Skyfall and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey's collective $2 billion (or so) gross around the world has allowed onetime-baknrupt MGM to plant its feet firmly on solid ground. The studio's now getting in on what's quickly become the next big Hollywood craze - the (return of the) Biblical epic - with a fresh adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur.
Of course, this project faces the same dilemma as the multiple Moses biographical pictures currently in the early stages of development (specifically, Ridley Scott's Moses and Steven Spielberg's Gods and Kings): how to tread on sacred ground while contemporizing such a revered and well-known story. The answer ("going back to the source material") is pretty familiar nowadays, but that's where things could get sticky.
Wallace's book "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" still ranks among the biggest-selling books of all time, up there with The Bible and
Harry Potter Gone With the Wind; as indicated by the novel's subtitle, the Jesus Christ story is fundamental to Ben-Hur. However, previous adaptations - including the 1925 silent film and (more famous) 1959 Charlton Heston version - focus more on the clash between adult Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, after the former is betrayed and sold into slavery by his onetime childhood friend.
Here's how Deadline summarizes the approach of the new Ben-Hur adaptation:
This film will tell the formative story of [Judah Ben-Hur and Messala] as they grew up best friends before the Roman Empire took control of Jerusalem... There is another way the script differs from [the 1959 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.
This Ben-Hur interpretation is based on a spec written by Keith R. Clarke, who co-penned the Oscar-nominated The Way Back (from Slavomir Rawicz's book) with director Peter Weir. Clarke is executive producing along with Jason Brown, while producers Sean Daniel (The Mummy) and Joni Levin (The Way Back) are attached to the project.
As mentioned before, there are numerous modern Biblical blockbusters developing or heading our way over the next couple years. Besides those dual Moses films and Ben-Hur, Darren Aronofsky's Noah retelling arrives in 2014, Warner Bros. has a gestating Pontius Pilate biopic with Brad Pitt circling and Sinister director Scott Derrickson's announced Goliath (which once had Taylor Lautner and Dwayne Johnson eyed to star) could begin moving forward again in the foreseeable future.
Obviously, from a box office perspective, the studios behind these films are hoping to produce the next Passion of the Christ ($611 million worldwide), not so much the next The Nativity Story ($46 million worldwide). Clarke's approach to Ben-Hur lends itself to a smaller, character-driven retelling, but an emphasis on big drama, emotions and spectacle seems the more likely route to be taken (be that for the better or worse).
Are you intrigued by this new version of Ben-Hur? Let us know in the comments section.