Book Review: Ben-Hur by Carol Wallace

Updated May 26, 2017
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Book Review: Ben-Hur by Carol Wallace

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As one of the bestselling stories of all time, Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, has captivated and enthralled millions around the world - both in print and on the big screen. Now Lew's great-great-granddaughter has taken the old-fashioned prose of this classic novel and breathed new life into it for today's audience.

Ben-Hur was released in 2016 as a major motion picture from MGM and Paramount studios, the story follows Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman whose childhood friend Messala betrays him. Accused of trying to murder the new Roman governor in Jerusalem, Judah is sentenced to the galley ships and vows to seek revenge against the Romans and Messala. But a chance encounter with a carpenter from Nazareth sets Judah on a different path.

Also included: the inspiring story-behind-the-story of Lew Wallace - Indiana lawyer, author, and Civil War general.


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I am going to be honest now - I have never seen Ben-Hur, neither the classic starring Charlton Heston or the remake from 2016 starring Morgan Freeman, also I have never read the original book by Lew Wallace. I am, of course, aware of the chariot race scene of the classic film and the fact that at one point someone is seen wearing a watch. That was the extent of my knowledge of this film until reading this book.

Lew Wallace's great-great Granddaughter Carol is a published author in her own right and a New York Times bestselling author at that, so she is the perfect candidate to write this updated book of the film remake of the film of the original book! Actually Carol has gone back to the source material, which even she admits that she struggled with, and written this novel with a more modern feel, but keeping the main plot of the original story, but increasing pacing and plot, giving a little more depth of character to the female characters.

Being a newcomer to this book I can only really judge it on what I found and not really compare it to the original that I have never read. This is an engaging story in the way that it has been retold here. The story starts in Jerusalem where a young Jewish boy Judah Ben-Hur is looking forward to the return of his childhood Roman friend Messala. After 5 years away in the Roman capital Messala has changed and is no longer the boy Judah knew, he is a couple of years older than Judah but it is his views that have changed most, now a soldier he is out to advance through the ranks and eventually govern. When a new Procurator is entering the city in pomp and ceremony a loose tile is knocked from the house where Judah is watching and hits the Procurator, Judah is accused of an assassination attempt and taken to serve aboard the galleys without trial and his Mother and Sister are locked up and it is Messala who stands as his accuser!

After 3 years in the Galleys Judah should be dead, however he is strong and catches the eye of the commander of the fleet who takes and interest in him, through the course of events of the book Judah ends up a wealthy and free man, away from the Galleys and in Rome, where he trains as a soldier physically and also trains his mind. Ultimately he wants to find out what happened to his Mother and Sister, so he begins his journey to discover their fate. Along the way he meets a number of interesting characters, including a man and his daughter that he, technically, owns. He also meets a Sheikh famous for his horses and wanting to prove his prowess and one of the wise men who visiting Jesus at his birth. The other person he meets again is Messala, determined to have his revenge and humiliate the Roman soldier he sets about his plan which ultimately see's him racing chariots in the iconic scene from the film. The story goes far beyond this with a journey into the desert to raise an army for the coming king that the Wise man has told them about.

This is a book that is enjoyable to read and the pacing takes you quickly through the various events from different viewpoints of the story. As I mentioned earlier, one area that Carol has refined is the women's perspectives and roles. Given the original book was written by a man in the 1880's I can imagine that the original female characters were motivation, but mainly window dressing to the main action. Here they are more than just love interest or sisters and background. They have motivation themselves and they are fleshed out a little more with jealousy, loyalty and business acumen!

The action sequences really do work quite well and the chariot race is a brilliant moment in the book which has a rich texture to the events. Part of the problem (apparently) with the old version of Ben-Hur was large passages of description trying to bring to live the ancient setting - oddly it is something that, thanks to Hollywood and TV documentaries, we are much more familiar with. This means that Carol has spent less time on detailed description and more time on moving the plot forward in a well-paced way. The culmination of the story is a great contrast of how people saw the Messiah coming and what actually happened and I am sure that there are plenty of teaching points to be pulled out of this story, if one were willing to search for them!

Overall I enjoyed the story, it's never easy to reframe a classic, and less easy in literature than film in my opinion. However this works well and flows along nicely. The characters are believable and the plot drew me in enough to make me want to finish the story, all 390 pages of it. So yes, it's a bit of a long read, but one that I enjoyed.

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