After eight seasons of duelling dragons, wandering White Walkers, and fiery, fierce females, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ Game Of Thrones came to a close with one of the most divisive finales in TV history.
Whether you think Season 8 deserves to sit on the Iron Throne or should be banished to The Wall, there’s no escaping the legacy HBO’s fantasy epic left behind.
However, as we honour the 10th anniversary of the show, it’s time to look back at how it could’ve been a completely different beast.
Even though Winter Is Coming first aired on 17th April 2011, it wasn’t the first iteration of the pilot.
Long before fan campaigns for Season 8 to be redone we’re hitting their millions, Game Of Thrones was struggling to even hit the airwaves.
By now, most fans will know that a disastrous pilot was filmed in 2009, one which was almost totally thrown out in favour of the first episode that actually aired.
From shaky scripts to different actors – and even a cameo from George R.R. Martin himself – here’s what you could’ve had all those years ago.
Someone Else In The Director’s Chair
Despite Boardwalk Empire’s Tim Van Petten getting the nod for directing the pilot, eagle-eyed fans might’ve noticed original director Tom McCarthy is mentioned as ‘Consulting Producer’. McCarthy clearly had a very different idea for the series, one which actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) branded “ridiculous”.
In the book, Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon: Game Of Thrones And The Untold Story Of The Epic Series, the man behind the Kingslayer said no one knew what they were doing and explained: “It’s a very fine balance between being serious and believing it, and just being cosplayers. There was certainly not a sense that this was going to be some game-changer for anyone. But we had a lot of fun.”
For instance, Lena Headey (Cersei) described herself as a cross between a “Vegas showgirl” and “medieval Dolly Parton”. Even in the aired pilot, it’s easy to spot how the costumes were more flamboyant before being toned down as the story progressed.
Despite the Thrones debacle, McCarthy would eventually win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay thanks to Spotlight in 2015.
Jon Arryn And The Opening Titles
Although veteran actor John Standing got to play Jon Arryn in Game Of Thrones, he only appeared as a corpse in the Red Keep. The unaired pilot instead opened with Standing desperately trying to write a letter as he succumbed to poison.
Cersei was supposed to stand over him as he died, which wouldn’t have married up with the later reveal that it was Lysa Arryn that killed her husband under the orders of Littlefinger.
In an interview with Los Siete Reinos, Standing described the scene as “lunatic”, but had plenty of praise for Headey.
After a hammy death scene, the opening titles would’ve involved Arryn’s letter being attached to a raven that would then fly over a map of the Seven Kingdoms – not too dissimilar to the clockwork one that became synonymous with the show.
A Different Dany
With Daenerys Targaryen being an MVP of both the books and the show, casting the right woman to play the Mother Of Dragons was an important task. Emilia Clarke has hit the big time playing the breaker of chains, but in 2009, it was Tamzin Merchant who was cast as Dany.
It wasn’t until January 2021 that Merchant broke her silence on what really happened, thanks to a tell-all interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Discussing what went wrong, the Tudors star told the site she’d already tried to back out of the contract process but was lured back to film the pilot.
Saying she should’ve trusted her instincts, Merchant said: “I found myself naked and afraid in Morocco, and riding a horse that was clearly much more excited to be there than I was.”
The anecdote is a reference to Dany and Khal Drogo’s wedding night, where one of the horses was apparently a little “excited” to be there. In Martin’s own words: “There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse schlong. So that didn’t go well either”.
Recasting Merchant with Clarke was something that co-executive producer Bryan Cogman admitted needed to happen because Emilia was “born to play that part.” Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like there was much love lost between Merchant and the series.
Another big problem was the relationship between the Lannister brood. No one knew Tyrion was Cersei and Jaime’s sister, which led to a later addition where someone referred to “the Imp, the Queen’s brother.”
Apparently, it was also unclear that Jaime and Cersei were related, which made their shocking incest scene confusing. In the aired pilot, Coster-Waldau was given a line where he said, “”as your brother I need to tell you…”, to make things a little clearer.
Speaking of THAT tower scene, it played out much more violently, with Cersei repeatedly asking Jaime to stop. Both parties seem to enjoy their tryst in the aired pilot, but in the original, there was an implication of non-consensual sex against Cersei.
A very similar idea would later become a big issue for fans thanks to Season 4’s Breaker Of Chains.
George R.R. Martin
Going full Hitchcock, Tarantino, and Waititi, Martin appeared in his own creation. No stranger to cameos, he even played a zombie author in Z Nation.
And back when Merchant played Dany, there were several scenes filmed in Morocco. Here, Martin portrayed a Pentoshi nobleman who wore a giant hat and popped up in the background.
Seeing the franchise overseer in full regalia is one of the few images that still exists from the pilot – along with Doc Martin’s Ian McNeice as Illyrio Mopatis before Roger Allam replaced him.
Fans kept their eyes peeled for a Martin cameo in the series, but whilst he remained close to HBO’s show for all eight seasons, he never stepped in front of the cameras again.
Talking White Walkers
It remains to be seen whether the White Walkers will be the big bads of Martin’s saga, but in the show, the general consensus is that they were an underused MacGuffin that bowed out too early in Season 8.
In the unaired pilot, White Walkers appeared and actually spoke (almost). Actor Jamie Campbell Bower was cast as Waymar Royce, but when he was replaced, much of the prologue had to be reshot.
Looking closely, you might be able to spot a different look for the White Walkers. The fleeting glimpse of these icy foes actually survived into the aired version, meaning you can see their original design if you put the brightness up. Added to this, there was the inclusion of their language from the books – known as Skroth.
Language creator David J. Peterson explained that he came up with the idea, however, it was dropped in Season 2 and the sound of cracking ice was used for White Walkers’ communication.
New Arcs For The Starks
Finally, everyone’s favourite northerners could’ve looked very different.
Similar to Merchant being swapped out for Clarke, another casualty of the unaired pilot was actor Jennifer Ehle. Michelle Fairley took over as the Stark matriarch, but that wasn’t the only tweaking Cat had.
The original script showed a softer side to her, with Catelyn being the one urging Ned to go to King’s Landing AND also supporting the idea of Sansa marrying Joffrey.
Elsewhere, Martin explained in Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon that Benioff and Weiss wanted to axe 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,” said the author. “I said I had important plans for him, so they kept him.” Imagine a show where we didn’t have that iconic zigzag meme from Season 6.
Most excitingly, there was more on the Mad King Aerys II Targaryen. The writers struggled with the exposition and included a flashback to Brandon Stark’s murder at the Mad King’s hand.
Instead, the actual series left viewers piecing together the tyrant’s past through Bran Stark’s various visions. Given how Game Of Thrones panned out with a certain Mad Queen, it would’ve been interesting to put more emphasis on Aerys II from the start.
Ultimately, the Game Of Thrones pilot is something that’s been banished to the Red Keep and burned alive like Lord Varys. Apart from the fact Martin has preserved the script in the A&M Cushing Memorial Library in Texas, almost nothing from McCarthy’s unaired pilot exists.
Despite a rocky start, Van Petten’s Winter Is Coming kickstarted a TV phenomenon for the ages and led to the show’s ‘golden age’ of Season 3-5.
While talking White Walkers, the Mad King’s fiery temper, and two very different leading ladies are all well and good, the Game Of Thrones pilot has become much like one of the saga’s many myths and legends – forgotten to the ages.