Thursday, August 25, 2016


Barbara Ryan, Milette Shamir (ed.), Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, and their Audiences. Television and popular culture. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 269. ISBN 9780815634034. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


First, a note about conflict of interest: I was solicited to contribute to this volume, but when a collaborator and I submitted a contribution about slavery in the novel, the play, and the 1925 film, the editors wanted revisions we were not willing to make. Slavery is regrettably neglected.

This book is not intended for readers whose main interest is classical reception. It is a study of American popular culture. A classicist who teaches ancient Rome in film will want to look at some of the chapters, but probably does not need to read them all. More of the chapters deal with the novel than with the adaptations, and sometimes they expect a reader who has read Wallace's novel carefully. I have done so, because I felt obligated to do so; I find much of it tedious, but the contributors mostly seem to regard it with considerable admiration. Also, it bothers me throughout that contributors sometimes seem to accept Wallace's research at the valuation of Wallace himself and his contemporaries. He was very careful about typography, but that does not mean that he understood either Rome or Second Temple Judaism very deeply.1

Since I do not think that the book is really aimed at the readers of BMCR, and since its main topics are outside my competence, this will not be a very detailed review. The words "modernity" and "imperialism" recur often. Only the first chapter, Eran Shalev's "Ben Hur's and America's Rome," which argues that the virtuous Republican Rome so important to the Founders became an evil empire with Jacksonian democracy and the Second Great Awakening, is about antiquity. The chapter is a good introduction to the topic, but is superficial.2

That said, there is much that is fascinating here about the background of the novel. Howard Miller's essay "'In the Service of Christianity': Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theater, 1899–1920," examines how the Klaw-Erlanger stage version overcame widespread hostility to the theater, especially among evangelicals. Jefferson Gattrall's "Retelling and Untelling the Christmas Story" tells a related though very different story about the novel's place in Sunday Schools, since the novel was also an object of suspicion. Hilton Obenzinger's "Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" links the novel to the Jewish restoration and Zionism, as well as to Western fiction. While the last few pages move too quickly through to the Wyler film and its political implications to give the issues the discussion that they deserve, this is a really valuable contribution. Anyone who has not given special study to nineteenth-century American Protestant discourse on Jewish Restoration can learn something, and I doubt that my ignorance is atypical. Milette Shamir on "Ben-Hur's Mother" considers an inherent tension between linear time and progress on the one side (the basic plot of the Bildungsroman), and nostalgia, the mother, and antiquity on the other. Without being entirely convinced, I was certainly intrigued.

Barbara Ryan's chapter, "Take Up the White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur", reads John Buchan's novel Sick Heart River (1941) as resistance to Ben-Hur. The evidence is thin, and the argument relies heavily on the name of the less-than-admirable guide, Lew. "Getting Judas Right," about the 1925 film, by Richard Walsh, also depends on names, in this case that "Judas" and "Judah" are different forms of the same name. The treatment of Judah as a Christ figure is convincing, the parallels with modern interpretations of Judas less so; but the really engaging thread in this essay is its analysis of how the film avoids supersessionism and its comparison of the 1925 film to other early Jesus-films. Ina Rae Hark, "The Erotics of the Galley Slave," proposes three ways the filmed Crucifixion might trouble Christians: it eroticizes the spectacle, feminizes Jesus, and potentially arouses homoerotic desire. The film transfers all these disturbing possibilities to Judah. None of this is very surprising to anyone familiar with the queering of St. Sebastian, but it gives a new twist to the familiar homoerotic subtext of the film.

Thomas Slater writes about June Mathis, who was hired in 1922 to write a script for the film that was to become the first feature-length adapation of Ben-Hur. Slater gives a sad account of the exclusion of women from Hollywood, but it's not clear to me that Mathis' script would have been a very good movie. David Mayer sets out what he wishes a new adaptation would include. He would like more attention to Judah's wealth and the story's emphasis on the power to do good that wealth gives; he would like the inclusion of the episode from the novel in which Messala and Iras scheme to ambush and murder Judah; and he would like more attention to Judah's raising of an army, a Jewish Revolt that he abandons when he understands the real message of Jesus. This last theme, he notes, has contemporary resonance. I do not expect that the Paramount version to be released August 19, 2016, will meet any of his desires. This chapter includes a treatment of the "adventuress" character in the nineteenth-century novel and of the role of Iras, whom the 1959 film omitted completely.

Finally, Jon Solomon provides an extensive catalogue of companies, brands, and products named for Ben-Hur. It is an impressive list.


1.   Jon Solomon's 2015 article, "The Classical Sources of Ben-Hur," International Journal of the Classical Tradition 22.1 29-75, treats some of the relevant questions.
2.   There is a richer treatment of this history in M. Malamud, (2009). Ancient Rome and modern America (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell).

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