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Literature / Ben-Hur

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The Chariot Race from Ben-Hur by William Trego

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the ChristJesus does have an important role in this story, but it's often tangential — is a novel written by Lewis "Lew" Wallace, a Union general in the American Civil War and Governor of New Mexico, and published in 1880. It was later adapted for several media, starting with theatre and later inspiring several epic movies.

The story concerns the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century AD, when Judea is under Roman domination. He is betrayed by his childhood Roman friend Messala, ends up enslaved by the Romans and, through several turns of fate, becomes a famed charioteer and, eventually, a Christian. Running in parallel with Judah's narrative is the unfolding story of the Christ himself.

The novel reflects themes of betrayal, conviction and redemption, with a revenge plot that leads to a story of love and compassion.

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Live-Action Film

Live-Action Television

  • Ben-Hur (2010), a two-part miniseries starring Joseph Morgan as Ben-Hur, Stephen Campbell Moore as Messala and Emily VanCamp as Esther.


  • Ben-Hur, a 2003 animated film. Charlton Heston reprised his iconic role through voice acting, in the final performance of his career.


  • The novel was adapted for theatre for the first time in 1899 in New York. It was dramatized by William W. Young.
  • Ben-Hur, a 2006 French live theatrical show/hippodrama directed by Robert Hossein and adapted by historian Alain Decaux.
  • Ben-Hur Live, a 2009 British live theatrical show/hippodrama, produced by Franz Abraham with music and narration by Stewart Copeland.

