Don’t judge Ben-Hur by the 2016 version

In the past century the epic story has been blessed by a pope, weighed by the US supreme court, and is now the biggest disappointment in 2016 Hollywood

Please dont call it Has-Ben.

The big-screen remake of Ben-Hur is the 2016 blockbuster seasons biggest disappointment, with losses projected to reach $120m. The film had a $100m production budget, and studios usually dole out at least half production for marketing and often more in the case of would-be hits like Ben-Hur. Its a bad moment to be an accountant at MGM.

It wasnt always thus: Ben-Hur was once one of Hollywoods most reliable chariot-pullers, with no fewer than five adaptations since 1907 two are preserved in the US Library of Congress. The 1880 novel, written by civil war general Lew Wallace, has been adapted into a four-hour TV miniseries by ABC, a Broadway play of similar length, and no fewer than four theatrical films, including the 1959 classic with its notoriously dangerous chariot races.

Wallaces book was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope, Leo XIII, and Wallace decided that for religious reasons no one should adapt it. After nine years of promises that they would do it justice, enterprising theater producers turned his head. With an initial, immensely popular stage production, the novel was off to the races, as it were.

Ben-Hur on Broadway. Photograph: Strobridge Lithography Company: Cincinnati and New York/Wikimedia commons

Ben Hur (1907)

Director: Sidney Olcott
Production budget: $500, adjusted to $12,851 in 2016
Eventual court settlement: $25,000, adjusted to $642,589 in 2016

At 15 minutes long, the film is certainly the shortest adaptation of the novels hundreds of pages; in terms of film history, though, it might be even more significant than the 1959 classic because it created the concept of movie rights.

An elaborate play version had been a success in 1899, possibly because the spectacle had included horses on treadmills and the producing Kalem Company worked hard to replicate it, even featuring actors from the 1890 cast of the play. Wallace had died two years before the films release, but his publisher, Harper & Brothers, still held the rights to the book. The company sued the film-makers, who had simply shot their favorite scenes from the book.

Box office records for the film werent available, but the films success made an impression: the resulting infringement suit went to the supreme court. The result, a landmark 1911 ruling, created contemporary copyright standards when the justices said that film-makers needed permission to adapt works under copyright. Films werent taken particularly seriously at the time, but the justices said that the films advertisement had relied on the books success and its makers were wrong to have hitched a ride on Wallaces coattails.

Kalem had to pay Harper a hefty $25,000, according to Kevin Brownlows history of silent film, The Parades Gone By. Director Sidney Olcott went on to film the worlds first five-reel movie, From the Manger to the Cross, in Palestine the next year.

Appropriately, both the 1907 film and novel are now in the public domain.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> The original film version of Ben Hur from 1911 directed by Sidney Olcott, hosted at

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Production budget: $3m, adjusted to $41.2m in 2016
Box office gross: $9m, adjusted to $123.8m in 2016

William Youngs six-act stage adaptation of Ben-Hur finally wore out its welcome in 1917, with a sixth and final run on Broadway. It played at Oscar Hammersteins Manhattan Opera House, which is now a Quiznos.

A scant eight years later, MGM released a 143-minute film version starring Mexican American Ramon Novarro, who played opposite Francis X Bushman as Messala. The film was the second-highest grossing feature of the year behind King Vidors The Big Parade. The film-makers paid $600,000 for the rights this time around, in addition to fees to build some 30 ships for the pitched naval battle sequences.

The film shot in Rome under its Hollywood-friendly ruler, Benito Mussolini. The fascist leader extended every courtesy and they returned the favor Mussolini was much admired in Hollywood, Brownlow writes until the dictator learned of the vast discrepancy between pay rates for Hollywood stagehands and his countrys own carpenters. He then declined to intervene in labor strikes.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, released on 30 December 1925, courtesy of a Warner Bros. YouTube page

Ben-Hur (1959)

Production budget: $15.75m ($130.25m)
Box office gross: $146.9m worldwide ($1.2bn)

At the time the most expensive film ever made, William Wylers 1959 film ran 212 minutes from a screenplay whipped into shape by the novelist Gore Vidal.

The film began inauspiciously in 1952, with a script so hacky that Wyler, who had worked as an assistant director on the 1925 film, initially turned it down. It then saw years of setbacks: the dangerous chariot-race sequence alone cost $150,000, and in 1958 producer Sam Zimbalist died on set, aged 57.

But the finished product, with Charlton Heston as the lead and Vidals script still pored over today for the way he dodged Hollywood censors, is an enduring piece of movie history. Its box office receipts would make it the 14th-highest-grossing film ever, adjusted for inflation, with $70m domestically and more than twice that across the globe.

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in 1959s William Wyler classic. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

Ben-Hur (2016)

Production budget: $100m
Box office gross (to date): $42.9m

Directed by Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, the most recent remake bears the distinct stamp of two producers: Mark Burnett, an evangelical Christian entertainment mastermind, and his wife Roma Downey, who also produced Sarah Palins reality show and The Bible miniseries.

Its ambitions were grand: the films producers had wanted to shoot chariot race scenes in the actual Circus Maximus until Italian officials called it off.

Ultimately, critics pounced on bad editing, poor computer effects, and a dearth of ideas.

A few others

No property in the public domain is immune to bargain-hunting producers, and Ben-Hur has strayed a long way from its original papal endorsement.

Theres a 2009 monutainment stage spectacle , a 2003 DVD cartoon version the final film of Hestons long career and a Game of Thrones-esque version called The Legend of Ben-Hur from the Asylum, the tongue-in-cheek mockbuster studio behind the cable Sharknado series.

But the most interesting Ben-Hur-ish film is probably the Coen brothers screwball comedy Hail, Caesar!, an art-house film with one foot in the Busby Berkeley musical craze and the other in the intrigue of LA noir. The film follows a real-life studio fixer named Eddie Mannix, far more sympathetic on film than in life, through a series of fictional films, including a Biblical epic. Hail, Caesar! has everything up to and including Vidals gay subtext subplot, as well as some nuanced ideas about socialism and religion.

It out-grossed Bekmambetovs remake by $20m.

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