Games Of Thrones has grown over the years from a cult favorite to full on phenomenon, one that has legions of fans and is beloved the world over. The TV series was an unlikely success story, despite coming from an acclaimed series of novels by author George R.R. Martin. Fantasy shows usually have a hard time breaking through to the mainstream, but the series’ quality casting, intense storylines, and expensive production design helped break down that barrier.
Those who’ve read up on the show will probably have heard about the original version of the first episode, which went through heavy reshoots and retooling to become the series' pilot. It’s no secret that their first try didn’t turn out well, with producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff admitting that it was a disaster.
To date, the original version hasn’t been released, but it differed from the final product in several key ways, including casting and major deleted scenes. It’s sort of fascinating to read about the painful birth of the series, which only turned out as well as it did thanks to the harsh lessons learned by its failed first attempt. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Unseen Pilot Episode, and the ways it was eventually saved by its creators.
15 Jon Arryn Died Onscreen
There’s been so much death, heartbreak, and betrayal since the first season of Game Of Thrones that it's almost easy to forget how it all kicked off. It all started with the death of Jon Arryn, the Hand of King Robert Baratheon and close friend to Ned Stark. The King asks Ned to become the new Hand, and Ned's investigation of Arryn’s death reveals some dark secrets.
Despite being dead when the series began, Arryn’s death casts a long shadow over the whole series, but originally, a sequence was filmed showing Jon’s final moments. The scene would have opened the show, with Arryn bedridden and sick after being poisoned. With his last bit of strength, he drags himself to his desk to write a note for The King about what he knows, only for Cersei to arrive, stomp on his hand, and watch him die.
This sounds like a dramatic way to open the series, but the mystery route works better in the long run, and allows Ned’s detective story to drive much of the early episodes.
14 It Was Directed By Oscar Nominee Tom McCarthy
Given the reception to the pilot, it may be tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the director, but when the director is Tom McCarthy, things aren’t so simple. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, McCarthy is the man behind acclaimed dramas like Spotlight, The Visitor, and The Station Agent, with the latter being the film that put Peter Dinklage on people’s radar. McCarthy also has a story credit on Pixar’s Up, so he knows his stuff.
Despite the director’s talent, it appears he had a tough time translating the books to screen, with one of the main complaints about the pilot being how stilted it felt. The pilot’s quest to be faithful to the book resulted in a leaden hour of television, with long scenes of exposition that failed to hold viewer’s attention.
When the pilot was reworked, McCarthy was replaced with Tim Van Patten, and he ended up taking a “consulting producer” credit on the episode. The director has also said he doesn’t feel much attachment to the show, and his work had little to do with the success it became.
13 90% Of It Was Reshot
Game Of Thrones producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss were huge fans of the books, and they developed the TV show for four years before filming began on the pilot. They obviously had high hopes it would turn out well, but were crushed when they showed their work to a screenwriter friend, who was quite blunt with his review.
They showed the pilot to Craig Mazin (The Hangover trilogy) and expected him to provide some helpful feedback, but instead he wrote “MAJOR PROBLEM” on a notepad and declared it a mess from top to bottom, focusing on the amount of confusing plotting and slow pacing. The producers were crushed by his remarks, but ultimately decided to take his points in stride and fix what they knew deep down was broken.
To that end, they reshot nearly the entire episode, dropping problematic scenes, reducing the amount of exposition, and making it more user-friendly. This radical facelift worked like a charm, and while it may have been painful for them at the time, it was clearly the correct choice.
12 George R.R. Martin Had A Cameo
Author George R.R. Martin has become a national treasure thanks to the series, because while his epic books were always popular, the show made the Game Of Thrones franchise into a cultural phenomenon. While his readers are a tad frustrated with Martin’s progress writing the final books – take your time, George, they’ll be worth the wait – the author’s fame only continues to grow.
Surprisingly, Martin hasn’t made a cameo on the show yet, even as a background extra. It turns out that he actually made a silent appearance in the pilot, playing a Pentos nobleman who appeared in the background of Daenerys and Khal Drago’s wedding. The author apparently wore a massive hat to mark himself in the crowd, but this scene was eventually reshot entirely for the first episode.
Martin doesn’t rule out a future cameo in the series, and even planned to make a morbid appearance during the finale of the first season as a head on a spike next to Ned; the cost of moulding a fake head based on his likeliness caused this idea to be nixed.
