Game Of Thrones is the HBO mega-hit, the fantasy series which made grim & gritty cool again and flooded the Internet with a deluge of nascent nerds and incest jokes. However, according to the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the TV adaptation of The Song Of Ice And Fire series was almost never made in the first place, thanks to their first, disastrous pilot episode. According to a recent interview by the creators on the ScriptNotes podcast…
The director of the original, unaired pilot episode was directed by Thomas McCarthy (co-writer of the Pixar tear-jerker Up) and it was…less than stellar. According to the creators, they showed their first pilot to a small group of writer-friends, consisting of ScriptNotes‘ co-host Craig Mazin, Ted Griffin (who made large-scale robberies cool with Ocean’s Eleven) and Scott Frank (writer of the other Liam Neeson thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones). Game Of Thrones’ creators recount the experience as:
“Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life. As soon as it finished, Craig [Mazin] said, ‘You guys have a massive problem.’ None of (our friends) realized that Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) were brother and sister, which is a major, major plot point that we had somehow failed to establish.”
Alright, that sounds bad, but maybe it was salvageable. Except that among the changes made to the pilot, the writers decided on a recast on Catelyn Stark (originally played by Jennifer Ehle), Tamzin Merchant being replaced by Emilia Clarke for the role of Daenerys Targaryen and entire sequences that were removed from the pilot, up to and including a flashback to the execution of Ned Stark‘s father and John Arryn‘s on-screen death. David Benioff, like every good professional writer, kept the writers’ feedback close to heart.
“I was taking notes, and I had this yellow legal pad, and I just remembered writing in all caps, ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM,’ and it’s all I could think about the rest of the night. Craig didn’t really have any great ideas except that he said ‘change everything.'”
Alright, so Craig was a bit harsh, but we are guessing it was for a good reason. From what little we know, the original pilot was a bit too close to the original source material for television. MacCarthy had picked Scotland and Morocco for the set locations, the pilot gave the viewer a much closer look at the White Walkers (going so far as to pretty much ruin the suspense) and the Starks didn’t get the extensive introduction they got in the final version. Also, there is absolutely no Jaime X Cersei scene, which is like 60% of the plot’s shock-appeal out the window. According to Weiss, over 90% of the original pilot was reshot and MacCarthy was promptly replaced by current show-runner Timothy Van Patten, who pretty much turned the pilot into the hook for the mega-hit we know and love today. According to Craig Mazin, the end result was impressive:
“I will never forget being invited to the premiere of the first season. I went in just thinking (skeptically), ‘Well, I guess we’ll just see how this goes.’ I sat there and this show unfolds and I am stunned. Stunned. And I very specifically remember walking out and I said to [Weiss and Benioff], ‘That is the biggest rescue in Hollywood history.’ Because it wasn’t just that they had saved something bad and turned it really good. You had saved a complete piece of s–t and turned it into something brilliant. That never happens!”
This entire story has only whet our appetite for the badness. What was the pilot really like? Can it ever hold up to its own, negative, hype? Will HBO ever let us lay eyes on its cringeworthy glory? Perhaps you can play out the pilot in the comfort of your own imagination, by reading the linked script here. For the time being, we should keep our sights fixed on the upcoming Season 6 of the show and contend ourselves in the knowledge that Game Of Thrones has Seasons 7 & 8 already under consideration. As if it was ever a contest…