Before there was Game of Thrones, there was…the original Game of Thrones pilot episode, a “complete piece of shit” that was extensively rewritten and reshot before it made its way to air. No one outside the cast and crew has seen the original pilot — apparently showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss screened it for the actors at the premiere party for season 8 — but we’ve heard plenty of tales, and even seen a few screenshots.
In her new book, The Unofficial Guide to Game of Thrones, Kim Renfro gathers together many of those tales, giving us a look at how the show got its start. There’s a big excerpt from her book over on Insider. Let’s excerpt the excerpt and drill down on some of changes made between the original pilot episode and the one we all saw.
Some of the changes are well known. Two major characters were recast: Michelle Fairley replaced Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark and Emilia Clarke replaced Tamzin Merchant as Daenerys Targaryen. But the script changed a lot, too:
In broad strokes, the original pilot script pulls swaths of George R. R. Martin’s first chapters of “A Game of Thrones” onto its pages, often word for word. But the new version is a clear concession on Benioff and Weiss’s behalf that some things don’t translate straight from page to screen. They realized they needed to spoonfeed information to the audience and better explain the relationships between all of the characters and locations.
The original pilot opens precisely as Martin’s first prologue chapter does, with three Night’s Watch rangers (Ser Waymar Royce, Gared, and Will) beyond the Wall and already in the middle of tracking wildlings. However, the aired pilot begins with our three doomed rangers crossing beneath the Wall and beginning their journey north.
Benioff and Weiss were taking [HBO co-president Michael Lombardo’s] advice and giving the pilot a better sense of scope. By showing Castle Black and the Wall right away, the cold open is given a better sense of location.
It’s hard to think of the scope of Game of Thrones as anything less than massive, but apparently it felt tighter and less open in the original going. And that’s not the only thing about the opening scene that changed:
Another change came with the description of Will’s discovery of the wildling corpses and the White Walkers themselves, referred to as “Others” in the first script but White Walkers in the final version (Martin uses these terms interchangeably in the books).
When Will sees the corpses in the final pilot, their bodies are mangled and arranged in a pattern, something Benioff and Weiss invented for the show. Their script indicates that this was a “witchy mandala” designed to send a message and show that the White Walkers were not mindless animals. The change allows for Benioff and Weiss to establish that the White Walkers are sentient, in human beings with a culture and purpose.
It’s also hard to imagine Game of Thrones without its iconic opening credits sequence, but they had to work up to that. It wasn’t until Benioff and Weiss hired designer Angus Wall that things really got going.
Wall took this early idea of a raven flying over the various spotlight locations and re-imagined it as a digital camera’s perspective with machinelike, da Vinci–esque inspirations. This is where we get the cogs of castles and sigils and the final shot of the astrolabe rotating around the sun with engravings that show the battle for the throne between the stag (Baratheon), lion (Lannister), wolf (Stark), and dragon (Targaryen).
By putting the map into an inverted sphere shape, the Elastic team was also helping Benioff and Weiss solve their challenge of properly establishing the geography of Westeros and Essos.
One of the big problems from the original pilot were that the friends Benioff and Weiss screened it for didn’t understand the relationship between the characters. In particular, they didn’t get that Jaime and Cersei were siblings, which meant they didn’t understand why Jaime had to push Bran out the window to cover up their affair, which meant that the incredibly dramatic ending to that first episode fell completely flat. Obviously, Benioff and Weiss had to change the script around to rectify this:
Many of the changes are centered around Benioff and Weiss making more room for expository dialogue, like adding in Ser Waymar Royce telling Will he’d be executed “as a deserter” if he abandons his post. This happens again with the inclusion of a new opening Winterfell scene with Jon telling Bran that their father is watching the boys train, but specifically saying “and your mother” in order to tell audiences about Jon’s bastardship.
Another obvious example of this spoon-feeding can be seen in the changes made to Cersei and Jaime’s first scene together in the throne room. Benioff and Weiss rearranged this whole section to better establish the Lannisters’ rivalry with the Starks, with Jon Arryn’s death being the inciting event that will bring the two families in closer proximity. Here we get more pointed dialogue that tells the audience about Cersei and Jaime’s sibling relationship, as well as her marriage to King Robert.
The scene kicks off with a not-so-subtle line from Jaime as he walks up to Cersei and begins with “As your brother…” Benioff and Weiss’s friends had completely missed the sibling link between Cersei and Jaime for the first go-around, so they changed this scene’s dialogue to make it extra clear that Cersei was married to the king, Jaime was her brother, and the two siblings had a secret big enough to get themselves killed if King Robert ever found out.
