EXCLUSIVE: MGM has set 12 Years A Slave scribe John Ridley to do a rewrite on Ben-Hur, a new adaptation of the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, which Timur Bekmambetov will direct, based on the Ben-Hur spec the studio bought from Keith Clarke (The Way Back). The intention is to begin casting soon and start production on this big sprawling film in the spring. It’s based on the book that for its time outsold every book but The Bible until it was eclipsed by Gone With The Wind. Sean Daniel and Joni Levin attached to produce, and Clarke and Jason Brown exec producing.
MGM 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 the 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).
Ridley most recently scripted Red Tails, but his adaptation of 12 Years A Slave has thrust him into the Oscar conversation. He’s moving into slavery terrain of a whole different kind.
Ben-Hur details the formative story of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala 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, he returns with a scornful attitude and mocks Judah and his religion. 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. Ridley is repped by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment.