The Game of Thrones pilot episode was the first episode of the series filmed, but has never been aired.
The pilot was directed by Thomas McCarthy. A heavily re-shot version of the pilot, with new material directed by Tim Van Patten, serves as the actual first episode of Season 1, "Winter Is Coming". It is not known if the original pilot will ever be publicly screened or released.
Because several scenes shot by McCarthy remain in the finished episode, and because McCarthy helped cast several of the regular cast, he was given a "Consulting Producer" credit on the first episode.
The pilot was shot between October 24th and November 19th, 2009, on location in Northern Ireland and Morocco.
The pilot episode was the culmination of about four years of work by scriptwriters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to make an adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels as a TV series for HBO - including all of the time spent negotiating, pre-planning, designing and constructing sets, props, and costumes, casting, and writing.
Benioff and Weiss never anticipated having to refilm the pilot episode. After they finished, however, they showed a rough cut to their friend and fellow scriptwriter Craig Mazin (known for writing the scripts to The Hangover series's sequels and Identify Thief). They expected Mazin to give them a few written notes on points to refine, but instead the only thing he wrote on the notepad he handed back to them was "MASSIVE PROBLEM" spelled out in capital letters.
Both Mazin and HBO felt that there were major problems with the pilot episode, which devastated Benioff and Weiss - even years later, after Season 5, they explained that this had a huge emotional impact on them, and they considered it the low point of their careers, only regaining their mood when they decided to take the unorthodox step of outright re-filming almost the entire first episode (about 90% of it by their guess) and learn from their mistakes.
One of the major criticisms was that basic exposition throughout the pilot was deeply flawed. The visual medium of television is different from writing a novel, but Benioff and Weiss had no prior experience in television (only limited experience writing movie scripts). A novel can stop to give a paragraph of exposition, which a TV episode cannot. Particularly, Benioff and Weiss have frequently noted was that many people at private screenings of the pilot such as Mazin didn't even understand the familial relationships of the major characters. Specifically, they didn't even realize that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are brother and sister, or that Tyrion is their brother. In reworked scenes for the new first episode, "Winter Is Coming", Benioff and Weiss therefore made it a point to emphasize this: in Jaime and Cersei's first scene he goes out of his way to say "as your brother I need to tell you..." etc., and also dubbed in off-screen voiceovers have characters shout "It's Tyrion the imp! The Queen's brother!" etc. Benioff and Weiss remark on this in the "Winter Is Coming" 1 Blu-ray commentary.
Differences between pilot and series: casting and filming
The pilot episode has a notably different cast than the rest of the series. For a number of reasons, HBO replaced several actors, major and minor, between the filming of the pilot and the series itself:
- Tamzin Merchant originally played Daenerys Targaryen, but she was replaced by Emilia Clarke.
- Jennifer Ehle originally played Catelyn Stark, but was replaced by Michelle Fairley.
- Ian McNeice originally played Illyrio Mopatis, but was replaced by Roger Allam.
- Richard Ridings originally played Gared, but was replaced by Dermot Keaney.
- Jamie Campbell Bower originally played Ser Waymar Royce, but was replaced by Rob Ostlere.
In the pilot, author George R.R. Martin himself made a cameo appearance. He played a Pentoshi nobleman in the background who wore a gigantic hat. However, his appearance was ultimately cut out of the finished episode.
In addition, the role of Grand Maester Pycelle was originally planned to be in the pilot episode in a new scene and the role was cast with Roy Dotrice. The scene was cut but Dotrice was retained for the series itself. Shortly before filming began Dotrice fell ill and was replaced at short notice by Julian Glover (Dotrice later joined the TV series in Season 2, cast as chief pyromancer Hallyne). It was also announced that Bronson Webb would also be recast in the role of Will due to a scheduling conflict, but the producers were able to work around the issue in order to retain Webb.
Also, the German folk band Corvus Corax appeared as minstrels at the Winterfell feast. However, their scenes were completely removed in the finished episode.
