There is a pretty good story, here, but it’s lost in the sonorous ramblings of a man too fixated on scenery.
Do I need to provide a synopsis? Surely we’ve all seen the movie (not the new one, which I assume is atrocious). In short: it’s a revenge tale, of a first century Jewish man who has his life ruined by a childhood friend, a Roman. Judah Ben Hur spends years as a galley slave, before lucking his way back into wealth and the good graces of Rome. He then takes out his revenge in a fabulous chariot race then something something Jesus Christ. Who, by the way, took up entirely too much of this book for my tastes. I’m not sure what I expected from a book subtitled A Tale of Christ, but it added a layer of reverential stuffiness that I found off-putting.
Written by Lew Wallace and published in 1880, Ben Hur is one of the most popular American novels ever written. In fact, it was the best selling book in American history (selling even more copies than Uncle Tom’s Cabin or anything written by Mark Twain) until Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind came out in 1936, and quickly regained the lead following the aforementioned 1959 film. It has since been surpassed by The Da Vinci Code, The Catcher in the Rye, and (shockingly, to me) Bridges of Madison County, but there have been an estimated 50 million copies of this novel sold. The Charlton Heston epic, in today’s dollars, grossed approximately $866 million, domestic (good enough for 14th all time, just ahead of Avatar).
And it was written by an important historical figure. Lew Wallace was a general in the Union army, and his actions at the Battle of Shiloh were blamed, by future president Ulysses Grant, for the near defeat there. This unfair mark on his honor is probably to some degree responsible for the writing of this book, actually. Wallace spent the remainder of his life lamenting his poor treatment by Grant over his role in the almost-disaster. After his military career came to an end, Wallace would go on to become the territorial governor of New Mexico (where he tried to resolve the Lincoln County War, and ordered the arrest of Billy the Kid) and became the US Minister to the Ottoman Empire (where he befriended the sultan). This book was big, is my point, and was written by a man famous for no-literary reasons.
But…..it doesn’t really hold up. Much like the movie, it tends towards melodrama, and can be fairly ponderous. Wallace’s writing is good, I suppose, but he’s a little obsessed with describing scenery in excruciating detail. The characters are fairly flat, as well. There are some broad similarities to The Count of Monte Cristo, but I don’t think this book was as effective or interesting. Mark this up as one of the rare books that isn’t as good as the film adaptation.
So I think it’s perfectly acceptable to just watch the movie instead.
It was an interesting read, but I actually found myself more intrigued by the history surrounding its author.