Ben-Hur provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Virtually all adaptations give the character of Messala more dimensions than he possessed in the original novel; Judah's childhood friend is depicted as having gone away to Rome and come back infected with imperialist, racist, and selfish philosophies, such that he gloats about ruining Judah for his own benefit in the last words they exchange before sending him off to the galleys and demonstrates no redeeming qualities afterwards.
  • Adapted Out: The novel featured another love interest for Judah besides Esther - Iras daughter of Balthazar (one of the biblical Magi). She never appears in any of the film adaptations. The latter half of the plot, where Judah attempts to construct a revolution for Christ to lead, is also usually either left out or heavily compressed.
  • Ancient Rome: Or rather the backwater Roman province of Judaea.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Ilderim, if you replace oil with gold and horse races.
  • Artistic License – History: Roman war galleys typically used teams of professional rowers or even ordinary soldiers to man their oars, rather than slaves or condemned men.
  • Badass Israeli: As part of becoming the adopted son of Quintus Arrius, Judah is trained in combat by lanistas, or retired gladiators. He begins training others to, in effect, present Jesus with an army, but ultimately comes to understand the nature of the Christ's mission through the latter's death, which he witnesses. His men (save for a few, who follow Judah to Calvary) abandon their cause after they also realize Jesus will not be the warrior-king Christ they all thought he would be.
  • Betty and Veronica: In the novel, Judah has two love interests: Esther, who, as in the films, is the quiet gentle Betty, and Iras, Balthazar's mysterious but alluring daughter, who serves as the Veronica. Iras is actually in the lead for most of the book but she turns out to have been working for Messala all along, deliberately bludgeoning him with the worst part of her nature as she reveals this.
  • Been There, Shaped History:
    • In the novel and 1959 and 2016 films Jesus gives Judah water when the latter is a prisoner. In the films, Judah repays this by giving Jesus water as he is taken to be crucified. The novel goes further and makes Judah both the man who is attacked and stripped naked while attempting to follow Jesus after he's arrested, and the man who gives Jesus sour wine on a sponge, both mentioned in the Gospel of Mark.
    • In a subversion, Judah's mother and sister are healed of their leprosy by Jesus personally when they meet him on the road to Jerusalem as he's riding a donkey and followed by crowds (i.e. Palm Sunday) but this doesn't make it into the Gospels. The 1959 and 2016 movies changed this to them being healed as a result of the Crucifixion, when rainwater mixed with the blood of Christ drips/flows into the cave they're sheltered in.
  • Bible Times: Set right during the time of the Gospels.
  • The Big Race: Judah Ben-Hur and Messala play out their conflict in a famous Chariot Race.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Iras, Balthazar's daughter, seems like a decent enough person, if somewhat mysterious and enamored with mysticism compared to her pious father. Then it turns out she was Playing Both Sides between Judah and Messala and had gone along with an assassination attempt on his life, before abandoning all pretense when she sees for herself that Jesus has no intention of becoming king, and is disgusted and disillusioned with both he and Judah.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Averted for Judah when he comes to realize Jesus' role in saving Judea is a different thing than the revolutionary freedom fighter he envisioned in. Straight when Judah discovers the beautiful and mysterious Iras is actually a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing.
    • Iras gives up on Jesus when he fails her expectation of being a King that will grant her power and wealth.
    • The soldiers Judah trained to serve Jesus turn their backs on both of them when they feel Jesus fails their expectations.
  • Call-Back: Judah paying back that long-ago cup of water by giving one to Jesus as he walks to his crucifixion in the 1959 and 2016 films.
  • Chariot Race: The film version of the race is the Trope Codifier featuring Spiked Wheels (Messala's "Greek chariot"), Messala whipping his horses and any driver within range. If you're tossed from the chariot, there's a token attempt at retrieval. Both the silent 1925 movie and the 1959 version featured spectacular accidents in each race that weren't staged, invoked and the stunt drivers in each case only barely escaped with their lives. Ironically, while Messala exhibits an appaling lack of sportsmanship during the novel's version of the race and whips drivers who come in reach, it is Ben-Hur who uses a quick trick with the reigns and the axle of his chariot to crush Messala's wheel and wreck him, though admittedly only after Messala was trying to do the same to him first.
  • Clear My Name: Judah has to restore his standing after having been falsely accused of trying to assassinate the governor.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Simonides, a family servant to the Hurs, is brutally tortured by the Romans to extract the details of their fortune, but he never breaks and is ultimately released, hideously deformed and unable to move under his own power.
  • Death Faked for You: Messala sends Thord the Northman to kill Judah. After a fight, Judah bribes Thord to cancel his assignment and inform Messala that he succeeded in killing him.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": "Ben-Hur", meaning "Son of Hur", is a title of the men of the House of Hur. They are descended from the Hur who was mentioned in the Book of Exodus, who helped Joshua hold Moses's arms up during a battle. Judah's actual father was named Ithamar, so his proper name would be "Judah ben Ithamar", but he just goes by Ben-Hur.
  • The Faceless: Jesus, in the first two film versions (in the 1925 version, we never see anything except his arms). By contrast, he is both seen and heard in the 2016 film, played by Rodrigo Santoro. In the stage production of the novel, Jesus wasn't even portrayed by an actor — he only appeared as a beam of intense white light.
  • Fiction 500: Simonides, despite being crippled under torture, never cracks, and manages to secure the Hur family fortune, and devotes himself to growing it with shrewd investments. By the time he learns Judah is alive and meets with him, it has become an enormous fortune with which to allow Judah to finance his revenge, his attempt at a revolution, and, finally, protect the nascent church.
