Don't Forget, It's A Miracle 'Game Of Thrones' Even Got Made
You've never seen the original pilot for Game Of Thrones, and you likely never will. It's such a shameful Hollywood secret that there's a better chance of finding the Black Dahlia killer's confession taped to the inside of a reel of The Day The Clown Cried. Because it's bad. Really bad. So bad that for over a decade, not even the show's cast had been allowed to watch it, with showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss only screening it right before the GOT finale, in what we're assuming was a desperate bid to lower everyone's expectations.
While the reasons for the infamously awful episode have been the topic of gossip and hearsay for years, the truth was confirmed only after the series concluded, during a film festival panel featuring Benioff and Weiss, who were clearly so mentally checked out that their souls had already ordered an Uber Black back to the airport. Their new(ish, looking at you, Seasons 6-8) apathy, combined with the recent bean-spilling release of The Unofficial Guide To Game Of Thrones, freed them to paint an extra-candid image of the show's growing pains. The kind of candid that made hardcore fans of the books snap their keyboard keys rage-posting on social media.
As legend has it, George R.R. Martin, who had until then been reticent to let his life's work be adapted, was only convinced after the duo correctly guessed who Jon Snow's real mother was -- proving that they were true scholars of his work and/or had spent upwards of 20 seconds on any A Song Of Ice And Fire message board. Maybe instead of asking whether they knew what was going to happen in the books, Martin should've asked whether they knew literally anything about making a TV show.
During the panel, Benioff and Weiss were honest in admitting that when they got the job, they knew nothing, and noted their surprise when they got a $100 million show despite a total lack of credentials. They were so out of their depth that they basically treated it as the world's most expensive film school, costing roughly $5-$10 million per lesson. In the meantime, they decided to just fake it until they made it with a level of unearned confidence only possible for two upper-class white dudes.
But the duo quickly gave up on understanding the overarching plot, admitting later that from the beginning, they couldn't see the forest for the many trees it takes to print a single edition of one of Martin's novels. Instead they just started cherry-picking scenes that shared a theme of "power." (Ironic, since Benioff would later scoff that "Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.") In the end, a good eye for cool scenes didn't save the pilot from becoming, to quote Craig Mazin (award-winning creator of HBO's Chernobyl and Benioff's confidant and dear friend), "a complete piece of shit."
The plot was impossible to follow, and the scope of the world felt tiny. They hadn't even made it clear that Cersei and Jaime Lannister were related in any way, let alone twins, turning what should've been one of the biggest dramatic reveals in TV history into a scene wherein Jaime pushes a small boy out of a tower seemingly because he'd taken a peep at his pants-slayer.
So with no credentials and a garbage pilot, why did HBO allow Benioff and Weiss to proceed? At this point, it's useful to remember that HBO probably didn't truly know what it was getting into either. Before Game Of Thrones, most people couldn't see TV fantasy rising above its place as syndicated shit with over-actors and stuntmen in bad wigs sneering at each other while wearing renn faire gear.
But Benioff and Weiss sold HBO on the idea of epic TV fantasy by promising to take out the fantasy, later admitting they "didn't just want to appeal to that kind of fan." Instead they would create what they called "The Sopranos in Middle-earth," something that could appeal to mainstream demographics like "moms," "NFL players," and other folks who don't give a dire rat's ass about Dungeons & Dragons.
Aside from turning their backs on fans by swapping the mythos with more nudity and violence (which is also how 90% of all fanfiction is written), another big plus had to have been the network's assumption that there was someone else helming the show. Namely, the grand sea captain himself, G.R.R. Martin, who in addition to being behind the novels was even going to write a whole episode each season. So it was really fortunate for the showrunners that no one at the network figured out in time that Martin is as easily distracted as the magpies that live in his beard.
Think about it. Would HBO still have banked on long-term success if they had known that Martin, while writing the kind of epic that even a 19th-century Russian would call "a bit much," would also spend hours each day writing a blog about his favorite two football teams? Or split his already massive novels into more massive novels just to give all of the house sigils a fair go? Or that when the show used up the last page of published material, he'd spend his Winds Of Winter writing time instead producing other shows, making video games, or even writing a random companion novel which critic Hugo Rifkind described as "one long synopsis for about 50 books that he will never get around to writing"? Maybe HBO believed that Martin endorsed Benioff and Weiss because he's a really good observer of people, not realizing he was originally inspired by observing turtles.
So in part thanks to the pitch, the blessing of a successful author who was also an accomplished TV writer, and the sunk cost fallacy, HBO forked over even more millions to reshoot upwards of 90% of the original pilot, leaving audiences only a glimpse into an alternate/worse reality through a handful of scenes and Peter Dinklage's '90s boy band wig.
Then HBO greenlit the first season, hoping that by now Benioff and Weiss had learned their lesson. They had not. Their first go had the same glaring disregard for exposition and adaptation as the pilot. For all their talk of appealing to Ma and Pa Football, even the eventual full season was assembled in a way that you could only follow by keeping a finger on the relevant page in the book. Like in the pilot, they would often just dump reams of unaltered text into the show with little-to-no added context, turning this epic saga into something half a step removed from ten hours of the Star Wars opening text crawl.
Enlarging the scope made things even worse than before, since their ineptitude as showrunners really started to shine. Benioff and Weiss were too green to assemble basic necessities like a writers' room or practice good communication with the other departments. So like an overtired college freshman six hours after a deadline, they themselves did everything quickly, badly and without proper preparation. As a result, they couldn't even get to the minimum required length for episodes, with each coming in at an anemic 39 minutes -- 42 if you counted all the times viewers would have to pause to ask "Who are those snow people with the big dogs again?"
Nearing the end of their rope, HBO exiled the pair back to Ireland and told them not to return without 100 extra minutes of footage. Miraculously, it was only then, so late in the game, that it all came together, putting in motion a reversal as unlikely as walking naked into a blazing pyre and emerging unscathed clutching several unmolten Emmys for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series.
Having to add a whopping ten minutes to each episode forced Benioff and Weiss to take it slow and finally figure out some crucial stuff like, you know, basic character development. Because they were short on money, they had to replace a battle with the now-famous drinking game scene, which connected audiences to Tyrion Lannister as a character. They also connected Cersei Lannister and Robert Baratheon, whom they had previously forgotten to ever put together, despite their marriage being so important to the plot that it'd be like forgetting dragons exist.
What's perhaps equally fascinating is how this bumpy takeoff in many ways mirrored the show eventually hitting rock bottom. With not enough authorial input and too much network leeway (and money), Benioff and Weiss fell back into their lazy old bad habits of rushing plots, making the world feel so tiny that characters could seemingly stroll from one end of it to the other, and most noticeably, trading nuanced character development for expensive scenes wherein men growl at each other during hard-to-follow battles.
But claiming that all could've been fixed by getting rid of Benioff and Weiss ignores that without their privilege allowing them to get in the room to pitch, there's a good chance we would never have gotten Game Of Thrones in the first place. So if there's any real lesson here, it's (once again) "Maybe give more diverse creators who probably know what they're doing a shot." Sadly, considering how HBO just canceled the female-led GOT prequel series, it seems they still haven't figured that out yet.
For more weird tangents and excerpts from his unpublished GOT script, "The Erotic Adventures Of Hot Pie," do follow Cedric on Twitter.
For more, check out 5 'Game Of Thrones' Plotlines Ripped Right Out Of History:
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