Ben-Hur at 90, Part III (Why I far prefer the original)

Exhibit A: The Leading Man

Whom do you find more believable as a Middle Eastern Jew who ages from 17–25, the Mexican-born Ramón Novarro, or Charlton Heston, of British and Scottish descent?

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Obviously, good actors can make you believe in their performances even if they’re not exactly like their characters. Ramón was gay in real life, but that doesn’t mean I disbelieve the romances he has with women in his films. I can’t help but wonder how he really felt inside, being forced to do these romantic scenes when he wasn’t attracted to women, but it’s not something that distracts me from enjoying a movie.

Ramón was also in his early twenties while the picture was being shot, as compared to how Heston was 36. Heston was way too old to believably play a young man, whereas Ramón was not only in his character’s real age range, but also had very soft, boyish facial features which kept him looking young. In spite of his baby face, he was totally able to look more stereotypically masculine when the scene called for it. The 1959 remake had to alter the script so Ben-Hur starts out older than he is in the book.

Plus, I just feel Ben-Hur’s character so much more with Ramón. He gets lost in his character and makes us believe he’s not just acting. Let’s be honest, Heston didn’t exactly have a huge amount of range or subtlety, and comes across as wooden more often than not. He’s physically but not emotionally compelling, even in scenes which are supposed to be very emotional and dramatic.

Exhibit B: Length and Focus!

The 1925 original is almost 2.5 hours, but the time goes by like that, and I’m never thinking about how much time is passing. The focus is also on all the right places, without too much time spent on subplots like the plight of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister or the scenes from the life of Jesus. Obviously, those subplots are an important part of the story, but since this isn’t a story with multiple leading characters, the focus remains right where it should, on Ben-Hur.

The remake is 3.5 hours, which wouldn’t be a problem at all for me if it were actually a riveting, focused story. I adore long films, just as I adore long books, but the length has to work for that particular story. A gripping film can last 5 hours and feel like only 15 minutes have gone by because it’s that good, whereas a bad film that’s less than an hour long can seem to drag on forever.

A lot of scenes in the remake could’ve been shortened or cut, particularly all the “As you know, Bob” dialogue. I understand wanting to not be an exact remake, but that still could’ve been accomplished by cutting a lot of fat. Sometimes it seems like they just wanted to show off their costumes and sets, the epic scope, and the massive cast. Until the famous chariot race, the remake moves pretty slowly for me, above and beyond a typical film which just takes longer than usual to establish itself and get to the action.

Exhibit C: Timelessness

I’ll be honest, the Fifties and Sixties aren’t my favorite decades for film. I’m not saying I think every single film is awful or that there were only a few good films made during that time, but in general, it really seems like a lot of films from that era haven’t aged too well. I’m just not a fan of the acting style from that era. The original film meanwhile speaks a universal language with silence, and doesn’t need such frequent dialogue to convey a great story.

I often have a feeling akin to, “I’m watching a person from the Fifties/Sixties, acting in a movie made in the Fifties/Sixties, instead of watching an actor in a movie that just so happens to have been made in [any other decade].”

Exhibit D: Emotional Impact

As I said, Heston is physically but not emotionally compelling, whereas Ramón really gets lost in his character and comes across as far more than just someone playing a role. Ramón also had more than one basic facial expression. Due to the remake’s length, a lot of things are unnecessarily drawn out, whereas the original kept them focused and to the point. The leprosy storyline in particular is much better done in the original. It just felt unemotional and unrealistic in the remake.

Exhibit E: The Subtitle

For a film with the subtitle A Tale of the Christ, the remake really doesn’t spend an awful lot of time depicting the life of Jesus or the religious message found in the original. It even completely removes the rather important storyline about how Ben-Hur becomes a Jesus follower. Their encounter on the Via Dolorosa is so much more emotional and believable in the original.

What the Remake Does Get Right:

The chariot race. While I find the silent version more dramatic, the sound version is still quite good.

Better development of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. In the original, Messala is a villain almost from the jump, and we don’t really get a plausible sense he and Ben-Hur were ever best friends or why Messala turned on him so quickly.

A dark-featured Esther (Haya Harareet). May McAvoy was really pretty and portrayed innocence well, and there’s honestly no such thing as “looking Jewish,” but by first century standards, it’s a lot less likely a Jewish woman would’ve had blonde curls and blue eyes. Their relationship also has more substance, though I didn’t feel any real chemistry.

WeWriWa—“School isn’t a fashion show”

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This is the last week I’ll be sharing from my recent release Little Ragdoll, which is currently available on Kindle, Kobo, and Nook and soon to be in print. I’m skipping a little ahead to close out on a hopeful note.

After the Troy sisters have been reminded that they’re at Woolworth’s to buy school supplies, not to argue with mean girls, they continue with their errand. They don’t have much money to spend, but at least Woolworth’s prices are generally very cheap anyway.

