At first glance, the new film Ben-Hur is a curious beast. While obviously a reimagining of the 1959 classic film of the same name, its original roots are somewhat murkier. The movie tells the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from Jerusalem who is enslaved by the Romans after being betrayed by his adoptive brother Massala, a Roman officer. Oh, and Jesus also factors into the movie. So where did this story come from? Is Ben-Hur a true story, or perhaps based on the Bible? Or, is it simply historical fiction? The movie raises some big questions.
The new version is actually the fifth film to tell the story of Ben-Hur. There’s a 2003 animated version, featuring 1959 star Charlton Heston as the voice of Ben-Hur, but even Heston’s classic mid-century version wasn’t the original telling. It was a remake of a 1925 silent film, which itself followed a 1907 silent short film. So where did the story begin? In a book, actually. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is an 1880 novel by American author Lew Wallace. And since it’s a novel, that means the tale of Ben-Hur is 100 percent fiction, wholly created by Wallace. So what is Jesus doing in the story?