I avoided it on the big screen for two reasons: I was a huge fan of the Charlton Heston version and I'd read enough reviews panning it to believe it wasn't worth my time.
Well, I was surprised when I got it from Netflix. Let's get one thing out of the way first: William Wyler's Ben Hur isn't Hitchcock. It's dramatic and exciting, visually stunning, but it's not a work of genius.
But even if it were, so what? The new film isn't a remake so much as a retelling of the 1880 novel. The two set pieces in the 2016 version, the sea battle and the chariot race, are spectacular and horrifying, much more violent than in the 1959 film, but not in a prurient way.
More intriguing, though, is the story line. There's no time spent in Rome. Judah isn't adopted by anyone. In a clever twist, the Hur family has adopted a Roman orphan--Messala--whose grandfather was one of the Senators who assassinated Julius Caesar. He lives under the burden of family shame and it motivates everything he does throughout the film.
It's gorgeous to look at, both in real scenery, the CGI, the costumes, and the handsome leads. Is it an epic? No. It's more of an intense historical family drama--and it succeeds beautifully on those grounds. It's heartbreaking when it needs to be, dazzling ditto.
Give it a chance.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres including Rosedale in Love, a re-telling of The House of Mirth.