We watched Ben-Hur over the weekend and the making of it last night. We always turn movies into unit studies anyway: researching the setting, looking up the past and future of the actors, debating the artistic and moral implications of the plotline. We can't help it, we were home schooled. All those extra features on DVDs just provide greater fodder.
For those of you who get annoyed with the Christian bandwagons rolling through town, did you know that back in the day Billy Sunday urged people to go see the stage production of Ben-Hur? Apparently the phenomenon has been around awhile. The stage production must have been something to see, though, with up to five chariots racing on mechanized tracks. One time the machinery malfunctioned and Messala won.
The first time it was filmed the producers decided to save themselves the trouble: they just filmed someone else's chariot race. That film provoked a lawsuit which ultimately established authors' copyrights to the film versions of their work.
In light of the Worldview Fiction contest, what really struck me about Ben-Hur is that the compelling thing about the book is the story. Lew Wallace was not all that great of a word crafter; nothing he wrote sings in my head years later like lines from my favorite authors. But things happen in Ben-Hur. Exciting things. Compelling things. Characters love and hate and seek revenge and encounter insurmountable obstacles and succeed and fail. That is what people respond to.
Reading both the stories and the critiques in the contest, I've come to realize that the problem with most of them is that they aren't stories: some of them are interesting character sketches or colorful slices of life. But nothing really happens. I wonder if an actual story is the most difficult thing to write.