We often forget the relative obscurity from which the ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners emerged as they entered Westeros.
It is difficult to remember, in the wake of Game of Thrones’ resounding success, that the show was once something of a longshot. For a network that had made its name on gritty dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos, the prospect of adapting a series of fantastical tomes set in a proto-medieval universe could hardly have seemed promising. The same could be said for the two showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, whose prior work bore little resemblance to the dragon-laden, Tolkienesque world of George R.R. Martin’s novels. However, in the 20/20 of hindsight, one can see the seeds of Thrones’s success in the pithy tagline Benioff once jokingly proposed: “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth.” Indeed it is precisely this combination of elements — the gritty, emotional realism of HBO and the ornate, mythological fantasy of a Lord of the Rings novel — that make the show so innovative. Seen in this light, Benioff and Weiss had been preparing to make the show all their lives.
The two writers met one another in a master’s program at Trinity College Dublin. Weiss had a little Hollywood experience, having worked as an assistant on the 1995 film Viking Sagas, but both men arrived in Ireland with novelistic aspirations. Benioff wrote his first published novel, The 25th Hour, as his thesis at Trinity and was saved from a career in academia when Tobey Maguire optioned the novel for a film. The resulting project, directed by Spike Lee and adapted by Benioff himself, turned out to be a kind of quiet masterpiece. Released as 25th Hour, the film stars Edward Norton as Monty Brogan, a drug-dealer left with twenty-four hours to reconcile with his friends, girlfriend, and father before going to prison. With stark, immediate photography by Rodrigo Prieto, the film treats post-9/11 New York as a kind of desolate landscape in which besieged citizens struggle to reassemble their broken lives.
Watching 25th Hour now, one can see the roots of Thrones’s familial angst and masculine power dynamics on full display. The film’s modern milieu may be a far cry from Westeros, but consider the loving but firm relationship between Monty and his milquetoast childhood friend, Jacob — played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Torn between protecting Jacob’s innocence and scaring some sense into him, Monty scorns Jacob in a climactic final scene, only to later embrace him. Similarly, in Thrones, Jon Snow often battles competing impulses to castigate and defend Samwell Tarly. As with Monty and Jacob, Jon sees in Samwell the innocence he himself has lost. When the specifics of environment and circumstance fall away, both are pairs of close friends confronting an unforgiving world.
Benioff would return to this dynamic several times, first in his adaptation of The Kite Runner and later in his acclaimed novel City of Thieves. The latter book tells the story of two men in war-torn Leningrad forced to find a dozen eggs or face execution. Benioff has said that, because it was his first historical novel, he’d initially planned to do massive amounts of research. But he was saved by a piece of his advice from his former writing teacher, the novelist Ann Patchett: read the single best book on the historical period, then focus on story and characters. George R.R. Martin adopted a similar ethos in writing A Song of Ice and Fire: rather than allowing the fantastical trappings to become the centerpiece of the books (as historical details might have been in Benioff’s novel), he elected to use these elements as a backdrop for his complex characters and relationships. Both Benioff and Martin discovered in their novels a part of what would make Game of Thrones so powerful: emotional realism against a heightened backdrop.
Weiss, for his part, supplied the fantasy chops to complement Benioff’s realistic bent. Although he had little-produced work before Thrones, Weiss scripted a number of unmade sci-fi projects, including the ill-fated Halo film and the I Am Legend prequel. His own debut novel, Lucky Wander Boy, takes place in the esoteric world of obscure video game fandom — a familiarity that would undoubtedly come in handy when later contending with demanding Thrones fans. In fact, in its radically interactive and expansive fan-engagement, Game of Thrones has inspired a level of devotion in its television audience that was once found only in the gaming world.
Of course, Benioff wasn’t entirely without mythological training. As the writer of Troy and co-writer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he had learned a thing or two about contending with prestigious source material. And however disappointing those two films may have been, they were undoubtedly instrumental in preparing Benioff for Thrones. Consider the most redeeming scene in Troy, in which Priam (played by the towering Peter O’Toole) begs Achilles to let him give his son Hector a proper burial. The moment brings the tragic sweep of myth down to an intimate, human level — something that Thrones would later become known for. And, at least for those who hadn’t read The Iliad, Hector’s death comes as a shock in the film: he is, after all, a main character with whom we’ve come to identify. Sound familiar?
Though obvious looking back, the success that Benioff and Weiss found with Game of Thrones was hardly inevitable. Both men struggled to find their footing in their early careers, and both showed glimmers of brilliance. But it was only when they discovered a project that combined their unique strengths, and had the insight to see the universal beneath the specific, that they truly hit their stride. Aspiring artists would do well to learn from their example. You never know what combination of elements might yield to creative insight, nor what universal human truths might lie in the unlikeliest of places.