Thursday, 17 January 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #982: Ben Hur Rides Again!

After decades nearly moribund and being passed from owner to owner like a doobie at a hippy party MGM is starting to feel their oats agains. Buoyed by the success of co-productions like Skyfall and The Hobbit they're looking into doing another big budget project.

Okay, technically, it's not a remake. For it to be a proper remake MGM would have to own the rights to the 1959 movie, which itself was a remake of a 1925 film, which itself was a remake of a 1907 production. They don't, having sold it to Ted Turner back in the 1980s, so it's now property of Time-Warner.

But the original novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, by author, general and politician Lew Wallace, is public domain, and this new script supposedly follows the novel's religious themes more closely than the 1959 version.

This has me concerned.

Right now Hollywood is rushing to put out biblical themed pictures in the hopes that they'll get some of the sweet greenbacks the small scale Christian films have been making. Their plan seems to be to get big stars and big production/marketing budgets and overwhelm the market. They are currently developing a film with Brad Pitt as Pontius Pilate, two Moses pics, one from Spielberg, another from Ridley Scott, and Darren Aronofsky made the upcoming Noah, with Russell Crowe.

And this is where the danger lies.

Nobody trusts Hollywood to handle religious themes with any sort of class or grace, after decades of open hostility to organized western religion and religious people. Mention to your average audience member that Hollywood is going to make a movie about religion, and they're going to assume it's going to be about pervert priests, hypocritical evangelists, deranged killers who think they know the will of God, or hate spewing Westboro cultists.

That's how those tiny films made by folks like Kirk Cameron and company can make good bank, and how Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ hit the cash jackpot.  They were marketed as being from outside Hollywood, and by being from outside the Hollywood machine they would not be insulting to the audience or their beliefs.

And that' s all before the other traps that lie in wait for remakes. First thing is casting: Who can match, or exceed Charlton Heston's sincere machismo without looking kind of ridiculous? I mean the one actor from the 1959 version who could be easily replaced is the one played by the oaken Stephen Boyd.

Then there's the budget, which could easily explode into the $250 million + range to match 1959's level of spectacle. That's a hell of a lot of risk for a film that has Hollywood's religious baggage weighing it down.

I'd bet you that the current owner of the 1959 movie, Warner Bros., could probably make some good money using new technology to create a remastered digital version for a big screen/Imax re-release during Easter.


  1. In his book Roger Kaputnik and God (1974), Mad magazine cartoonist Dave Berg relates a story of two Hollywood producers discussing their latest projects. When one reveals his plans to make a Biblical epic, the other scoffs, "What do YOU know about religion? I bet you can't even recite the Lord's Prayer!"

    The first producer retorts, "I do too! 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep."

    Whereupon the second producer replies, "Son of a gun, I didn't think you knew it!"

  2. Is there really a demand for a Ben-Hur remake? The topic doesn't sound like something a whole lot of "kids" would rush to see. Is this one of those attempts to get acclaim for being high-brow and an awards fodder? Seriously, there are so many grand literary works yet to be adapted (at all or in a satisfactory manner), like where's my Divine Comedy trilogy? Although no, scratch that, they'd ruin it like they ruined the Iliad.

  3. Blast Hardcheese18/1/13 10:17 am

    I think James Purefoy would make a kick-butt Messala (see his turn as Marc Antony in the HBO Rome series). But for replacing Chuck Heston? That's a toughie.

    I like your idea about re-releasing the 1959 original. Why don't they do that more often? It's such low overhead. The only two I can remember being re-mastered are Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia. I think they both made some good money.

  4. Rainforest Giant here,

    I always figured that Hollywood lost the ability to even fake religion decades ago. You can cut all that dumb 'Jesus' stuff out of 'Ben Hur'.

    It's a little late to get in on the 'Gladiator' thing but they can try. Focus on the violence and throw in a few more fight scenes. That's about Hollywood's speed and nobody will be offended except those stupid X-tians. /sarc off.

    Seriously, please just quit trying with the religion from those who either do not understand it or actively hate those that do.

    Rainforest Giant

  5. Kanothae,

    I agree. Ben-Hur has already been done right and well. Find another work that either hasn't been adapted or just not given a proper adaptation.

    I mean they could really do a Dante's Inferno now. they could even get Zack Snyder to direct.

    Heck, why not go with the Book of Acts. Of course, the downside there is if you thought the uproar over Passion of the Christ's handling of the Jews. Whoo boy!

  6. D, there's a pair of dead actors out these last few weeks and you always write it happens in threes.
    So who'll be the third?

  7. Why not the book of ezekiel, it has it all, bread made from human feces and a whore who lusts after Egyptian men with genitals that of horses and donkeys.

    You would be surprised that several times poo eating shows up in the bible.

  8. Well, it's a remake, which may be one of the main motivators- the studios think people will be more likely to pay to see something they've heard of before. That's the logic of most of the atrocious and inferior remakes of recent years- "Pink Panther", "Producers", you name it.

    I picked up on your naming Steven Boyd "wooden"- I wouldn't say that, exactly- he's pretty good in that role. But the choice of word made me think you were contradicting Gore Vidal's famous years-after-the-fact assertion, that, as a supposedly uncredited screenwriter, he wrote the scenes between Judah and Massala as an unconsummated-gay former friendship, and referred to Heston as a "wooden Indian". I disagree with that (though some of the wounded looks Boyd shoots Heston seem to give partial support).

    Any truth to that? Did you have that story in mind as you wrote that part of the post?

    Also, I agree that it would be a total disaster. I can't imagine "Noah" and its like won't bomb at the box office, so maybe they will pull the plug in development once those data are in.

  9. My judgement of Stephen Boyd may be tainted by some of his performances, like Fall of the Roman Empire, where he shows the emotional range of a chair.

    My opinions are my own, but they're also right. ;-)

  10. Sandy Petersen30/1/13 3:59 pm

    Ezekiel doesn't really eat poop. He just cooks his food in a fire made of it. And as a heavy Bible reader I can't think of many other "poop-eating" events.