Audio Drama Review: Ben-Hur

In 2000, Focus on the Family Radio Theatre released their adaptation of Ben-Hur, the classic novel by General Lew Wallace. The radio adaptation sought to focus on the actual story of Wallace’s novel, which differs in many ways from the classic Hollywood picture released in 1959 starring Charlton Heston.

The production begins with a prologue in which Prince Ithamar Ben-Hur (Peter Moreton) is commanded by Herod the Great to lead the Slaughter of the Innocents, Herod’s program to kill all infants under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem. Ithamar refuses, sealing his own certain death. However, before going in to break the news to Herod, Ithamar commands his servant (Peter Goodwright) to hide his wife and children.

The story properly begins when Judah Ben-Hur (Russell Boulter) is going to see his old best friend Masala (Colin McFarlane), who grew up with Judah in Judea, and has recently returned as a Roman soldier. Their friendship quickly sours when Masala tries to get Judah to use his position and influence to help Rome. Masala then takes advantage of a freak accident in which Judah leans on a ceiling tile, which falls and strikes the new Roman procurator. Masala has Judah and his family arrested in hopes of seizing not only his Jerusalem estate, but the hidden family fortune that was in the care of Ithamar’s servant. Ben-Hur is made a slave and sent to a Roman galley. He vows revenge.

For those who’ve seen the film but not read the book, Ben-Hur offers a fresh adaptation that explores aspects of the story that didn’t make it to the silver screen. However, at the same time, it’s a 2-hour audio drama in four parts that adapted a 113,000 word novel, and so has to make its own compromises to get the story to fit into its run-time. The choices are sound ones, resulting in a tale of adventure, intrigue, and revenge that manages to be entertaining and inspiring.

The British cast, which featured such talents as Wendy Craig and Bernard Cribbins in relatively small roles, all are on the top of their game. The sound design and effects are excellent throughout. The one thing that the production had to get right was the great chariot race. Making such a visual spectacle translate to audio was a challenge, but they nailed it through a combination of great acting and effects work.

The program has a couple of minor weak points. The character of Iras, the daughter of the Wise Man Balthasar, is a very one-dimensional and obvious gold-digger. While this might have been how Wallace wrote her, the production does compromise on book-accuracy in other instances, and it would have been improved by doing so here. While it wasn’t horrible, the score is a bit underwhelming at times. Ben-Hur is an epic story that has big epic moments, but the music rarely delivers. The score might have been fine on a pedestrian direct-to-video movie, but doesn’t have the power you’d expect of a story like Ben-Hur. 

All in all, this is a solid adaptation of Ben-Hur and makes for great Easter listening.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5


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