Another change was that the pilot featured scenes shot in Scotland, using Doune Castle to stand in for Winterfell, making The North appear far more verdant and green than the series depicts . Other footage was also shot in Morocco for the scenes featuring Daenerys. In the series itself Winterfell was created through several locations in Northern Ireland and filming on soundstages, while Malta and Croatia were used for the majority of the scenes involving Daenerys in Essos in the first two seasons. However, the producer later returned to Morocco to film the Slaver's Bay scenes for Season 3.
Differences between pilot and series: story
No comprehensive summary has been made public of the finished pilot episode that Benioff and Weiss screened to HBO. Three different sources of information exist giving some description of it:
- 1 - Various cast and crew interviews mentioning scenes from the pilot, some of which were filmed, and others were scripted in early planning stages but ultimately not filmed. None of these gave a comprehensive listing. These are supplemented by a few actual set photos of scenes which didn't survive into the final version. Unlike the script drafts later discovered, however, these are the only sources that confirm scenes which were actually filmed (and not just script ideas abandoned in later drafts).
- 2 - A version of the script has been circulating online for several years: it is apparently not a fake, because multiple scenes in it later matched up with descriptions of the pilot the cast and crew gave. It might not, however, be the final shooting script or reflect the final cut of the pilot: scripts usually go through multiple versions across extensive rewrites. Thus the digital file is only confirmed to be a snapshot of what the pilot script looked like at one point in time.
- 3 - George R.R. Martin himself has actually, for many years, been mailing various manuscripts of his works to the A&M Cushing Memorial Library in Texas. A report about this pilot script was made in the Huffington Post in February 2019. There are several notable differences between Martin's archived copy of the pilot script, and the earlier version circulating online. It is unclear, however, whether Martin's version or the other one came first - and thus which one of them more closely resembles the final, filmed pilot.
Significantly different scenes in the unaired pilot included:
- The title sequence was different
- An extensive opening scene showing a poisoned Jon Arryn, desperately trying with his last ounce of strength to write a warning letter, but then collapsing and dying
- The early design of the White Walkers was slightly different, particularly their language
- Cersei burning the feather Robert left at Lyanna's tomb
- Jon gets drunk at the Winterfell feast, as in the novels
- More exposition between Jaime and Ned about the Mad King
- An actual flashback to the Mad King killing Ned's father and older brother
- A scene in the training yard with Bran and Tommen sparring, then Robb and Joffrey (from the books).
- Catelyn wanting Sansa to go south, and Luwin being the one to urge Ned to go south
- The Jaime/Cersei and Daenerys/Drogo sex scenes were changed
As the final version of the unaired pilot has never been released in any form, this listing is not totally comprehensive, only covering what scenes are known to have existed. Moreover, not all of them are confirmed to have been filmed, as some may have been early ideas that were abandoned by the finished cut of the pilot.
There were also numerous small, pervasive changes: recasting Catelyn and Daenerys meant any scene they appeared in had to be refilmed, though not necessarily changing the entire script. The original Daenerys wedding was actually filmed in Morocco, not on-location at a rock formation in Malta. There were also of course the small line changes or re-dubbings to emphasize the familial relationship between different characters, which was unclear in the original pilot.
A few scenes from the final version of "Winter Is Coming" have no clear predecessor in either of the two pilot script drafts that are known, and thus were apparently created for the re-shoots in reaction to issues in the original pilot:
- The introduction of the Stark children was not present in the pilot: intercutting between Sansa and Arya at a sewing circle, then Arya sneaking off to go to the archery practice in the yard with her brothers.
- The scene of Sansa begging Catelyn to let her go to King's Landing, while Catelyn combs her hair (it wasn't "reshot" later with Michelle Fairley, no version of it was in the original pilot).
