In his day, Charlton Heston had the market cornered on the epic movie. The prolific leading man would turn his name into a genre watermark, delivering behemoth films about fantastic people and places. Teaming regularly with visionary Cecil B. DeMille, Heston breathed life into Bible stories from Testaments Old and New, and invited audiences to take a new, dramatic look at cultural icons. His career brought him to fallen empires, strange planets, and thrilling mysteries. And although many would argue that Heston's cinematic accomplishments cannot truly be duplicated, Hollywood will try, try again to relive his majesties. The latest in the film industry's many endeavors to reproduce a Heston classic involves Ben-Hur, William Wyler's three-and-a-half-hour drama that set the star as a Jewish prince forced into slavery and then thrust upon a revenge quest against the companion who betrayed him.
Deadline reports that MGM, the studio that produced the 1959 opus (and its 1925 silent film precedent), is looking to recreate the story of Judas Ben-Hur for modern audiences. The studio will call back to writer Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which inspired both pictures. Interestingly, Wallace's Ben-Hur stood as the second best selling piece of writing in the world, next to the Bible, from the time of its publication until the release of Gone with the Wind. Living up to the glory of its source material, Wyler's Ben-Hur maintained status as the only film to win 11 Academy Awards (Best Picture included) for almost 40 years (1997's Titanic broke Ben-Hur's record with 14 Oscar wins).
With this sort of legacy, the plight of a Ben-Hur remake will not be an effortless one. Looking at reattempted Heston pieces of past, we can surmise just what direction in which MGM might plan to take its bountiful new prospect...
The Tim Burton Travesty
In 2001, Tim Burton kicked off a long line of disappointing remakes with Planet of the Apes, transforming the 1968 science-fiction allegory into a misguided mass of Wahlbergian yelling. And just imagine what a field day Burton would do with Ben-Hur's famous chariot sequence, what with the endless reach of modern stop-motion animation at his disposal and an inexplicable penchant for spiraling appendages.
The Sub-Disney Animated Family Film
From Heston's Ten Commandments came a like-titled animated movie, with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Christian Slater, Alfred Molina, and Elliot Gould (as the man upstairs) offering voices to the Biblical characters. The reason you might not have heard of this 2007 picture is because of its critical panning, minute gross, and small studio backing. Ratatouille it was not. (Although a Pixar take on Ben-Hur might be worth exploring...)
The Tuesday Night Sitcom
A decade following Heston's turn in P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Show on Earth, Jack Palance took on the ringleader role in an ABC dramedy that involved the star in the trials and tribulations of his various circus performers. The show didn't last very long, failing in the ratings warfare with more popular comedies of the era. Today's small screen Judah B.? Probably something in the vein of Noah Wyle, if he can ever step away from Falling Skies.
The CGI-Heavy Franchise Seedling
A far more successful endeavor than any of those mentioned again stemmed from Planet of the Apes. The 2011 hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes was markedly more imaginative than Burton's turn with the material, this time predating the events of the original film with a prequel of sorts, placing ape Caesar at the center of the story. There aren't too many animals worthy of shifting the focus toward in Ben-Hur... maybe the racing horses? I wonder what they're thinking... Call Serkis.
[Photo Credit: MGM]
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.