‘Ben-Hur’ Backlash: Why The Trailer Upset So Many People

It’s not a good year for remakes. Ben-Hur, the 2016 do-over of the classic 1959 version (itself a remake), is off to somewhat of a rocky start. You need only check out the recently released YouTube video of the Ben-Hur trailer and you’ll notice that despite being viewed over 800,000 times, dislikes strongly outweigh likes at this point.

First impressions can be tough, and often lasting, but the backlash was still very surprising. Ben-Hur, which casts actor Jack Houston as titular character Judah Ben-Hur, was expected to be a major blockbuster and enjoyed lots of movie hype. Now, it feels like it’s headed for over-priced flop territory.

Just what went wrong here?

After having watched the official trailer, a few red flags stand out as issues that probably put existing Ben-Hur fans off of this version.

The first major problem is that the trailer begins with Ben-Hur on a ship, or rather, during a shipwreck. Without being spoiler-ish, this segment was an incredibly important aspect of the journey of Judah, but it’s not exactly a stand-out moment that most people remember about the previous version of Ben-Hur. That would be the chariot race. Although we do see moments from this climactic scene later on, the movie begins in a way that feels like it was taken from In the Heart of the Sea. It takes awhile for the viewing audience to even understand that the movie they’re seeing is actually Ben-Hur.

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Another worrying sign is the continued emphasis on “brothers.” It could be that Paramount Pictures is determined to avoid the homoerotic subtext of the previous movie. Judah and best friend-turned-bitter enemy Messala certainly seemed to have a connection that went beyond mere friendship. It turns out the gay subtext was entirely intentional.

With this out in the open, it’s rather interesting that a modern-day remake seems to be openly back-pedaling with the continued emphasis on “brothers.” At the very least, it’s worrying that they may force these characters to be half-brothers as a way to get around questions regarding their friendship.

If Paramount Pictures really pushed for that particular change, it’s probably going to inspire major backlash among story purists.

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Perhaps the biggest tone change (and one that could drive away a huge chunk of the intended audience) is the blatant de-emphasis on Christian undertones. Yes, I say that even if there is Christ-like imagery in the trailer. They transferred it to Houston, who looks like Jesus for a good portion of the trailer, but as anyone who’s seen Ben-Hur knows, an actual Jesus appears in the previous movie. In fact, Christ himself does play a significant background role in the events of the film.

The 1959 movie ends, again without spoiling anything, with an incredibly miraculous event that impacts the household of the main character. Even if the goal is to appeal to a non-Christian audience, changing up the ending that many people are familiar with for the sake of making a modern non-religious audience comfortable means substituting the original ending with an equally emotionally impactful one.

If the Ben-Hur director goes that route, there could not only be a huge backlash from Christian movie fans, but he might also be harshly criticized for offering up an unimpressive conclusion to what’s supposed to be an outstanding film.

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It’s worth noting that despite the dated nature of the previous Ben-Hur remake, it’s still viewed as a cinematic classic. Whenever you attempt to make new versions of those types of movies, the goal should be to surpass it in every possible way. It’s not enough to inject copious amounts of CGI and hope that visually dazzling audiences will be sufficient. If the acting is not convincing, the roles are poorly cast, and too many deviations are made from the preceding version, the intended audience will reject the remake.

As previously mentioned, Ben-Hur is itself an updated version of a popular version made in the silent movie era. Hopefully this new version is better than everyone thinks, and Ben-Hur is suffering from the ill effects of a poorly-edited trailer.

If not, it could be one of the big disappointments of 2016.

[Image via Paramount Pictures]