- The scene of the Stark boys going to the barber to get a shave, and standing around shirtless, was not present. Benioff and Weiss have later remarked on how much they hated this scene and how ridiculous they thought it was. Apparently it was put in at the urging of other people, in reaction to how many "male gaze" shots were in their pilot, with a gender nudity imbalance between the male and female characters. This was a criticism that would only grow as the series progressed.
Opening and Jon Arryn
As described in the DVD commentary, the Title sequence was very different. In the full TV series, it consists of the camera panning over what is supposed to be a maester's astrolabe, with mechanical map pieces unfolding. In the pilot version, it began as a maester writing a note and attaching it to a raven, then the camera follows the raven as it flies over the landscape, the background morphing into a map that the raven flies over. This title sequence only appears in the script that circulated online, apparently what Benioff and Weiss wanted as it matches their description from the commentary. Martin's script sent to Cushing Library doesn't contain it at all, only the brief note, "Title Card: Game of Thrones", without giving a description of what it should be like.
The opening scene would have been Jon Arryn himself, still alive but poisoned, staggering into his chambers and desperately trying to write a letter warning others of the conspiracy he discovered, but ultimately collapsing and dying, with his ink jar spilling everywhere. Most or all of this was apparently filmed, as veteran actor John Standing was in fact cast to play Jon Arryn. He actually does "play" him in the finished version, but only briefly appearing as Jon Arryn's corpse while it lies in state in the Red Keep. John Standing has described actually filming this scene (which he described as "lunatic"), and said that Cersei (Lena Headey) was there standing over him to watch Jon Arryn die. The script circulating online contains this scene, but the one that Martin submitted to Cushing Library does not contain it at all.
This was then followed by Jaime and Cersei, in King's Landing, discussing his death much as they did in the final version - though it didn't contain the heavy-handed expository lines like "As your brother, I must tell you..." to establish their familial relationship. One further minor point is that in the pilot version, Tyrion was also still in King's Landing and like his siblings would have been introduced there, before the trip to Winterfell. His first scene is essentially the same, except that it is a brothel in King's Landing, not Winterfell. The final version moved the location, but it doesn't significantly affect the rest of the plot.
Prologue: White Walkers
Much of the Prologue sequence with White Walkers attacking the Night's Watch scouting party had to be re-filmed due to Waymar Royce being recast. The early design of the White Walkers was slightly different in this version, with more crude and brutal features. It is unclear if they were even meant to be seen prominently on-screen at the time, as they were intentionally obscured in shadow. Whatever the case, their design was updated by Season 1. Ironically, this is still one of the few sequences from the pilot that had footage survive into Season 1's "Winter Is Coming" - none of the shots of the humans (due to the recasting), but a few blurry shots of the White Walkers running through the woods (artificially brightening the scene makes the early design a little more visible).
The actual story beats are more or less the same, as they both closely follow the books, but the pilot version had a few more details from the book version. The notable difference is that it actually features the White Walkers' language, "Skroth".
In the pilot version, just as in the books, Will climbs up a tree to spy around, when the White Walkers surprise Waymar on the ground below. Will then hides up the tree for some time and can hear the White Walkers talking to each other in their own language, which the books describe as sounding like the cracking of ice. Linguist David J. Peterson actually designed a language for the White Walkers and it was used in the filmed pilot - but ultimately, it was abandoned by the finished version of Season 1, in favor of the White Walkers literally making sounds of cracking ice when they speak, dubbed in and mixed around using special effects. A human actor could plausibly speak the pilot version of Skroth, but it is physically impossible to speak the final Season 1 version.
Peterson has since warned that the "Skroth" he came up with for the pilot was abandoned and is thus not "canon" to anything, nor did he want to give samples of it in case he re-used it for some unrelated project later. Eventually, however, Peterson did release a short clip of it in the February 2019 report on the unaired pilot made by the Huffington Post - it sounds raspy and guttural.
