EXCLUSIVE: I can’t say definitively that the negotiations are going to work out, but MGM is in talks with Wanted helmer Timur Bekmambetov to helm Ben-Hur, a new adaptation of the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, which in its time outsold every book but The Bible until it was eclipsed by Gone With The Wind. This all got set in motion after MGM bought a Ben-Hur spec by Keith Clarke (he scripted the Peter Weir-directed The Way Back), a package that came with Sean Daniel and Joni Levin attached to produce, and Clarke and Jason Brown exec producing. This happened last January, right after MGM got new funding and was flush with proceeds from the 007 pic Skyfall and The Hobbit. I have been chasing the possible deal with Bekmambetov for the past two weeks, and it seemed intriguing enough as another Biblical epic moving forward that I felt it was worth noting despite the fact they haven’t reached financial terms and I don’t know for certain that they will.
MGM actually released the 1959 Charlton Heston-starrer Ben-Hur, as well as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ. MGM sold the Heston film to Ted Turner in the 1980s, but the book is public domain. The studio’s decision makers, Gary Barber and production president Jonathan Glickman, loved a spec that is faithful to the book and carves out an identity that is 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.
Bekmambetov, who last directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is repped by WME.