Why is the film 'Ben-Hur' being remade now?

The newest version of the classic story, best known to audiences from the 1959 film of the same name, arrives in theaters on Aug. 19. Will audiences be interested?

Philippe Antonello/Paramount Pictures/AP/File
The modern remake of 'Ben-Hur,' starring Jack Huston (l.) and Morgan Freeman (r.), comes out on Aug. 19.

Cinema’s most famous chariot race is coming to the big screen again, as a remake of the classic story “Ben-Hur” arrives in theaters on Aug. 19.

The 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” starred Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, who is taken from his life as a rich merchant and becomes a slave after his former friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), punishes him for an imagined crime.

The new take stars Jack Huston of “Boardwalk Empire” as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as Messala, and features Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, and Rodrigo Santoro. 

Why remake the film now?

The 1959 movie has a religious aspect, as the film concludes with Judah seeing Jesus Christ be crucified. When the news of the “Ben-Hur” remake was announced in 2013, Deadline writer Mike Fleming Jr. noted the religious themes of the film and other movies that were then in production and have since been released, including the 2014 film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and the movie “Noah,” which was released the same year.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article referenced the wrong movie version of "Ben-Hur."

“The depiction of Jesus Christ as an occasional character in the script puts this project squarely in the mix of Biblical-themed films that are proliferating at studios around town,” Mr. Fleming wrote. The History Channel Bible miniseries was released later in 2013 and brought extremely positive ratings to the History Channel.

And the 2015 movie “War Room,” a contemporary drama with religious themes, surprised some industry observers with its box office performance, with Variety writer Brent Lang writing that the film “reaffirm[ed] the value of producing pictures for faith-based moviegoers.” 

Those creating “Ben-Hur” are most likely hoping to lure in some viewers with the religious plot and others with the prospect of remaking the original movie’s famous action scenes. A trailer this spring emphasized the chariot race, showing crashing wheels and a driver being knocked out of the chariot and dragged along the ground. 

As Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times notes, the film features not only “the chariot scene, shot mostly in the style of a NASCAR race," but also "a more prominent and evangelical-friendly spiritual quotient.”

Can this combination win over audiences? Some industry observers are seeing trouble ahead, with Hollywood Reporter writer Pamela McClintock calling the predictions for the film's opening “alarming.” 

“Another big-budget 2016 summer event film could be in trouble at the U.S. box office,” Ms. McClintock writes. “Early tracking suggests ‘Ben-Hur’ will open in the $14 to $15 million range … a sobering start.”

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