clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For the ‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot, Chaos Turned Out to Be a Ladder

The first episode of the series nearly didn’t make it to air. Perhaps that’s comforting as the Thronesverse tries to find its footing with an array of planned spinoffs.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Game of Thrones pilot was born of chaos.

It took David Benioff and D.B. Weiss nearly four years of writing, negotiating, and logistics before they were able to start actually filming the fantasy series they wanted to make so badly, back in 2009. But when they started recording the pilot, things didn’t go as planned—though neither of the two then-inexperienced screenwriters knew it at the time.

“It was going well,” Benioff later told EW’s James Hibberd. “But that was because we didn’t know any better.”

The first pilot that Benioff and Weiss created for Thrones was reportedly a disaster. When the two showed it to friends and family who weren’t familiar with George R.R. Martin’s books, it was obvious that the pilot failed to relay basic exposition. Their audiences didn’t pick up on important plot details—like that Jaime and Cersei Lannister were brother and sister—and it meant that key moments in the pilot failed to register.

“Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life,” Benioff later said.

Though this original pilot has never been released publicly, it reportedly wasn’t shot well, either, as the scope of the show failed to make use of the on-site locations of Northern Ireland and Morocco. And some parts went hilariously wrong. During one scene, a horse got “visibly excited,” according to Martin. “There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse schlong,” Martin said. “So that didn’t go well either.”

Martin even made a cameo in that pilot. He was dressed like this.

In 2009, Benioff and Weiss were not well known and had very limited experience as screenwriters. Weiss had written a novel and a few movie scripts that had never made it to the silver screen. Benioff had found a bit more success, having written the screenplay for 2002’s 25th Hour, 2004’s Troy, 2007’s The Kite Runner, and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Between their résumés and the catastrophic pilot they delivered, it would have been easy to believe that an adaptation of an epic fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire was simply too much for them.

But after rejecting the original pilot, HBO allowed Benioff and Weiss to try again and reshoot nearly the entire thing. They recast some characters, including Daenerys and Catelyn, and reshot almost every scene. And, somehow, the most popular TV show of the last decade was born.

Out of all of that madness, it’s remarkable that the final pilot ended up not only being watchable, but being truly extraordinary. It’s still a little rough around the edges—it’s impossible to forget Tyrion’s haircut—but the pilot had the gargantuan task of introducing viewers to an enormously complicated world. When Martin began writing A Game of Thrones in the early 1990s, he specifically wanted it to be so big and sprawling that it would essentially be unfilmable. Said Martin in 2011:

“I had worked in Hollywood myself for about 10 years, from the late ’80s to the ’90s. I’d been on the staff of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. All of my first drafts tended to be too big or too expensive. I always hated the process of having to cut. I said, ‘I’m sick of this, I’m going to write something that’s as big as I want it to be, and it’s going to have a cast of characters that go into the thousands, and I’m going to have huge castles, and battles, and dragons.”

The Thrones pilot turns 10 years old this weekend, having first aired on April 17, 2011. It’s an interesting artifact to revisit right now, nearly two years after the show’s finale and as HBO is trying to not only right the Thrones ship, but plot a course for a complete universe. And knowing how it all went down—both how the pilot was made and how underwhelming the final season of the show was—the pilot is perhaps an even more impressive achievement today than it was a decade ago.

Every pilot has plenty of exposition to do, but any Thrones pilot would have been faced with a truly stunning task. Benioff and Weiss’s first episode had to introduce the White Walkers, the Wall, and the Night’s Watch. It had to introduce the Stark family—including its complicated relationship with Jon Snow. It had to introduce Theon Greyjoy, and why he’s in Winterfell. It had to introduce Jon Arryn’s mysterious death, and why King Robert Baratheon is traveling to Winterfell. It had to introduce the Lannisters, and the relationship between Jaime and Cersei. It had to introduce Viserys and Daenerys, and why the two are in exile. It had to introduce Khal Drogo, and why he’s marrying Daenerys. It had to introduce Jorah Mormont, and what he’s doing outside of Westeros. Hell, forget all that, it’s hard enough just to explain what Westeros is.

A Song of Ice and Fire takes place some 20 years after a continent-defining conflict redefined the power structure of Westeros, while several other conflicts—between the Lannisters and Starks, Daenerys and the Iron Throne, and the White Walkers and everyone—are bubbling to the surface. Familiarizing viewers with those stories is difficult enough in book format, where the plot can pause for a paragraph or two of exposition. On television, there is no such luxury. On top of all that, the story also begins with a prologue that involves a trio of unnamed (in the show) characters who are never seen again after the first episode.

The pilot mostly stuck with the first nine or so chapters of A Game of Thrones, lifting some scenes almost verbatim from Martin’s novel. As you’d expect for an adaptation, there were some changes. Virtually all the actors were aged up from their book counterparts, and some characterizations were changed—notably, Catelyn isn’t opposed to Ned going south in the books, whereas in the show she strongly desires to keep her family together. But the biggest change is a scene between Jaime and Cersei in King’s Landing that is created whole cloth for the show. It gives the audience an early glimpse of Westeros’s capitol, and lays the seeds for some kind of scandal between the two siblings—while also reinforcing that the two are siblings, a key piece of information audiences need for the episode’s cliffhanger to make sense. It’s the perfect change needed for the story to make the leap from the page to the screen.

