December 2, 2023

As “Game of Thrones” Ends, a Look Back on Its Troubled Start

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

HBO aired the series finale of its epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones on May 19. The series was known for its engaging storylines, dynamic characters, production value, and graphic content. Surprisingly, the show almost didn’t get made due to a troublesome first draft of its pilot script.

Eddard “Ned” Stark played by Sean Bean in HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Image by BagoGames / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Given the recognition that Game of Thrones has received for its dynamic writing and the impact that the show has had on the pop culture market—leading to video games, merchandise, multiple spin-off shows, and more—it’s hard to believe it almost didn’t get made at all. And yet, when a crew screened an early version of the first episode of Game of Thrones, it was very poorly received. Let’s take a closer look at what happened.

How to Introduce Characters

Before investing in a full season of a TV show, a studio will order a “pilot.” This is a first episode that sets the show up, introduces its main cast and their conflicts, and gives the audience a good representation of what to expect. The pilot episode is then shown to test audiences who provide feedback that indicates to the producers whether or not to invest in the show for a full season. And, the original pilot for Game of Thrones bombed.

One reason for that is how the original pilot handled introducing its characters. “There are two keys to making these sequential character introductions,” said Dr. Angus Fletcher, Professor of English and Film at The Ohio State University. “First, each character should be introduced as a window into some part of the underlying conflict in the story world. Second, the first two main character introductions should establish characters who are in conflict with each other.”

How Not to Introduce Characters

So how does Game of Thrones fare? In both versions of the pilot, the episode begins with establishing the threat of the undead, north of a border wall in the world of Westeros. It was followed by an introduction to the members of the Stark family, who live in Winterfell—which we see is wintry but not as extreme as north of the wall. Then things changed. In the successful pilot, immediately after meeting the Stark family, the audience sees the Lannisters, with whom the Starks will be in direct conflict for much of the series. Later in the pilot, we see scenes of the Dothraki people, who pose a distant threat across a vast ocean.

However, in the original version of the pilot, the show followed the novel’s structure of introducing the Dothraki before the Lannisters. “It didn’t accomplish the ‘Boom, Boom’ of the Starks then the Lannisters that […] establishes the deeper conflict in the story world that ties together all the characters,” Dr. Fletcher said. “Instead, the failed pilot introduced what seemed like another set of random characters in another random place, causing test audiences to lose interest and tune out.”

Fortunately, despite this major but understandable hiccup, Game of Thrones went on to become one of the most successful shows on television, winning 47 Emmys as of May 2019. With three successor shows currently in various stages of development, audiences’ time in Westeros are far from over.

Professor Angus Fletcher contributed to this article. Professor Fletcher is a Professor of English and Film at The Ohio State University and a core faculty member at Project Narrative. He has previously taught at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Yale.

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