11 There Was A Sparring Scene With Bran and Tommen
The first episode shows that young Bran Stark is eager to train in combat and be like his brothers, who love to tease him for his efforts. This went further in the pilot where – just like in the novels - Bran had a sparring session with Tommen Baratheon during the royal visit to Winterfell, where they fought with wooden swords and protective gear.
Bran’s easily the better fighter, so he regularly knocks Tommen down, though the youngest Lannister actually enjoys getting beaten up, since Cersei usually won’t let him train. He keeps getting back up to continue the fight, presumably to contrast his good nature against Joffrey’s nastiness. Footage of this scene being shot was included in a behind the scenes featurette, but it didn’t make the final edit.
While it sounds like a nice scene of character building, it was probably deemed unnecessary, and the show had plenty of other storylines to establish in the opening episode.
10 The Marriage Between Ned/Catelyn Was Much Frostier
While Ned and Catelyn Stark have a bit of a strain on their marriage – mostly revolving around Ned’s “son” Jon Snow – they’re clearly very much in love. Even during tense times, the warmth of their relationship is always clear, but this wasn’t the case in the pilot episode.
In fact, their relationship was quite cold, with both Ned and Catelyn being more rigid and uptight. In the first episode as we know it, Catelyn all but begs her husband to turn down The King’s request to become the new hand and stay in Winterfell. In the original pilot, however, she’s all but kicking him out the door and insisting he must go. There’s not much tenderness, which was a problem for those watching the episode.
The reshoots beefed up their relationship, in addition to giving all the Starks more screentime and making an effort to tie them together as a family. This was a smart move in the long run, because it’s hard to imagine fans warming to the version of Ned shown in this early version.
9 The Hound's Wounds Were Even Nastier
Sandor Clegane – better known as The Hound – has grown to become one of the most intriguing characters in Westeros, thanks to Rory McCann’s performance and the character's evolving morality. He starts out as an enforcer who enjoys killing, but he’s slowly developed a conscience as the show progressed. Following his near death experience in season four, he made a concentrated effort not to revert back to his old ways, only to break that vow when the villagers he was staying with were slaughtered. When we last saw him, he's teaming up with the Brotherhood Without Banners.
In short, he’s come a long way, but fans may have noticed that Sandor’s trademark facial scars looked odd in the first episode. He received these scars when he made the mistake of playing with his brother Gregor’s toy, who reacted by pressing his face against a scalding brazier until servants pulled him away.
The make-up in the pilot – which can also be seen in the first episode – looks quite different from the rest of the series, with a noticeable lack of hair around the scar. This more severe look was softened for later episodes.
8 Test Audiences Didn't Realize That Cersei And Jaime Were Siblings
One of the recurring complaints about the pilot is that it was massively confusing, with those who saw it being unsure of the different relationships and storylines they were meant to be keeping track of. It didn’t help that the tone of the episode was quite dry and lacked scenes of the characters bonding, meaning a lot of people tuned out while watching.
Perhaps the biggest narrative failure was the reveal of Queen Cersei sleeping with her brother Jaime, when Bran accidentally spots them together in the final scene. In the revised episode, it’s a major shock, but in the pilot, the impact was lessened by the fact that most viewers didn’t realize they were meant to be siblings.
When the episode was reshot, producers made sure to include a scene between the two early on to establish this relationship, even having Jaime state “As your brother, I must say...” just to be sure nobody missed the family link.
7 The Credit Scene Was Different
The Game Of Thrones title sequence has become an iconic part of the show itself, thanks to its beautiful three-dimensional map of Westeros and the rousing score. It sets the mood perfectly while giving viewers a handy guide to the vast world they’re about to enter.
The title scene that exists now was a replacement for a completely different, but equally interesting, credits scene. There was a sequence at The Wall where a message is tied to a Raven, who then takes flight from Castle Black. The raven flies across the landscape, which becomes a map listing key locations like Winterfell, the Riverlands, and finally, King’s Landing.
The sequence ends with the raven flying into the throne room and sitting down on the Iron Throne. It sounds like a cool way to rope in audiences by itself, but it was a victim of the sweeping changes producers made to the episode while it was being retooled.
6 The White Walkers Appeared In The Opening Scene
The creepy opening of Game Of Thrones’ first episode features some men of The Night’s Watch finding Wilding corpses beyond The Wall, and running into some White Walkers. Viewers never get a good look at these creatures, and it wouldn’t be until the final scene of season two that they were revealed in all their disturbing glory.