  • The Ghost: After being crippled physically and financially by the climactic chariot race, Messala never appears again in person, only sometimes sending proxies or assassins after Ben-Hur.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: Actually presented within the work. Balthazar sees the Messiah as a figure who will bring spiritual enlightenment and salvation to humanity, and Ilderim a military leader who will drive out the Romans and establish a monotheistic empire. Judah spends most of the latter half of the story arguing they're both right and trying to set up cells of trained soldiers for when Jesus declares himself king in the Temple, only to realize, no, Balthazar was correct all along as the events of the Passover progress.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Simonides underwent the "awl piercing" in the Bible, for a family slave who loves his family and wishes to remain in their house indefinitely as a "bond slave," and is fiercely loyal to them unto even the most inhumane of torture. When Judah returns, he immediately puts his shrewdly-invested fortune at his young master's disposal, the two men become friends, and Judah even goes on to marry his daughter and become his son-in-law.
  • Hero of Another Story: The story happens in the background of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, arguably a more important series of events. The latter half of the novel is slower-paced and more centered around the life and movements of Christ leading up to the Crucifixion and resurrection, but most adaptations leave these parts out.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Downplayed. Iras comes to see Esther later in life, to tell her that she has ultimately grown disillusioned with Messala and murdered him, but can't bring herself to see Judah and leaves before he arrives. The family tries to find her, but cannot, and it's implied she drowns herself.
  • Innocently Insensitive: This happens several times in the novel:
    • In the prologue, an old acquaintance of Joseph’s mistakes Mary for his daughter. Downplayed because offense is neither meant nor taken.
    • Messala ridiculing Judah's race. Double Subverted because Messala didn't plan to offend Judah himself, although he feels his Jewish friend should act more like a Roman.
    • Iras insults and mocks Jesus before Judah (who has followed the man throughout his ministry, convinced by evidence- like his curing of his mother and sister's leprosy- that he is the Messiah).
  • Made a Slave: Judah is arrested and made a galley slave.
  • Meaningful Rename: After he's adopted by Quintus Arrius, he is known within Roman circles as Quintus Arrius as well (per Roman adoption customs) and this hides his identity from Messala for a while.
  • Nepotism: Joseph being a descendant of the House of David gives him some major clout.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: The point of view of the zealots concerning the Romans, especially in the 2016 film. It's on a low-level simmer throughout the novel, and ultimately Jesus's refusal to embrace violent revolution turns the crowds against him.
  • Pride: This proves to be Messala's financial undoing. Sheik Ilderim- backed by Judah's fortune- makes an expensive wager on the race, with all participants paying said sum to the winner. Messala knows that his own finances can't match the sum. If he bids and loses the race, he is bankrupt. On the other hand, his pride as a Roman (and social standing) cannot allow him to refuse, especially to a rival he has deemed inferior. He joins the wager, loses the race, and is financially and socially ruined.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Judah's years in the galleys, being traded between benches to train evenly, have given him Charles Atlas Superpowers, with the text repeatedly noting that he will win basically any contest of strength on the back of them.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Judah is a Badass Israeli who becomes one of Jesus's followers and helps support the early Christian church.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: The novel has often been referred to as "The Count of Monte Cristo meets Quo Vadis" or "The Count of Monte Cristo in the first century AD".
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Judah's not exactly roaring with it when he returns demanding his family's release, but he's close, and by the time of the Chariot Race, this trope is in full effect.
  • Shown Their Work: Lew Wallace, the author, sought to make the novel as historically accurate as possible, studying the Bible and looking into Roman history, geography, culture, language, customs, architecture, and daily life in ancient Rome, among other things; he wrote in his autobiography that he once "went to Washington, thence to Boston, for no purpose but to exhaust their libraries in an effort to satisfy [himself] of the mechanical arrangement of the oars in the interior of a trireme", a boat that got its name from its three rows of oars. Wallace did not visit the Holy Land until after his novel was published; he went there in the mid-1880s to trace the steps of Ben-Hur and test the accuracy of his description of Jerusalem. He wrote in his autobiography: "I found the descriptive details true to the existing objects and scenes, and I find no reason to make a single change in the text of the book."
  • Sidelong Glance Biopic: A borderline example, since the places the story of the Gospel in the background of Judah's adventures.
  • Slave Galley: Ben-Hur is enslaved and sent to row in Roman triremes after getting betrayed by Messala and falsely accused in all versions.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the 2003 film, Messala lives on as a cripple and is healed at the death of Christ where he reconciles with the House of Hur.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Downplayed. The Bethlehem Innkeeper knew of Mary's parents. Quintus Arrius knew of Judah's father. Neither acknowledgement results in getting information about the dead parent.
  • Time Skip: The novel has several: (1) The decades between the Nativity and Gratus' arrival to Jerusalem. (2) The three years of Judah as a galley slave. (3) The five years of the adopted Judah experiencing Rome. (4) Judah following Jesus' ministry. (5) The decades between the Crucifixion and Neronian persecutions. Most adaptations adapt 1 and/or 2.
  • Undying Loyalty: Simonides, Judah's father's life-long financial minister and willing slave. Even after being brutally tortured and "beaten out of human shape" by the Romans seeking to claim the family's fortune, he gives them nothing, and when Judah returns he is able to give him access to tremendous wealth necessary to finance his revenge.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: A key point in most versions of the story. Judah revenges himself on Messala, but, finding it does not bring him peace, he decides to revenge himself on all of Rome. Only witnessing the crucifixion of Christ convinces him to instead devote his life to his family and faith.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The basis for the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala.