After novelist David Benioff saw Saving Private Ryan, years before he began screenwriting, he and his friends started talking about the best war movies, and the absence of a realistic Trojan War film. “We were casting it as a joke, and oddly enough, we thought Brad Pitt would be the perfect Achilles.” Now amid the disastrous Iraq war comes Troy (with Pitt, as prophesied, playing that Peleian paladin), which Benioff began writing in November 2001, in the shadow of fighting in Afghanistan. As Benioff says, “There’s always a war going on, and this is maybe the great war story.”
A native New Yorker, Benioff, 33, once taught high school in Bay Ridge; he studied Irish lit at Trinity College in Dublin. James Joyce, that city’s most illustrious writer, had a strong influence on Benioff’s first novel, 25th Hour, which similarly transpires in 24 chapters, a day and change. “The ‘fuck’ monologue was inspired by the Molly Bloom soliloquy in Ulysses,” says Benioff.
25th Hour (which he later scripted for Spike Lee) follows Monty, a drug dealer on the eve of incarceration. But the micro-macro shift between Hour and Troy isn’t as jarring as it first seems. Monty is trying to “soak up as many favorite memories of the city” as he can, while convinced that his friends will forget him once he’s gone; in Troy, Odysseus (Sean Bean) wonders, “Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone?” Pitt’s Achilles enters the fray with no such doubts, his future fame a spur. “They’ll be talking about this war for a thousand years.” So the films mirror the worst-case/best-case take on the artist’s hope and plight. As Benioff says, “You have this desire to leave something behind that people will be reading in 100 years, but you go to your grave not knowing. That’s what’s special about Achilles—he knows.”