***

“It’s not fair,” Adicia complains as they wander into the next aisle. “All the other girls get new clothes for school. My clothes are twelve years old.”

“Those girls won’t look twice at their new clothes in six months,” Emeline predicts. “They’ll throw them away, or give them to charity if they have any sense, when a newer fashion comes along. They don’t care about getting clothes that last for a long time.”

“School isn’t a fashion show,” Lucine says. “You can wear the most expensive, newest clothes in the world, but it won’t matter if you’re not using your brain.”

***

Next week will be a quick visit to my hiatused 1980s historical Justine Grown Up (starring Adicia’s baby sister), in honor of the special holiday which falls on August tenth. (You’ll also get to see the lovely framed poster I sleep underneath.) The week afterwards, you’ll get to meet my brave Marines from my WIP!

As soon as I finally get a new computer, I’ll be able to do more visits on Sundays. My computer has been slowly dying for months now, and the death rattle coming from the left fan isn’t getting any better, though having a fan right behind the machine helps.

WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. For two more weeks, I’m sharing from the opening chapter of my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.

Adicia, four of her sisters, and their surrogate mother are at an uptown Woolworth’s, where they ran into some of the mean girls from the nice part of the Lower East Side. Though the Troys live just inside the boundaries of what was to become the East Village in less than ten years, they’re decidedly not as gentrified or well-off as these girls. One of them has just asked what 5-year-old Adicia’s name is.

***

“Her name is Adicia,” Emeline says. “It’s an ancient Greek name, the Latinate form of Adikia, who was a goddess.” Though Emeline typically bubbles over with her wealth of knowledge, she leaves out the fact that Adicia was named for the goddess of injustice because their parents thought it was an injustice to be saddled with a seventh unplanned child and yet another girl in a row.

“Ew, Greek mythology is so boring. I’d rather read fashion magazines and love stories, not stupid stories about made-up gods and goddesses thousands of years ago,” Linda Hopkins scoffs. “And I love having the same name as a lot of other girls. It means I’m popular and boys will pay attention to me.”

“Oh, people will pay attention to these losers too,” Karen Becker says haughtily.

***

The names booklet I found the Troy siblings’ names in claimed Adicia means “mal-treated.” When I looked up the name when starting over with this story so many years later, I found out it doesn’t exactly mean mal-treated, but the real meaning fit the intended symbolism just as well.


Adikia being beaten with a hammer by Dike, the goddess of justice.

WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. For a few more weeks, I’ll continue to share from the opening chapter of my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.

Five of the six Troy sisters are at an uptown Woolworth’s to buy back to school supplies in 1959, but their shopping is delayed when they run into a bunch of mean girls from school. One of the mean girls has just criticized their decidedly non-trendy names.

Once again, no offense to women with the popular names of that era! I just used those names as an example of extremely popular Boomer girls’ names and don’t have anything against those names or the women who bear them.

***

“What’s the baby’s name, Eunice?  And the name Ernestine belongs on a smelly old lady who has fifty cats!”

“I’d much rather be the only Ernestine at school than lost in a sea of Lindas, Barbaras, Susans, and Debbies,” Ernestine retorts. “I like being unique.  At least no one will ever forget my name.”

“Our baby’s name is Justine,” Lucine says. “A very pretty French name.”

“What’s the little ragdoll’s name?” Nancy Jenkins asks.

***

When I created the Troys at thirteen, the only name I chose with any deliberate significance was Adicia. When starting over from scratch and memory so many years later, I realized four of the sisters have French names, and discovered the surname Troy is also French. So I made their father of 100% French Huguenot descent, and so proud of his ancestry he gave all his kids at least one French name. The ones who don’t have French forenames have French middle names, and a few have two French names.

WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the opening chapter of my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.

Five of the Troy sisters have gone to an uptown Woolworth’s with their surrogate mother, and have found a number of girls from their own neighborhood who also wanted to go uptown. They haven’t had anything nice to say about the girls or their family. One of them has just said 5-year-old Adicia looks like a dirty, ugly, torn-apart Raggedy Ann.

***

Adicia hides behind Emeline, too shy and scared to say anything.

“Do you have a boyfriend yet, Lucine?” Helen Johnstone asks. “All the boys are fighting over me and competing to ask me to the dances.  I guess nice boys prefer girls who wear new clothes and don’t live in tenements.  Imagine that.”

“Unlike you, I have more interest in school than getting a date,” Lucine says. “I want a real diploma, not my Mrs. degree.”

“Why do you and your raggedy sisters have such stupid old lady names?” Sharon George asks.

***

A largely unspoken irony of the names insult is that all the girls making fun of the Troy sisters have names which are now largely considered dated and middle-aged, no longer popular or fresh-sounding. (Nothing against those names or people with them, but you can’t deny a name like Barbara or Linda doesn’t exactly conjure up images of a young girl anymore!)