This wasn’t the case with the pilot, which had a similar opening but included a close look at the Walkers as well. There were around seven of them, talking to each other in a language that can’t be understood and looking similar to their eventual appearance on the show.
The White Walkers were merely teased in the final version of the episode itself, which was a wise choice. While it would have been eerie to see them right out of the gate, it could have ruined a lot of the mystery surrounding them. The opening was also reshot to include a scene of the men leaving The Wall in order to give viewers a clearer understanding of the geography.
5 It Was Incredibly Boring (Reportedly)
What ultimately doomed the pilot – and sent producers into a blind panic – is that, well, the show was a chore to sit through. The language used was very dry and formal, mountains of confusing backstory hung over the whole thing, and the characters themselves weren’t terribly interesting.
One of the major additions added was more scenes with The Stark family bonding, and smaller character moments to give the show more personality. The pilot had a hard time introducing characters or important plot details without resolving to blunt exposition, so the smaller character building moments helped break up these scenes and make the storytelling feel more organic. They also loosened up the dialogue in an effort to make it sound more natural and less stagey.
Craig Mazin was shocked when he saw the retooled first episode. Having felt that the pilot was a disaster, he loved the “fixed” episode and declared it rescued.
4 Peter Dinklage Looked Weird With Blonde Hair
Fans may recall that the Lannisters were overwhelmingly blond in the first season, but over time, the color has been toned and become a little darker. Their blondness was actually an important plot point in season one, and the books themselves emphasize their golden locks quite often.
Tyrion’s hair is more of a sandy, darker color than his siblings, which is another way of setting him apart from his family. Observant viewers might recall that Tyrion’s hair is super blond in the first episode, with most of his footage coming from the original pilot.
While some people can pull off any hair color, fair hair really doesn’t suit Peter Dinklage, and it just looked distracting. In later episodes, the tone of his locks was dialed back to make it seem more natural, and his ultra blond hair soon became a thing of the past. Jaime’s hair color has been toned down with each passing season as well, since he looked like a live-action version of Shrek 2’s Prince Charming in season one.
3 Key Roles Were Recast
In addition to working out the faults with the story and making it flow better, the producers also decided to make adjustments to the cast while reworking the episode. Not just some minor roles either, but key characters such as Daenerys and Catelyn Stark were recast.
Daenerys was originally played by actress Tamzin Merchant, who's best known for her work on The Tudors and Salem. While no official reason has been given by the actress or the producers as to why she was replaced with Emilia Clarke, George R.R. Martin has stated that there was no issue with the quality of her work.
Catelyn Stark was originally played by Jennifer Ehle, who decided to step away from the role and focus on raising a family instead of committing to a long-running series. Some of Catelyn Stark’s scenes with Sansa in the first episode had to be re-edited as a result, with replacement actress Michelle Fairley’s footage being edited into it.
2 There Was A Flashback With The Mad King
By all accounts, the pilot just didn’t work, and the series itself was only saved by the reshoots, but there is one major deletion from the episode fans are dying to see. The scene in question was a flashback, depicting the murder of Rickard and Brandon Stark by the Mad King Aerys.
The murder of the two men is what set off Robert’s Rebellion, and the scene featured Ned’s father Rickard being cooked alive inside his own armor while his son Brandon had a noose tied around his neck, strangling himself to death trying to reach a sword that was placed just beyond his grip.
It’s a brutal sequence for sure, and no doubt would have been tough to watch, but it hasn’t reappeared on the series to date. It would have provided some key backstory to the rebellion and given an early look at the Mad King himself, who was only shown in a quick flashback in season six. It may have only confused audiences way back when, but now that we'd actually know what we're looking at, it'd be an interesting include for this season or the next.
1 It Will (Probably) Never Be Released
Despite the bad word of mouth hanging over this episode, fans would love the chance to watch it, just to see how different their beloved series could have been. It would be a fascinating exercise in how the show evolved, and what went so wrong with the first attempt.
Despite this high demand, the pilot hasn’t resurfaced, and it’s hard to even find quality stills of it online. Benioff and Weiss were so shaken by the negative reaction to the episode that they seem keen to keep a lid on it, and HBO is likely to respect their wishes to have it locked away for now.
Maybe once the show has ended, they’ll have a change of heart and release it as a Blu-ray extra, which would surely give the boxset a sales boost. For now there’s no indication it will ever see the light of day, and those involved with it - including original director Tom McCarthy - might prefer it that way.
Do you know of any other fun factoids behind the original version of the Game of Thrones pilot episode? Let us know in the comments.
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