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The Art of Adaptation

Easter 2019

This Easter week, I decided to gird my emotional loins and watch the 1959 MGM film Ben-Hur.

I’ve watched this film many times; each time I consistently find the same objections to this Hollywood epic starring Charlton Heston. It is, in fact, the Heston portrayal of the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, that drives me to distraction. I know that Chuck won his first, and only, Academy Award for his intense performance of a man who is wrongly and savagely accused of a crime against a Roman governor, which was considered an attack on all of Rome.

Many years ago I read the actor’s journal that Heston kept during his years of filming in Hollywood, a time frame of roughly 20 years. During the making of Ben-Hur, its director, William Wyler, told Heston that he needed to do more. Wyler didn’t say specifically what this actor needed to do, and this type of direction miffed Heston. I understood, and understand, exactly what Wyler meant.

The emotional depth of Heston was largely limited to the bravura of his interactions with men and to his sensitivity with those stunningly gorgeous white horses. Despite reams having been written to pontificate about the male love between Judah Ben-Hur and the cruelly handsome Roman tribune, Messala, I can see only the caustic chemistry of hubris between those two major characters.

In the role of Messala, Stephen Boyd triumphed in ways that Heston did not as Ben-Hur. Boyd was cunningly cruel and overtly emotional but reined in his passions when necessary, mastering aloof rage. He ran an emotional gamut that Heston could not even approach; and therein lies the lost potential of Charlton Heston, the actor.

For me, the most appalling aspect to this film is the introduction of a love interest, the woman named Esther, who ought to be a powerful factor, if not the catalyst, leading to the spiritual conversion of Judah Ben-Hur. Heston appears almost indifferent to this woman to whom he is obviously attracted, but the sparks do not get to any heart of the matter. The function of this woman in his life, an existence overwhelmingly dedicated to revenge, ought to be one of loving guidance toward mercy and the spiritual transformation that she herself has experienced.

Haya Haraheet, the actress who plays Esther, was born in Haifa, in Palestine, before the founding of the state of Israel. She represents a region of the world that has known little but bloodshed and hatred, violence that is older than the Christianity that Ben-Hur comes to embrace. The character of Esther, however, is squandered in this film.

She is pivotal to many plot developments but her full potential as a character is never realized. Of his mother and sister, Esther begs Judah: “Love them in the way they most need to be loved . . . ” This concept appears to be a new one for this character!

Rather than dramatically share the screen with this actress, Heston emotionally fore-arms her. His dramatic emphasis focused upon the male rivalry with Messala, a blood-lust that dominates the film. Heston believed that the story centered around the tormented relationship between this Jewish prince and his boyhood friend, a Roman who develops into a thug with a metal breastplate. Wyler probably did not. This director was frustrated with the performance by Heston because of this actor’s one-dimensional approach to a story that was so multi-layered that the art of adapting the book to a screenplay deserved the Oscar it did not receive.

This film conquered many mountains on its way to becoming an epic celluloid spectacle. Ben-Hur of 1959 had its predecessor, Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ, a 1925 silent production by MGM. William Wyler served as a sub-director, one of 30, who worked on the Chariot Scene. All too sadly, the chariot scene has become a major reason for watching the 1959 Ben-Hur.

Written by U.S. Civil War general Lew Wallace in 1880, the 8-part novel, Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ, presents several convoluted subplots and complications within the timeline that begins with the birth of Christ and journeys 10 years beyond the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Obviously, Ben-Hur of 1959 is a compressed and abbreviated version of the novel. I’d venture to say that if you read the book, you will definitely like the movie, but perhaps the reverse is not necessarily true!

The 1959 film presents brevity in a storyline that could easily wander; it is more detailed than the 1925 movie, but it eliminates the extraneous details in the book which could dilute the message of forgiveness as the ultimate virtue. The art of adaptation produced a screenplay that offers dialogue that becomes only more rich with the passing of each decade in a world that seeks to find peace on Earth.