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Author Carol Wallace: Revisiting ‘Ben-Hur’

Author Carol Wallace speaks of her great-great-grandfather, Lew Wallace, and shares the challenges she faced in revising his classic novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, for a modern audience. Watch the trailer for the upcoming Ben-Hur movie!

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My great-great-grandfather wrote “Ben-Hur,” and that novel was the best-selling novel in America until “Gone With the Wind.” He was the first American mega novelist who went on tour. I mean, he toured around the country lecturing about “Ben-Hur.” 

And there was a play version of the novel, which was seen by, I want to say, several million people. There were only certain stages in certain cities that could actually accommodate the treadmill they needed to stage the chariot race. So there were actually horses on the stage. And a lot of people saw the play, and then they bought the book. And then there were, you know, more and more, bigger and bigger audiences. 

So the original novel of “Ben-Hur” is quite solid from an historical point of view, but it was told in a very conservative historical fiction style. And there was a lot of room for improvement. So it was just, technically, really fun. I do love the technical part of writing– getting people on or off the page, pacing– speeding things up, slowing them down– making sure that scenes are in the right character’s point of view to maximize the drama. 

So that was what I got to do with that book. And it was really, really fun. I really enjoyed that. And I cut about 40% of the length, and I kept all the big iconic scenes. Writing the chariot race was the biggest challenge because, of course, that’s the one everybody remembers. Probably a couple of weeks I spent doing that. 

You know, you want to make sure that it is long enough so that the scene feels epic, but you want people to keep being excited. And we all know who’s going to win, so you have to make the suspense still a factor. So it was– I just really enjoyed all that technical part of it very much.

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