Cersei burns Lyanna's feather
In the final aired version, when Robert visits Lyanna Stark's tomb, he leaves a bright feather from an exotic bird as some kind of memento. This is an invention of Benioff and Weiss and not from the books: they explained that their idea was that when she was alive Robert had given her some exotic bird as a gift. They also fixated on that Sansa Stark later finds the feather in the tomb four years later in Season 5, as no one had been down there to disturb it, as a nod-back to the first episode.
In the unaired pilot, even more time was devoted to this new subplot: "A long shot of Cersei in profile, wearing a heavy fur over her elegant dress. She stares into one of the burial vaults. The shadows about her dance in the candlelight." The camera then follows Cersei from the crypts back across the entire courtyard, to the antechamber between the kitchens and the great hall, where the feast is underway. Cersei then removes from her sleave Robert's feather for Lyanna, revealing she took it. She then hands it to one of her handmaidens and tells her to burn it.
This scene was quite lengthy and may have been cut for time. It is unknown if it was ever actually filmed.
Winterfell feast: Ned, Jaime, and the Mad King
The feast at Winterfell played out slightly differently, with a confrontation between Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister which included lengthy exposition not given at that point in the novels. It seems to be an example of how Benioff and Weiss said they struggled with giving expository information in a television format, because in a book, Ned can just recall the sack of King's Landing in his mental narration. A similar (though much shorter) scene was later reshuffled to when Ned actually arrives at the Red Keep in episode three, "Lord Snow": Jaime remarks on how the Mad King killed Ned's father and brother, so he of all people shouldn't look down on Jaime for killing the tyrant.
Apparently meant to be paired with this scene, there was also a flashback actually showing on-screen the execution of Rickard Stark and Brandon by the Mad King. This flashback scene actually was filmed, as a brief and blurry shot of it appeared in the first Season 1 teaser trailer, but it was later totally abandoned. Actor Liam Burke was cast as Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King for the pilot (but isn't clearly visible in the trailer shot), while Brandon was played by an unknown actor.
Winterfell feast: Jon and Uncle Benjen
Also at the Winterfell feast, Jon Snow is explicitly shown sitting with the commoners in the main section of the hall, as he was not allowed to sit with the legitimate Stark children up front (for fear this would offend Cersei). Jon uses the lack of supervision to get very drunk from the flagons of wine being passed around. His uncle Benjen Stark then comes by and talks with him. This actually happened in the books, and Jon discusses joining the Night's Watch with Benjen, then storms out saying he will never father a bastard child of his own.
This then segways into Jon out in the training yard, where Tyrion encounters him - which happened in the final aired version. In the pilot, Tyrion would also have met Ghost the direwolf during this scene, which is what also happens in the book version of the scene, but this point was not in the final version of "Winter Is Coming".
It is unknown if these scenes were ever filmed, or were just in the pilot script.
Training yard scene
In the novels, at one point during the royal visit to Winterfell, the young boys from both groups have a sparring match in the yard, using blunted tourney swords. Even Bran Stark and Tommen Baratheon spar with each other - though because they are both only seven years old, they use only wooden swords and heavy protective gear. Tommen gets repeatedly knocked down by Bran, though Tommen shows great sportsmanship, keeps getting up, and is appreciative that Bran gave him the opportunity to spar with another boy his age (Cersei apparently coddled her sons and prevented them from engaging in martial training, like most other boys their ages). A brief shot seen in one of the behind-the-scenes production featurettes actually does show one of the small boys in protective training gear and armed with a wooden sword, so apparently such a scene was originally filmed, but in later drafts was cut for time.
According to Martin's script sent to Cushing Library, after Bran and Tommen finish, Ser Rodrik Cassel then asks Robb and Joffrey if they'd like to go a round together. Robb accepts, but Joffrey says he's tired of swinging wooden swords at Stark boys, and would prefer using (dangerous) live steel. Again, this matches how Robb and Joffrey interacted during the training yard scene in the novels, but the pilot version also ends in this exchange:
- Joffrey: "Come and see me, north boy, once your balls thaw."
