The pilot audiences know and love wasn't actually the first pilot... so what happened to the first cut?
It is no secret that Game of Thrones was one of the best prestige television series we've ever seen, and it was one of the first high-fantasy series on TV. Millions tuned in each week to see where the complex narrative would take each character, and who would rule on the Iron Throne.
But the original pilot episode didn’t promise the high-stakes fantasy that we eventually got.
It Was a Shit Show covers how difficult it was for showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to make the pilot of Game of Thrones. From producing an incoherent first episode to recasting the career-making role of Daenerys Targaryen, let’s break down the faults of the original Game of Thrones pilot episode.
The Beginning of the Madness
After writing 20 somewhat successful books, George R. R. Martin decided to turn to Hollywood and sell a script for a high fantasy series. Unfortunately, his scripts were deemed too ambitious, and Martin was constantly told to dial back his stories because they were too expensive to produce.
After six years of hearing "no," Martin retreated back to his home in frustration and began writing a novel that would be unproducible just to spite the system.
The novel he turned out happened to be A Game of Thrones. Although the 700-page novel received favorable reviews, the novel did not sell well until the sequel, A Clash of Kings, was released.
Hollywood’s Desire for Fantasy
The wild success of the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings trilogy made Hollywood hungry for fantasy in films and TV. Everyone wanted to adapt a fantasy novel to replicate the success they had seen, and Martin’s novels were prime material.
Producers called Martin multiple times, ready to develop his novels into movies, but Martin refused, saying that his novels should be made into a series that allowed the audience to fully explore the fascinating and violent world he had created.
After reading a pivotal wedding scene in the third book, Benioff and Weiss knew that the show would be unlike anything else audiences had ever seen before. The producers and eventual showrunners of Game of Thrones sat down to talk with Martin about adapting the book into a series, dedicating one season per book.
With Martin’s blessing, Benioff and Weiss started their long journey to create their first TV series, starting with finding a home for the series to live and thrive on. That home would be HBO.
In 2006, TV was going through a renaissance. HBO was one of the few stations that produced original content that didn’t shy away from the grotesque violence and darker moments of humanity. One-hour dramas had been highly structured and lacking in creativity prior to HBO’s introduction of shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.
HBO was the place to see must-see prestigious television with no fear of cost or genre.
Benioff and Weiss pitched Game of Thrones to HBO, selling it as a family drama where the battles took place off-screen, the violence was shocking, and the sex was not romanticized. It was The Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos. After hearing about the plot twist ending of season one, HBO was hooked by the idea that no character was safe and ordered a pilot.
The Short Life of the Original Pilot
First-time showrunners Benioff and Weiss spent two years writing episode one. After several attempts to nail the first episode's script, they landed perfectly between faithful adaptation and engrossing television. With their finished script and an all-star cast lead by Sean Bean, Benioff and Weiss were ready to start production... or at least, that’s what they thought.
On the first day of shooting, it was very clear that Benioff and Weiss were out of their depth.
Every choice made by Benioff and Weiss felt half-baked yet overthought, and the cast wasn’t completely focused on their acting or the story, which was ultimately boring and lacked a promise of things to come.
“Nobody knew what they were doing or what the hell this was. I remember during King Robert’s arrival [to Winterfell] finding the whole thing ridiculous," said actor Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon. "It’s a very fine balance between being serious and believing it and just being cosplayers. There certainly was not the sense this was going to be some game-hanger for anyone. But we had a lot of fun.”
After editing the pilot together, Benioff and Weiss showed the episode to close friends and family. The showings revealed that the two were in deep trouble. Although Martin loved the first episode, those who saw it said that the story was confusing and that the world had no scale and felt as if it were filmed in a parking lot. The attempt to make high-fantasy accessible fell flat on its face, and Benioff and Weiss scrambled to fix their mistakes.
HBO took four months to decide whether or not Game of Thrones had the potential to become something groundbreaking and if Benioff and Weiss were the ones to do that.
After getting greenlit, the showrunners quickly recast certain roles like Daenerys Targaryen, with Emilia Clarke replacing Pride & Prejudice's Tamzin Merchant, rewrote parts of the script, and reshot almost the entire pilot on a digital camera rather than on film like they had originally done to save time and money.
If you rewatch the pilot, you can see very few moments that look slightly different from the rest of the episode due to the film grain. Those are the only remaining scenes that survived from the original pilot.
The pilot that was released completely changed the trajectory of the series.
While we will never see the original pilot that Benioff and Weiss created, we can learn from their mistakes and properly prepare for shows that seem out of our depth. As long as there is a solid game plan and a full understanding and expectation of what needs to be done on set, you won’t run into a lot of the issues that plagued the first pilot of Game of Thrones.
One thing is for sure—if we ever find that pilot episode, we will let you know if it's really as bad as rumored.
Did you enjoy the pilot of Game of Thrones? Let us know what moment hooked you to the series in the comments below!
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