Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an 1880 historical novel by Lew Wallace. In the time of Christ, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is sent to the Roman galleys for an accidental “assassination attempt” on the Roman governor. The book chronicles his attempts to free himself and locate his mother and sister; along the way he has various encounters with biblical characters, including Jesus himself.
Ben-Hur is full of rich historical detail. Wallace certainly did his research, although his blond-haired and blue-eyed Mary and Jesus are rather egregious and indefensible. The works and miracles that Christ does, and their effects on the characters, give the book a significant emotional weight. Beyond that, Wallace’s characters love to sit around and discuss theology in detail, and there’s quite a bit of solid Christology to be found here.
The story in Ben-Hur is fantastic, but Wallace has written a bloated, flawed novel. Characters and dialogue are flat, the plot often advances by means of convenient developments, and the book makes great jumps through time to place Ben-Hur at so many key events in the life of Christ, which causes his own actions not to make a lot of sense. But worst of all, the novel is all over the place. Wallace is rambling and verbose, and there are too many half-baked story elements: the love triangle, such as it is, adds nothing to the story. Messala is not developed as a friend or as an enemy. A 65-page introduction that does nothing other than retell the Nativity story is unnecessary.
It is worth mentioning William Wyler’s 1959 MGM film that starred Charlton Heston and won 11 Oscars; there have been other films, but it is through that movie that the Ben-Hur story is known to the most people now. The movie distills the overlong, wandering story down to its key elements, developing them to a fulfilling degree, and the story is all the more powerful for it. It’s a great story, and the film, which is one of the greatest ever in any genre, takes full advantage of it.
The novel Ben-Hur is a powerful, moving story not at all well told. It pains me to say this, but the movie is better. Considerably.
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