Everyone is looking for the next Game of Thrones. HBO hopes to have lightning strike twice with House of the Dragon, a spinoff of the beloved fantasy series, while Amazon’s Prime Video paid hundreds of millions of dollars for Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power TV series. But one piece of intellectual property that has yet to be mined in the streaming wars is the Bible, specifically the story of King David—the Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones.
Spanning the Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, the drama of King David is one of the most extensive in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a sword-and-sandal epic of politics, violence, betrayal, friendship, family, love, sex and God: We meet David when he is young and follow him, in the words of Rabbi David Wolpe, as “lover,” “husband,” “fugitive,” “king,” “sinner,” “father” and “caretaker” until his death. We see him succeed and fail, love and hate, rise and fall. The five-season roadmap writes itself.
And yet, over the last 15 years or so, only two broadcast networks saw David’s potential and tried to bring the story to the small screen. NBC sought to modernize the story in 2009’s Kings, which set the biblical tale in a society resembling present-day Western civilization. ABC followed suit in 2016 with Of Kings and Prophets, a more textually accurate retelling of the narrative. But Kings got bogged down in its modern allegory, taking itself too seriously without having much to offer narratively, while Of Kings and Prophets felt like a poor man’s Game of Thrones, substituting rich character and palace intrigue with dispensable sex and violence. Both were canceled after one season.
But perhaps each series’ biggest flaw was their respective approaches to King David himself. Kings portrays David as a guiltless man-child who falls into God’s favor and the kingship through his good-natured spirit and virtue. Of Kings and Prophets takes the opposite approach, identifying the king-to-be as Saul’s “greatest threat” in the opening title cards, before we even get a chance to lay eyes on the young shepherd and make a judgment for ourselves.
The reality of the text is far more complicated. The biblical David synthesizes two archetypes that have dominated the industry over the last few decades. On the one hand — like Game of Thrones’ (GoT) most-famous bastard Jon Snow, David is a honorable protagonist who comes from nothing. The youngest child of the shepherd Jesse, David, who was doomed as the eighth child in a biblical narrative that places great emphasis on the number seven, is barely considered when the prophet Samuel arrives in search of the king who would replace the unworthy King Saul. As David rises in status and stature, he performs glorious deeds while displaying a humility and grace that wins over God, Saul’s children Michal and Jonathan, the common Israelites, and even King Saul himself. Twice he is given the chance to kill the increasingly unstable Saul and take a throne promised him by God. But, unwilling to kill his king, father-in-law and benefactor, he refuses.
David also embodies, in the words of TV critic Brett Martin, the “difficult men” of TV’s last decade—The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Mad Men’s Don Draper, Breaking Bad’s Walter White. While it is easy to read the story of David as one of an innocent boy stumbling into kingship, an alternative reading reveals a more savvy, ruthless man who will stop at nothing to become the ruler he believes he is destined to be. A close look at the exchanges between Saul and David over the latter’s marriage to Michal (I Samuel 18: 17-30), David’s threats toward Nabal (I Samuel 25: 1-38), and David’s instructions to Solomon at end of his life regarding Joab and Shimei (I Kings 2: 5-10) reveal a shrewd Godfather-like quality in the king that would make Don Corleone proud.
Moreover, some of David’s most noble actions can be seen in a morally ambiguous light: Did David fight Goliath for the good of the nation, or did he see an opportunity to establish himself as a great warrior in the public sphere? Did David truly love Michal, or did he use her to add a layer of legitimacy to his kingship? Did he refuse to kill Saul because he cared for him, or was he biding his time, making the calculated decision that regicide is not a good precedent to set when starting a kingship?
A grand epic requires more than a compelling protagonist, and David’s story contains a sprawling cast of supporting characters across various kingdoms and cultures. He is far from the only one in the narrative whose motives remain clouded: In a similar vein to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, from which GoT is adapted, The David Story by Robert Alter contains a list of characters in the back to help readers keep track of its large cast. How did wretched Saul, himself a sympathetic character, truly feel about his rival? Why did Michal have “no child till her dying day” (II Samuel 6:23)? Was Jonathan’s love for David brotherly or something more? Was Nabal really a “scoundrel of a man” (I Samuel 25:25), or did Abigail, traditionally known to be one of the four most beautiful women in the Hebrew Bible, see an opportunity to enter the royal house? Did Joab kill Abner to avenge the death of his brother or to protect his own interests? Was Bathsheba an active participant in her story or a passive victim of David’s lust and desire? Why is kingmaker-prophet Samuel so bitter about his task, and so cruel towards Saul, even when summoned from beyond the grave? Definitive answers to these questions remain elusive and therefore ripe for exploration on screen.
A faithful King David TV show, then, would not be one that flattens any of the story’s characters into simple tropes. The David story invites us to withhold judgment, to watch the entire saga unfold and to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how many adaptations we get, we will never truly understand the man that still serves as a religious and political ideal for Jews, Christians, and Muslims the world over. That may be frustrating from a religious perspective, but it would make damn good TV.
Sam Gelman is a news editor at CBR, where he covers comics, movies and TV. He is also an editorial and program officer at Yeshiva University. You can follow him on Twitter @SamMgelman.