Hate can be an extraordinarily powerful emotion. It can keep a man alive; it can help him to endure almost any outrage. Just the thought of one day taking revenge for a cruel injustice can keep men going indefinitely, history shows us.
The desire for revenge drives Ben-Hur, the epic tale that blends fictional characters with Biblical ones to tell a cast-of-thousands story about years of injustice and eventual redemption.
The 1880 book on which the famous 1959 blockbuster film starring Charlton Heston was originally based was the most influential Christian themed book of the 19th century. In fact Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been out of print since the day it first hit the shelves.
Since 1880 Ben-Hur has outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind shattered records in 1936, but it eventually climbed back to the top spot in the 1960s.
The book tells the story of the fictional character Ben Hur, a young Jewish prince who suffers a cruel betrayal at the hand of his former friend, and it intertwines his life with the life of Jesus Christ.
Blending fact with fiction, Ben-Hur tells a dramatic and deeply Christian tale of the hard road we often have to walk to find redemption. It’s exactly the kind of storyline that was certain to appeal to Derry-born actress and producer Roma Downey and her husband and producing partner Mark Burnett.
But Downey and Burnett’s recent film production history demonstrates they are much more interested in themes of forgiveness rather than conflict and revenge, which makes this latest project such a tantalizing prospect. How will their sensibilities mesh with the altogether more unforgiving attitude of the book’s original 19th century writer Lew Wallace, for example?
Well, it helps that we already have a case study to consult. Before they began shooting their mini series The Bible, or creating their feature film Son of God, Downey and Burnett sat down with the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Abe Foxman, who has publicly contrasted their life of Christ depicted in the Son of God with the much more controversial one filmed by Mel Gibson in Passion of the Christ.
Son of God was “the antidote to the poison that Passion of the Christ became,” Foxman told the press. “The story of the crucifixion and the way it has been used through the centuries has never been good for the Jews.
“Having said that, Son of God is the most sensitive, caring depiction of the story of Jesus that I have ever seen. The producers have done everything possible to put the events into historical, political and psychological context.”
That level of enthusiastic endorsement from the ADL deserves wider acknowledgement than it has won to date. For Christians to win the praise and commendation of a group whose mission is to protect the Jewish people from slander is an utterly remarkable achievement.
Speaking to the Irish Voice on her way to Rome for an early birthday celebration this week Downey said, “When we return we have the ADL dinner in Beverly Hilton on May 8. We have for so long admired their work in promoting tolerance, understanding, acceptance and love.
“When we were making The Bible series and our film Son of God we reached out to the ADL and Abe Foxman to help guide us to find ways to bring these important projects to the screen.”
This inspired approach, whereby the two producers consulted with the very people marginalized by centuries of Christian condemnation, paid huge cross cultural dividends for Downey and Burnett, the creator of reality TV staples such as Survivor and The Apprentice.
“Gibson bloodied the Jews by portraying them as such villains,” said Foxman. That was why he impressed on Downey and Burnett that he was so anxious there would not be another big budget repeat.
“We could see how in the past there had been division and hurt created by not simply taking the time to sit down together and understand concerns,” Downey told the Irish Voice.
Her sensitive approach made all the difference. When Son of God was released earlier this year the ADL called it the best depiction of the story of Jesus that Foxman had ever seen or would ever see.
“We love Jesus, so this movie was very important to us and to the billions of believers worldwide, but we wanted to tell it as a story of love, God’s love for all of us,” Downey said.
That level of unexpected and heartfelt endorsement got the producing pair noticed in Hollywood, which is traditionally leery of big budget religious films. But the impressive view counts and ticket sales of The Bible and Son of God have made the husband and wife producing partners the most sought after consultants in the genre, which explains why MGM and Paramount welcomed them on board as producers and executive producers for the remake of Ben-Hur.
“LightWorkers, our media company, now has three massive projects, all period dramas in pre-production,” explains Downey. “A.D. is a 12-hour series being shot for NBC telling the dangerous lives of the disciples after the death of Jesus. The Dovekeepers is a wonderful four-hour mini series on the story of Masada based on best selling book by Alice Hoffman.
“And Ben-Hur is a retelling of the epic 1959 motion picture complete with chariot race. The script by Oscar winner John Ridley will give focus to this being told as a story of forgiveness.”
The two famous Hollywood studios will co-produce the film, which is set for release on February 26, 2016. Burnett joins as a producer, while Downey joins as an executive producer.
Once again the screenplay, originally written by Keith Clarke, author of The Way Back, with revisions by Academy Award-winner John Ridley of 12 Years A Slave, is based on the 1880 epic novel.
“This is an exciting time for us and our company,” said Downey. “LightWorkers Media started because we believe its better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”
But their success to date has surpassed even their wildest dreams. Now the producing pair has done what few thought possible. They showed jaded Hollywood that there is a massive audience out there for Christian themed films, which can perform just as competitively at the multiplexes as the latest superhero capers.
“What an honor it will be to help bring Ben-Hur back to the big screen,” said Downey. “When we read John Ridley’s amazing script we immediately knew we had to join this team. We are thrilled to be able work with the entire MGM and Paramount teams.
“Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur is one of the most important Christian works of fiction ever written and this script is astounding. We think it will be the most anticipated movie release of 2016.”