The pilot isn’t perfect. There are some clunky lines (Arya’s “That’s Jaime Lannister, the Queen’s twin brother” stands out) and awkward continuity issues thanks to some scenes from the original, unaired pilot making it into the final cut (apparently Theon went from blond to brunette between shoots). But it gets the job done more elegantly than it has any right to, and that’s before considering all the chaos that was going on behind the scenes. Knowing just how tumultuous the production process was, the Thrones pilot is a bonafide miracle.

Today, Thrones is back in chaos. The final two seasons of the show were a disaster; the sixth book in the ASOIAF series, Winds of Winter, seems nowhere close to being delivered; and HBO is churning through ideas for spinoff series.

HBO’s process for these upcoming spinoff shows has been particularly hectic. The first Thrones successor HBO pursued was unofficially called The Long Night, and it never really got off the ground. HBO ordered a pilot for that project back in June 2018. Helmed by Jane Goldman and set during the Age of Heroes some 10,000 years before the events of Thrones, that series would have starred Naomi Watts and explored the Long Night. But after filming the pilot, HBO canceled the project in October 2019.

Just as HBO moved on from The Long Night, it announced that a full series order had been put in for House of the Dragon. This upcoming series seems likely to follow Martin’s Fire & Blood novel and explore “the origins of House Targaryen,” as HBO president of programming Casey Bloys said.

House of the Dragon has no release date, but that hasn’t stopped HBO from continuing to lay the groundwork for more Thrones spinoffs. In January, Variety reported that the network is developing a series based on the three Tales of Dunk and Egg novellas that Martin wrote from 1998 to 2010. Not two months after that report, The Hollywood Reporter learned that HBO had three more spinoffs in the works. Just a few weeks ago, Martin also signed a massive five-year deal with HBO. There hasn’t been a single piece of Thrones content since the finale almost two years ago, but the Thronesverse is ready to roar to life.

There is no guarantee that the spinoff series will be successful, let alone good. Both House of the Dragon and the unnamed Dunk and Egg series will be based on written works that Martin has yet to finish—and we all know how that has gone before. Fire & Blood is supposed to be a two-volume series, but Martin has finished only the first volume, and Martin has previously said he’s envisioned up to 12 Dunk and Egg novellas, yet only three exist. Here’s Martin writing about Dunk and Egg back in 2014:

It has always been my intent to write a whole series of novellas about Dunk and Egg, chronicling their entire lives. At various times in various interviews I may have mentioned seven novellas, or ten, or twelve, but none of that is set in stone. There will be as many novellas as it takes to tell their tale, start to finish.

Martin went on to mention that he had ideas for two more “Dunk and Egg” novellas sketched out, but that “there’s no telling when I will have time to finish either of these, or which one I will write first. I don’t expect I will know more until I’ve delivered THE WINDS OF WINTER.” Seven years later, and we don’t have Winds or any more Dunk and Egg novellas. Though Martin was still talking about writing more of these novellas as recently as March, HBO will of course need to be prepared to tell the Dunk and Egg story before Martin can finish that work … which is exactly what Martin wanted to avoid. Here he is writing about a potential Dunk and Egg spinoff in 2017:

We’re not doing Dunk & Egg. Eventually, sure, I’d love that, and so would many of you. But I’ve only written and published three novellas to date, and there are at least seven or eight or ten more I want to write. We all know how slow I am, and how fast a television show can move. I don’t want to repeat what happened with GAME OF THRONES itself, where the show gets ahead of the books. When the day comes that I’ve finished telling all my tales of Dunk & Egg, then we’ll do a tv show about them... but that day is still a long ways off.

So Dunk and Egg is happening without a complete Martin work to guide it, and House of the Dragon will have similar hurdles, since Fire & Blood is similarly unfinished. Though the Fire & Blood novel serves as an in-universe history for the Targaryens (it’s written as if it’s from the perspective of Maester Yandel), which means it reads more like a history book than a novel. That helps—readers are more distant from the characters in Fire & Blood than they are with those from the Dunk and Egg novellas. HBO can tweak the Targaryens some, but if they get Ser Duncan the Tall wrong, there will be hell to pay from Martin’s legions of fans.

The other Thrones spinoffs will be more distant from Martin’s written works. One is set to be called The 9 Voyages and will follow Corlys Velaryon, who will reportedly also appear in Fire & Blood (cinematic universes!). Another will be 10,000 Ships, which will follow Princess Nymeria, the ancient warrior princess who brought the Rhoynar to Dorne (and, yes, is the namesake for Arya’s wolf). Finally, HBO will also have Flea Bottom, which little is known about other than its setting in the worst neighborhood of King’s Landing.

The task is daunting. The last Thrones episodes that reached the light of day were overwhelmingly panned, and now HBO is planning five prequel shows based on, at best, half-finished Martin works. They’ve already canceled one prequel project, and it’ll likely be three years—or longer—between the Thrones finale and when any of these shows premiere. In short, it’s chaos.

But this all may not be a harbinger of doom. If the 10-year anniversary of the pilot can teach us anything, it’s that when it comes to Thrones, chaos isn’t a pit. You know the rest.