Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ben-Hur - The Classics Illustrated Comic

This Classics Illustrated version of the novel, published in 1958, includes all the iconic moments. It all starts with that darn tile falling. "That tile is still falling," Esther says in the 59er movie. Caused a lot of problems!

For not fixing his roof, gets Ben-Hur sent off to row with the slaves in a Roman galley. "Ramming speed!" "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one!" Here is a curious case of a blatant anachronism (Romans didn't use galley slaves - what were you thinking, Lew?) turning into an iconic episode in the novel as well as in the film versions.

Then there's Jesus, looking like he belongs in a Christian fundamentalist brochure. He gives Ben-Hur that symbolic drink of water that Ben-Hur will attempt to repay at the end of the story. As Ben-Hur's conflicts play out, Jesus is headed toward his fated climax. Ben-Hur's life parallels that of Jesus. Both are the same age. While Ben-Hur seeks vengeance, Jesus preaches forgiveness.

The 59er film does a great job of presenting Jesus without showing his face. His face - that subdues a Roman soldier going to interrupt Ben-Hur's refreshing drink - are left to our imagination. Unfortunately, the mini-series casts as Jesus someone who looks like Graham Chapman in Life of Brian. The mini-series downplays the drama of the Crucifixion and the miracle while the 59er goes for visual spectacle, blood, and a tumultuous storm and earthquake during the culminating miracle.

Influenced by Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all things Roman constituted an ongoing fad throughout the Victorian Era. Lew Wallace's novel appealed to that fad, and readers must have been thrilled with his description of the chariot race, the action scene that would epitomize the films. The Classics Illustrated Comic images evoke the speed and violence of that scene.

The comic is not a movie spin-off. It is all about the novel. As do all Classics Illustrated editions, it ends with the following plug:" Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don't miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library."

Indeed, as a boy, I did just that. It took patience getting through Wallace's detailed travelogue-style commentary and his descriptions of architecture and the culture of ancient Rome and the Hold Land, but the central conflict is always compelling. Now wonder Ben-Hur has been made into a spectacular stage play, a feature silent film, a sound film that won eleven Oscars, a British mini-series, and now an epic remake! It's a great story that explores the themes of vengeance, hope, forgiveness, and the importance of family.

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