The Jewish legacy behind ‘Game of Thrones’

TV’s favorite cult fantasy has two Jewish creators and material sourced from a French-Jewish novelist

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

TV's favorite cult series has a significant Jewish backstory. (photo credit: Courtesy HBO)
TV's favorite cult series has a significant Jewish backstory. (photo credit: Courtesy HBO)

The year was 1995, and two young Jewish writers were gorging on the works of Joyce and Beckett in the shadowy pubs of Dublin.

Back at home in the US, O.J. Simpson’s televised trial was gripping the nation, a young woman named Monica Lewinsky had just been hired as an intern in Bill Clinton’s White House, and a deranged maniac named Timothy McVeigh was researching car bombs and casing Oklahoma City.

In Ireland, however, a Chicago boy named Daniel Weiss was earning his master’s in Irish literature at Dublin’s Trinity University and becoming buddies with New York City native David Friedman, who was writing a master’s thesis on James Joyce at the same school.

Two decades later, Daniel Weiss would have changed his name to D.B. Weiss and David Friedman would be going by David Benioff. The duo would have between them several bestselling novels, a string of successful screenplays and one very beloved television show: “Game of Thrones,” arguably one of the most cult-centric small-screen series since “Lost.”

Benioff with his wife wife, the actress Amanda Peet (via Shutterstock)
Benioff with his wife, the actress Amanda Peet (Peet and Benioff via Shutterstock)

The Jewish roots of HBO’s intricate fantasy drama of warring families on the continents of Westeros and Essos are not immediately apparent. If anything, the violence-ridden, nudity-packed plotlines of lust for power, casual bloodshed and horrifically complex moral ambiguity have sent Jewish columnists into a tizzy, with social media-inclined rabbis weighing in on blog posts and Jewish news sites as to what the Talmud would say to those who watch it.

But scratch beneath the gilded surface of this gore-soaked show and you’ll find not just the Jewish heritage of both of its creators, but also a deeply entrenched Jewish history marking its literary inspiration.

Co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are both Jewish.

Benioff, a New York City-born former English teacher, first struck it big with his novel “The 25th Hour,” which Spike Lee later made into a critically acclaimed post-9/11 film starring Edward Norton. It was only after that success that Benioff, who in 2006 married Hollywood actress Amanda Peet (who has a Jewish mother and a Quaker father) in a traditional Jewish ceremony, changed his last name from Friedman to Benioff. Benioff is his mother’s maiden name, and the switch was reportedly made not to sound less Jewish but to stand apart as a writer from the dozens of other scribblers named David Friedman.

It was while earning his master’s at Trinity University in Dublin, however, in a bid to work toward a PhD and a career as a college professor, that Benioff met D.B. Weiss, a former Hollywood personal assistant who had dabbled in writing screenplays and was studying Anglo-Irish literature.

Weiss, left, with Benioff. (photo credit: Wikipedia/Suzi Pratt)
Weiss, left, with Benioff. (photo credit: Wikipedia/Suzi Pratt)

A video game aficionado and unabashed technology geek, Weiss has German roots in his Jewish family. When the pair met at student orientation in Dublin, he later told Vanity Fair, they immediately felt a sort of kinship.

“We were two American Jews in Dublin, with no Irish roots of any kind, obsessed with Irish literature and trying to find a functional gym in Dublin in 1995, which is not something that most Irish people in 1995 were all that preoccupied with,” Weiss told the magazine earlier this year.

For Benioff, that year was a clarifying one – he realized pretty quickly that a career in academia just wasn’t going to cut it for him.

“It was a great year and I loved it, but after writing my thesis on Beckett, and kind of killing myself to write this paper, and then realizing that three people on the planet would read it, maybe, I decided that academia wasn’t going to work for me. I was going to get too frustrated,” he said in that same Vanity Fair interview. “So I thought maybe writing about dragons would be better for me.”

Three years later, the pair reunited in Los Angeles and tried their hand at co-writing a screenplay. That project, a horror film about a boarding school that where Satan serves as principal, never saw the light of day.

Maurice Druon, the French Jewish author who provided the original inspiration for Game of Thrones. (photo credit: Wikipedia)
Maurice Druon, the French Jewish author who provided the original inspiration for ‘Game of Thrones.’ (photo credit: Wikipedia)

They struck gold, however, with their next attempt: a television series based on a French fantasy series which in turn was based on a seven-part set of stories by a French Jewish immigrant.

Maurice Druon was born in France in 1918 to Jewish immigrants from Russia and first made a name for himself in the realm of academic journals. But he also tried his hand at both plays and novels, and in the 1950s he truly gained acclaim when he began publishing the series “Les Rois Maudits” (The Accursed Kings), a string of historical novels chronicling the French monarchy in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The series was adapted for television twice, making Druon a household name in his native France. But its legacy was stretched even further under the pen of American fantasy writer George RR Martin, who used the books as the base for the Westeros-set series “A Song of Fire and Ice.”

It was Martin’s series that would provide the source material for Weiss and Benioff when they began crafting their script for “Game of Thrones.”

Martin has publicly gushed about his admiration for Druon, going so far as to write a piece in The Guardian calling him France’s best historical author since Alexandre Dumas.

“‘The Accursed Kings’ has it all,” he writes in that piece. “Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust … Whether you’re a history buff or a fantasy fan, Druon’s epic will keep you turning pages: it is the original game of thrones.”

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