Game of Thrones was the biggest TV show of the 2010s, but HBO almost trashed the series before it even made it to air.
As some diehard fans will already know, Game of Thrones’ original pilot never made it to air as it was deemed a full blown disaster. It was so bad that the whole $10 million episode was reshot with a new director and two key new stars: Emilia Clarke and Michelle Fairley.
But what’s been largely kept a secret is exactly what was wrong with the GOT pilot.
Today, thanks to an excerpt from EW editor-at-large James Hibberd’s forthcoming oral history book on the show, Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, we finally know why the pilot was so bad.
The whole book, which is released on October 6, promises to chart the inside scoop on the making of Game of Thrones, featuring exclusive interviews with author George R.R. Martin, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, HBO executives, and the key stars of the show, which streams on Binge.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Hibberd’s reporting in the Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon excerpt shared today …
DANY’S WEDDING NIGHT WAS DIFFERENT IN THE PILOT
One of the most contentious changes that Game of Thrones Benioff and Weiss made from the book was Daenerys’s wedding night.
In the book, Dany’s first time with new husband Khal Drogo was “consensual”, (I mean, she’s underage in the book and being coerced into marrying a warrior king, but at least in Martin’s version she gets to literally say “yes”.) In the version of Game of Thrones audiences saw, Emilia Clarke’s Dany cries “no” and Khal Drogo continues to have sex with her.
According to Martin: “In the Emilia Clarke version, it’s rape. It’s not rape in my book, and it’s not rape in the scene as we filmed it with Tamzin Merchant (original actress cast as Daenerys). It’s a seduction.
“Dany and Drogo don’t have the same language. Dany is a little scared but also a little excited, and Drogo is being more considerate. The only words he knows are ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Originally it was a fairly faithful version.”
Martin also shared that the silver filly that Khal Drogo gifts Dany had a bigger part to, er, play in the original pilot. However, the horse struggled to leap over a bonfire and during the sex scene, the “meant to be female” horse got an erection.
“Jason Momoa and Tamzin are naked and ‘having sex’. And suddenly the video guy starts to laugh. The silver filly was not a filly at all. It was a colt. And it was getting visibly excited by watching these two humans. There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse schlong.”
Needless to say, that didn’t make the reshoots.
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CLARKE REPLACED MERCHANT BECAUSE THE SEX SCENES DIDN’T WORK
One of the biggest changes producers made to Game of Thrones after the disastrous pilot was recasting one of its biggest stars.
Carnival Row star Merchant was supposed to play Daenerys Targaryen. However, she was replaced with then-unknown actress, Clarke.
At the time, the move perplexed fans if only because Merchant seemed to resemble Martin’s description of the character more than the brunette Clarke.
Now it sounds like it was a decision made by higher-ups.
Then HBO president Michael Lombardo told Hibberd: “There was a piece of casting we had to rethink, (a role) that was compromised. We all knew Daenerys’s journey was critical. Her scenes with Jason (Momoa) just didn’t work.”
Momoa didn’t entirely agree with that, though. “(Merchant) was great. I’m not sure why everything was done,” he said. “But when Emilia got there that’s when everything clicked for me. I wasn’t really ‘there’ until she arrived.”
Momoa’s comments make it sound like his chemistry was better with Clarke, which is likely the case. As Bryan Cogman, a then-assistant to Benioff and later EP, said, “Everybody involved in making the original pilot scored such a bull’s‑eye with so many of our actors. I thought Tamzin did a really good job.”
So the recasting of Dany had everything to do with Khal Drogo.
RICKON STARK WAS ALMOST CUT …
One change that Benioff and Weiss wanted to make after the pilot but didn’t? Cutting the youngest Stark: Rickon.
“The biggest thing was Dan and David called me up and had the idea of eliminating Rickon, the youngest of the Stark children, because he didn’t do much in the first book. I said I had important plans for him, so they kept him,” Martin said.
Spoiler alert: Now in the show, Rickon is eventually murdered at the Battle of the Bastards. Indeed, it is his death that forces Jon Snow to sabotage his own strategy and throw his smaller force at Ramsay Bolton’s army. The moment is tense, tragic, and “important”.
So what A Song of Ice and Fire fans should be asking is does this mean that Rickon will die in a similar way in the forthcoming The Winds of Winter? Is that what Martin has in mind for the character? Or will Rickon have a different part to play as a rallying point for the North?
EVERYONE IN THE GAME OF THRONES PILOT NEEDED A MAKEOVER
The aesthetic look of many of the characters changed between the original pilot and the official premiere.
Hair, costumes, and the overall vibe of the world of Westeros was tinkered with to make the show feel more grounded and less like cosplay.
“I looked like a Vegas showgirl in the (original) pilot – furs and massive hair, like a medieval Dolly Parton,” Lena Headey said of her character, Cersei Lannister. “Not that I’m complaining, I loved it. My hair devolved.”
Joffrey Baratheon, played by Jack Gleeson, originally had a bowl cut. And Viserys’ wig was completely different. Actor Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys in the first season, said, “I had a different wig. It was titanium and silver, and it was shorter and a bob. Looking back, it was a mistake. There were consultations: ‘I’m not like Draco Malfoy, I’m not like Legolas … How do we do this?”
The show also needed more wide shots to establish the scope of the world. As HBO’s Gina Balian recalled, “Somebody said, ‘It looked like it was shot in my backyard.’”
MICHELLE FAIRLEY BECAME CATELYN STARK BECAUSE JENNIFER EHLE DIDN’T WANT TO MOVE TO NORTHERN IRELAND
One of the key roles that wound up being recast after the original Game of Thrones pilot was that of the Stark matriarch, Lady Catelyn.
Initially, Pride & Prejudice star Jennifer Ehle was cast in the role. However, she was later replaced with Michelle Fairley.
Until now, no one’s really known if the issue was with Ehle’s performance or if something else happened. Hibberd reports that Ehle’s acting wasn’t the problem. (How could it? SHE’S JENNIFER EHLE.) Rather, Ehle didn’t fancy moving her family to Belfast.
Lombardo said, “The actress who played Catelyn decided she didn’t want to move to Northern Ireland. I’m like, ‘What?’ Then you have a conversation with yourself about whether to force her to uphold her contract. In retrospect it was one of the best things that could have happened. Michelle Fairley took over the role and was fantastic.”
Fairley was spotted in a production of Othello where she played Iago’s wife, Emilia. She dazzled Benioff who immediately wanted to slot her in for Ehle.
THE PILOT IS SO BAD, GEORGE R.R. MARTIN IS ‘UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH’ IF HE SHOWS IT
Martin has a copy of the unused Game of Thrones pilot. (!!!) However, don’t expect him to host screenings at his Santa Fe movie theatre anytime soon.
“I’m told I’m under penalty of death if I ever show it to anyone,” Martin said.
The full Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon excerpt also includes anecdotes from the set and the reiteration that the show was saved from the proverbial trash can by former HBO head Richard Plepler.
While many folks thought the actual pilot that aired was also atrocious, Martin was actually a fan.
“I liked the pilot,” Martin said. “I realised later that I was a poor person to judge because I was too close to it. Some didn’t know Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister. Well that wasn’t a problem for me!
“My great familiarity with the material made it hard for me to objectively judge. I liked that they kept a considerable level of complexity.”
This article originally appeared on Decider and was reproduced with permission