They cut stuff as well. For instance, the original pilot included flashbacks to Robert’s Rebellion.
Given how much of the first season of “Game of Thrones” relies on an unfolding understanding of Robert’s Rebellion and the way it impacted our various lead characters (Ned, Cersei, Jaime, Catelyn, and Littlefinger, to name just a few), it’s no surprise that Benioff and Weiss first tested out the possibility of using flashback scenes.
One of the most legendary aspects of the unseen pilot is a flashback scene that showed Ned’s father and brother killed on the orders of the Mad King. A small flash of this scene made it into two of the early “Game of Thrones” promotional videos and trailers released by HBO.
In the footage, which lasts barely a second, a man who looks an awful lot like Ned Stark is struggling against a rope tied around his neck (rumor has it the man in this scene was Sean Bean’s body double, which is why he so resembles the Ned we’ve come to know). Blood covers his face, and he’s clearly in anguish. In the blurred background of the shot we can see the Iron Throne and a blond king upon it.
Book-readers knew the details of this scene intimately: Brandon Stark (Ned’s older brother) stormed into the city following Prince Rhaegar’s “abduction” of Lyanna Stark and demanded the prince fight him. Brandon wanted answers about his sister’s whereabouts, but the Mad King arrested him and then summoned Lord Rickard Stark to answer for his son’s perceived crime of plotting to kill the prince.
Upon Lord Rickard’s arrival, Aerys had both men sentenced to death in a heinous manner. He had Brandon tied to the floor with a rope around his neck and his sword just out of reach while Lord Rickard was dressed in full armor and strung up in the air above a burning fire. Brandon strangled himself while trying to reach the sword so he could cut his father down, and Lord Rickard was roasted alive in his own armor.
Because of the small snippet of footage HBO released showing Brandon’s death, we know this flashback scene was filmed (at least part of it) for the first season of “Game of Thrones.” But Benioff and Weiss chose to stay far away from the flashbacks and dreams as vehicles for exposition.
It’s true: you can still see images from this flashback scene if you look online:
Why were the flashbacks cut? Bryan Cogman, who started on the show as an assistant before working his way up to staff writer, explained:
“The decision to not include flashbacks was made right off the bat,” writer Bryan Cogman said in an MTV interview. “The principle reason for that is a logistical and budgetary one … We already had the biggest cast in, maybe, TV history.”
According to Cogman, during that first season of filming they simply didn’t have the budget to cast a whole additional generation of players for the “nineteen years earlier” flashbacks.
“The other reason is, that’s a perfect example of what works in a book that doesn’t work on TV,” Cogman continued. “The book does brilliantly flash back through memory, and through people telling stories of the past. If you were to just take those passages from the book and do them onscreen, you would be doing a flashback every five minutes! It would be very jarring, and very difficult to sustain the momentum that you want to sustain.”
Also, George R.R. Martin had a cameo in the original pilot as a Pentoshi nobleman in an enormous hat who attended Daenerys’ wedding to Khal Drogo, but sadly it had to be cut after Dany was recast. But the image is still out there:
But even through all of these changes, some of the scenes from the original pilot did make it in to the finished product. There’s a shot of a raven flying towards Winterfell with a message tied to its leg, for instance, and a shot of Bran climbing the walls of the castle to watch King Robert’s party approach. Robert and Ned’s conversation in the crypt is the same, some shots from the feast remain, and Tyrion’s introduction, where he’s having sex with Ros, was kept as is:
Tyrion’s R-rated brothel scene features the sex worker named Ros, played by Esmé Bianco. Nearly ten years later, Bianco carries an earned pride for having one of the only scenes that wasn’t axed after the first pilot’s filming.
“I was originally just called ‘the red-headed whore,'” Bianco said during a spotlight panel at the second annual Con of Thrones in 2018. “I didn’t have a name at that point. And I was only meant to do this one scene with [Tyrion] … and they reshot almost the entire pilot with the exception of my scene with Peter [Dinklage].”
You’ll notice how Tyrion’s hair is very blond and straight in this entire scene. In the books his hair is described as so blond “it seemed white,” and so Benioff and Weiss tried out a wig on Peter Dinklage for the first version of the pilot. But by the final version, his natural hair was back. You can see his hair change within the pilot.
During the Con of Thrones panel, Bianco also revealed it was Martin who suggested her character be given a name. He was more closely involved with production back in those days, and when Benioff and Weiss continued to write scenes for Ros (who doesn’t exist in the books), Martin pointed out she should be called something other than “red-headed whore.”
And there’s plenty more excerpt where that came from.
You can pick up a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Game of Thrones wherever books are sold, including Amazon!