This week for Family Movie Night I really debated about my choice. Could you really get kids today to watch a 4 hour Ben-Hur? I remember watching it when I was little usually around Easter time but it seemed like too much to ask these days? However, with the remake coming out I felt I needed to revisit the old epic and I figured if it was good enough for me, it is good enough for kids today as well! So I am going to share with you my thoughts on the movie but it got me thinking. How do you introduce kids to these classics? How do we get them excited about the great films of the past?
I always say that movies are the storytelling device of our age. Sure we still read books but if you really want to get an idea of how we are changing and growing as a culture nothing will show that more than in the movies. Therefore, it is interesting to look at the differences between Ben-Hur 2016 and Ben-Hur 1959.
Ben-Hur of 1959 may be the greatest epic movie ever made. It needs to be nearly 4 hours with character development that fills up any available space in the story. It’s of course the classic story of Judah Ben-Hur and his childhood Roman friend Messala who betrays Judah sending him to prison. Judah becomes very bitter at Messala especially when he learns that his mother and sister have died of leprosy. It turns out they are merely hiding from Judah because they don’t want him to see them in their condition, but his anger is still kindled against Messala.
That’s when we get the famous chariot scene which is still awe inspiring today. We end the film with Judah turning to Christ on the cross and a miracle occurring both physically and spiritually for Judah and his family. It’s inspiring and moving and everything you could want for these characters we have come to know after 4 hours.
Ben-Hur 2016 is not a complete train-wreck. The acting is pretty good and it is made with some care. I think the average moviegoer will enjoy it and get something from it. However, they make several changes that I think weaken the narrative and they try to cram 4 hours of storytelling into 2, which doesn’t work. One of the poor choices they make is to have Judah marry Esther. This lessens the tension between him and her when she lies to him about his family dying. The entire leprosy storyline is given way less time and therefore, the miracle at the end feels less earned.
They also change Messala’s choice to turn on Judah. In the 1959 film he fails to defend his friend when an accident occurs knowing it will help secure him greater power. The Jewish people will see that he will turn on an old friend and they will fear him helping secure him a greater position. In the new version Judah harbors a zealot who shoots the guard so when Messala arrests him he has much more cause and there is less reason for Judah to be so angry at his friend. Instead of Messala dying in the chariot race like in the 1959 film they tag on a happy ending that is also really bad.
So back to my earlier point about how do you get kids excited about the classic films? Or even just to watch them period? I think it helps if you make watching classic films part of a tradition. Maybe have a monthly classic movie night and perhaps make it fun or give some kind of reward for whoever notices objects or people in the film. Most importantly make it fun and not a chore and I think they will find they enjoy the older films much more than they are anticipating. Also make any film you watch part of your discussion as a family. Have family home evening or chats about lessons characters learn or situations they face. Even in comedy there are things to talk about or laughs to recall together. Don’t be afraid to ask kids what they think of sets, costumes, cinematography, acting etc and be prepared if they don’t think a classic is very good. Kids should be allowed to have their own opinions and come to their own conclusions about film.
I think there could be a really interesting experiment using both versions of Ben-Hur. If I had kids I would show them both and ask them to compare and contrast them. You can do that with many films such as Man of Steel and Superman: the Movie. Their insight may challenge and surprise you. I would love to hear your experiences and what you find works with your kids.