EXCLUSIVE: What a difference $2 billion in late fall box office business has done for MGM‘s ambitions. The studio is planning to unleash a new version of Ben-Hur, based on the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, which outsold every book but The Bible until it was eclipsed by Gone With The Wind.
MGM, which emerged from bankruptcy and is raising new funding after Skyfall crossed $1 billion worldwide gross and The Hobbit heads to the $900 million mark, is buying a Ben-Hur spec by Keith Clarke (he scripted the Peter Weir-directed The Way Back), and the package comes with Sean Daniel and Joni Levin attached to produce, and Clarke and Jason Brown exec producing.
MGM actually released the 1959 Charlton Heston-starrer Ben-Hur, as well as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ. The studio isn’t looting its library titles: MGM, which has seen many of its assets pillaged during previous ownership regimes, sold the Heston film to Ted Turner in the 1980s. But the book is public domain. MGM, now steered by Gary Barber and production president Jonathan Glickman and taking on action adventure films that include Hercules with Dwayne Johnson, just loved a spec that is faithful to the book and is much different than the 1959 William Wyler film that focused on the adult blood feud between Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd).
This film will tell the formative story of the characters as they grew up best friends before the Roman Empire took control of Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish prince and Messala the son of a Roman tax collector. After the latter leaves to be educated in Rome for five years, the young man returns with a different attitude. Messala mocks Judah and his religion and when a procession passes by Judah’s house and a roof tile accidentally falls and hits the governor, Messala betrays his childhood friend and manipulates it so that Judah is sold into slavery and certain death on a Roman warship, with his mother and sister thrown in prison for life.
Judah doesn’t die, and vows revenge on Messala which, like in the films, culminates in the famed chariot races. There is another way the script differs from the movie, in that it will tell the parallel tale of Jesus Christ, with whom Ben-Hur has several encounters which moves him to become a believer in the Messiah, and which culminates in Christ being sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate. Intertwined in all this is the lifelong struggle between Ben-Hur and Messala.
The depiction of Jesus Christ as an occasional character in the script puts this project squarely in the mix of Biblical-themed films that are proliferating at studios around town. They include Pontius Pilate, which now has Brad Pitt attached to the Vera Blasi-scripted Warner Bros project; two films about Moses that Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott are separately circling; and the Darren Aronofsky-directed Noah, which stars Russell Crowe.
“It’s one of the great stories of friendship and betrayal, and faith, that works in the context of a big onscreen action thriller for a global audience,” Daniel said of the Wallace novel.