The Filming Location
The 1959 Ben-Hur was filmed primarily in Rome. Originally MGM had planned to film in Libya, North Africa, but the production permit was cancelled by the Libyan government for religious reasons a week before filming was to commence. Their filming permit was revoked in Israel for religious reasons also, and so no footage from the planned location shooting near Jerusalem appeared in the film.
The 2016 version is currently being filmed in Rome and Matera. The producers had planned to film the famous chariot race in the Circus Maximus arena in Rome but were denied for fears that the stunts would damage the historic site, which is currently under restoration.
Ben-Hur is primarily a religious text, and religion is starting to become adaptable again in big budget Hollywood, though not without its critics.
2014 gave us Ridley Scott's [Exodus: Gods and Kings](tag:44617); Darren Aronofsky's Noah and Christopher Spencer's Son of God. Doubtless it is this trend that the new Ben-Hur intends to piggyback off of.
ScreenRant praised the cast for the diversity of actors in Ben-Hur following the criticism of the 'whitewashing' of Egyptian characters in Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings. Here Bekmambetov has assembled actors of British, American, Iranian-British, Brazilian, Israeli, Colombian and Danish heritage, covering many bases.
"Casting for the time period that Ben-Hur is set in is tricky, since no one knows for sure what the population of Jerusalem looked like 2000 years ago. But considering the heat that Ridley Scott took for his “whitewashing” of Ancient Egypt in, Bekmambetov’s decision to cast actors from a variety of different backgrounds was a smart compromise."
Adapting a text that is both religious and historical is always going to be a bit of minefield, especially in the conventional system so mainstream cinema. But so far Ben-Hur seems to be ticking the right boxes. We'll have to wait under closer to the release date until we get to see any footage, but I remain cautiously optimistic that Bekmambetov will be able to give the action-epic a fair adaptation.