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The New Ben-Hur

Book on remake of classic movie offers fascinating facts

Billed as “Based on One of the Greatest Stories Ever Told,” the remake of the movie Ben-Hur opens in theaters on August 19. The work of two major studios — MGM and Paramount – the film stars English actor Jack Huston in the role made famous by Charlton Heston in the 1959 film of the same name. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the married couple who have done a number of major religious films, were involved in the production.

Although most viewers of the earlier film may remember it mostly for the famous chariot race, the plot is really a story of Jesus, whom the title character encounters at key moments in his life.

To place the plot in its proper context, Catholic author Mike Aquilina has written a newly released book, The World of Ben-Hur (Sophia). Fathers for Good contacted Aquilina in anticipation of the movie’s release.

Fathers for Good: Not many people know that the 1959 Ben-Hur movie was based on a book written in 1880, titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. In researching The World of Ben-Hur did you come across other surprising details?

Mike Aquilina: Ben-Hur is so much more than a movie. It’s a cultural phenomenon. The book was a blockbuster bestseller when it appeared. Nothing came close to it until Gone with the Wind many years later. Then it was a hit Broadway play. And over the years Ben-Hur has been made into at least four films, a miniseries, and several animated features. It’s obviously a story that resonates with people, and it’s worth asking why.

As I was preparing my book, I dug into the history and I discovered — much to my surprise — that the man who wrote the novel, General Lew Wallace, was an unbeliever when he started the project. He intended to write a potboiler that would debunk the common notions of Christian origins and persuade believers to put aside their illusions forever. And he wanted to do it right, so he threw himself into historical research. He talked to experts, he mastered the scholarship, and he came to the conclusion that the Gospels were true to history — that Jesus was divine, the Son of God! So he ended up telling a story quite different from the one he had set out to tell. And that story resonated with millions of people, as it still does today.

FFG: You give a lot of historical context about the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus. What essential facts do we need to know before seeing the new Ben-Hur movie?

Mike Aquilina: If the movie succeeds as entertainment, you won’t need to know anything. There are certain iconic moments in the Ben-Hur story. People who have read the book or seen the Charlton Heston version know what they are: the scene where the slaves are rowing the ship, the chariot race, and so on. In my book I tried to make the experience richer by giving the background, what we know from history and archeology.

FFG: How does Christ figure in the plot?

Mike Aquilina: Hey, no spoilers! But I think it’s safe to say that Judah Ben-Hur is a contemporary of Jesus and his fellow countryman. Their lives wend along and intersect at several key moments. Enough said!

FFG: Did you see the new movie in advance?

Mike Aquilina: I have not yet seen the movie, but I plan to catch it in the theater as soon as it’s out. I wrote my book while they were still filming. My publisher, Sophia Institute Press, was working with the filmmakers, though, so I had an embargoed copy of the script. I had worked with the same producers when I wrote the book Ministers and Martyrs as an official companion volume to the NBC miniseries A.D. I’m curious to see how their ideas appear on the big screen.

I grew up with the 1959 MGM film, and we’ve often shown that video on our buses to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Every year, we have kids who are seeing the film for the first time, and they’re deeply moved. The story still packs power. I’m hoping that Catholics see Ben-Hur as an opportunity for evangelization. It’s proven itself effective again and again, in many different versions, in every possible format. It’s a powerful testimony of faith.

Visit the Sophia website for more information on The World of Ben-Hur.