EXCLUSIVE: It’s a tough task to re-invent Ben-Hur for the big screen. After all, the 1959 classic is one of the most loved films of all time. But that is exactly what screenwriter Keith Clarke decided to do. After researching subjects for a possible film about both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the unrest in Belfast, Clarke and his wife, producer Joni Levin, were looking for a story about forgiveness. In their research on that project, they were dismayed to find so many brothers were fighting brothers, families fighting families. “Leaving there, we were just feeling how do you ever move forward? There is no compromise,” said Levin. “We are constantly bringing history into the future.”
They gravitated towards the thinking behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which was established to help diminish the hate and anger that arose in the country because of Apartheid. The Commission was put together to facilitate forgiveness and try to lay a path for reconciliation. “Nelson Mandela was determined not to see his country to fall into a civil war perpetrated by history and hatred,” said Clarke, and that, he said was the guiding philosophy while writing the script. “Forgiveness is an act of courage because you are willing to give up something quite profound for something greater.”
It was in that idea that drove the creation of the new Ben-Hur.
“Keith had always been looking for a vehicle about forgiveness,” said Levin. “It was Easter and Ben-Hur came on TV, and I looked at Keith and said what about this?”
Clarke said, “The idea of forgiveness … (Nelson) Mandela said we are first and foremost South Africans and we are not going to fight each other. In our research, we have seen brothers killing brothers and sisters fighting sisters in Belfast. Same in the Middle East, but they are all part of the same tribe of Abraham.”
Once Clarke and Levin decided on the story of Ben-Hur to send this larger message to the world, Clarke went back and read the original source material, Lew Wallace’s 1880 book Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (it is public domain). “The book is about Judah Ben-Hur and a tale of the Christ who is front and center in that book. Obviously He is seen through the eyes of Judah experiencing Him. Judah gets saved and takes his wealth and helps people. The book is about justice, revenge and redemption.”
Clarke wanted to make the relationship in the story stronger with Messala. “The bigger the sin, the greater the forgiveness,” said Clarke. “So I made them half-brothers in the movie. They were not that way in the book. In the movie, the first act is them growing up together because the audience has to understand that when Messala betrays him, this is brother-to-brother betrayal.”
Giving the last project they worked on — The Way Back directed by Peter Weir which took 14 years to bring to the big screen — Ben-Hur was a cakewalk. “It was a very quick project. It was a screenwriter’s dream, this project,” said Clarke. “From research and from the draft that we gave to MGM, it took only about a year. We were in pre-production within 18 months.” John Ridley was later brought on to work on the script.
Clarke and Levin both credit Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s expertise in the genre as well as MGM’s Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman and Matt Dines (who sheparded the project through) for quickly getting the picture before the cameras. “We just had great people working on it. It was just a good group,” said Levin. “We all knew that we had something special here.”
And being compared to the 1959 film? “That’s good and bad, but we are hoping that the audience will see it for what it is and that it’s a new version with a slightly different story, even though it’s from the same source material,” said Clarke.
The MGM/Paramount film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell as his brother Messala. Sean Daniel, Burnett and Duncan Henderson also produced the picture. Daniel is an old pro having worked at both as a studio executive and producing an eclectic mix of films over the years (from Dazed and Confused to The Mummy franchise films). Paramount is releasing the film today.
“The cool thing for me from a writer’s point of view, not only was I able to shape it from the beginning but I was also able to shape it at the very end because I’m a producer on the project, too,” said Clarke. “This was a passion piece even before writing Ben-Hur. I wanted so badly to write about forgiveness. As a writer, from a passion point of view, it was just a gift.”