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After years of scripting a wide array of television shows including the crime-drama series Third Watch and sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The John Larroquette Show, writer John Ridley has made his mark in movies with the universally lauded new drama 12 Years a Slave. And while the film readies for its theatrical expansion in the coming weeks, Ridley is landing a big new project with MGM. Variety reports the veteran screenwriter has been hired to rewrite the screenplay for the proposed Ben-Hur remake.
When most people think of Ben-Hur, they think of the 1959 epic which starred Charlton Heston. This incarnation was not only iconic but also an eleven-time Academy Award winner. However, Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ has inspired a four films to date, including a silent film short and an animated version that went straight to video, plus a mini-series. Still, the bar is pretty high for this reboot. Frankly, with the shadow 1959's Ben-Hur casts, it'd be easy to see a remake as a fool's errand. But Ridley's script for 12 Years a Slave proved a powerful adaptation of Solomon Northup's autobiography of the same name, so he seems a solid pick. This hire does appear to be good news for the project that is sure to face plenty of naysayers.
News of this daring remake first surfaced last January, when MGM bought a spec script from The Way Back writer Keith Clarke that was said to distinguish itself from the best-known adaptation by being more loyal to the book than the Heston movie. Reportedly this new Ben-Hur will focus on a story that predates the best-known version, telling the story of how Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and son of a Roman tax collector Messala formed a friendship as children, before the Roman Empire conquered Jerusalem. Of course as they grow, they grow apart, making for some dark choices and good drama.
As to who will dare follow in the footsteps of three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler, that Herculean task will fall to Timur Bekmambetov, who most recently helmed another adaptation, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The horror-fantasy based on the Seth Grahame-Smith novel imagined the 16th President of the United States as a man not only dedicated to bringing about the end of the Civil War, but also one dedicated to bringing about the end of blood-sucking vampires. The film earned no love from critics, but did make $116 million worldwide. That said, it seems more likely that it is Bekmambetov's skill with building elaborate action sequences is what landed him the job directing Ben-Hur rather than his box office prowess or critical rep. After all, he has to create something to compare with this:
Perhaps Bekmambetov's talent for action and Ridley's gift for creating character and devastating drama will combine to make something sensational. We'll just have to wait and see. It's unknown when Ben-Hur might roll into production.