Ben-hur by Lew Wallace: A Clinic on Writing Historical Fiction

My favorite movie of all time is Ben-Hur, the 1959 Cecil B. Demil epic film starring Charlton Heston. The costumes. The sets. The drama. The chariot race. I couldn’t wait to read the book, the original Ben-Hur that was written by Lew Wallace in 1880. Surely, this would also become my favorite book, right? Well, not so fast.

Ben-Hur was the first Biblical novel, and it was widely successful in its early days. Until Gone With the Wind, this was the highest selling American fiction novel of all time. Ben-Hur was even blessed by the Pope. But was it a great novel?

Ben-Hur, the movie, was an epic motion picture. The book felt even longer and spanned more time than any of the films adapted from the book. The author’s description of setting and character was absolutely unparalleled. Wallace spent pages and pages just establishing scenes, placing the reader completely in the world of a young Judean prince out for revenge. Yet, the novel tended to drag on. It was middle heavy and stilted in places. Truly, the greatness of the work was in its historical backdrop and not in its character or plot development.

Then, there was Jesus. I loved the way that Lew Wallace placed Jesus as a supporting cast member in this story and not as the focal point. Ben-Hur is a Tale of the Christ, but not directly. It’s a book about the effect of Jesus Christ on someone’s life at the time. Judah BenHur encountered Christ once as a prisoner and once again while Jesus was on his way to crucifixion. These encounters were pivotal moments for the book’s main character and allowed the reader to imagine what it would be like to see Jesus through the eyes of a contemporary. Overall, this was a very effective literary element and made this Tale of the Christ stand out as a must-read American classic.

Ben Hur Illustrated Classics 1st Edition

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