- Robb: "I'll cut yours off, you little piece of - "
- Theon: (grabs Robb's arm) "Easy..."
- Joffrey: (feigning a yawn) "Come, Tommen. Playtime is over. Leave the children to their games."
It is unclear if the Robb and Joffrey parts of this scene were filmed, though the Bran and Tommen part definitely was.
Catelyn Stark was significantly changed from books to TV series, with no explanation given - and she also changed between the pilot script and the final aired version. Of course, the role was recast from Jennifer Ehle in the pilot to Michelle Fairley in the final version, but the core differences are on the level of the script itself.
In the book version, it is actually Catelyn who urges Ned Stark to go south with King Robert, as it will greatly advance their daughter's prospects to marry the heir to the throne, and then because he must learn what really happened to Jon Arryn.
In the final, aired version, Catelyn is slightly hesitant at Sansa's eagerness to go south when combing her hair (a scene that wasn't in the pilot scripts). In their bedroom scene, Ned says he doesn't want to go south, and Catelyn also says she doesn't want him to go, but jokingly says she'll fight Robert if he tries to take away her husband: "I won't let him take you...I'll say, ‘Listen, fat man, you are not taking my husband anywhere. He belongs to me now.’..."
Then when Luwin brings Lysa's letter, implicating that the Lannisters actually murdered Jon Arryn, Ned reluctantly realizes he must go...and Catelyn bursts into tears, sobbing that men always rationalize that they need to go, just as he did in Robert's Rebellion. Catelyn isn't presented as concerned with the wider political implications of Jon Arryn's death. Many critics assumed this was done to try to make Catelyn sympathetic, despite her dislike of Jon Snow, but Benioff and Weiss never stated at all why they made Catelyn's reaction so different, and it may have been for an entirely different reason.
In the pilot script that Martin sent to Cushing Library, Catelyn's initial reaction is much as it was in the books: Catelyn urges Ned to accept Robert's offer of betrothal between Joffrey and Sansa, and to accept Robert's offer to return south with him to serve as his Hand of the King. Catelyn urges that "He would make our daughter a queen" - retaining her political concerns from the book.
Then, when Luwin then enters with the note from Lysa, claiming the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn, Ned then realizes he has no choice but to go south to figure out what's going on. Instead of Catelyn tearfully pleading with Ned to stay (as in the final version) she acts as she did in the book: urging Ned to go south because of the political considerations if the Lannisters indeed murdered Lord Arryn. The pilot script that was circulating online is similar to the Cushing Library one: after reading Lysa's letter, Catelyn urges Ned that he loves Robert like a brother and must go south to defend him. In the script version from Cushing Library, when Catelyn reads the letter she says Jon Arryn was murdered, "By the Lannisters. By the Queen". The online script leaves out, "By the Queen".
Thus it seems that the changes to Catelyn from books to TV series were not present in the final cut of the unaired pilot, as they weren't in either version of the pilot script. On top of this, the scene of Catelyn combing Sansa's hair and reluctant about her going south to be queen also wasn't in either pilot script, and was apparently an addition after the role was recast. Overall, Jennifer Ehle's Catelyn Stark was much closer to Book-Catelyn, but significantly changed after Michelle Fairley was recast in the role.
In an interview at the Season 7 premiere in July 2017, George R.R. Martin said that in the original pilot, the Daenerys/Drogo wedding night scene (with Daenerys played by Tamzin Merchant) was filmed exactly as it was written in the book, with Daenerys ultimately saying "Yes!", etc. - the aired final version, with Daenerys played by Emilia Clarke, changed this so she never says "Yes" but freezes in terror and cries, which Benioff and Weiss explicitly describe as "rape" in their Blu-ray commentary. Speculation at the time is that this change was made to bring it closer to modern sensibilities - in the books Daenerys is basically an unwilling teenaged bride and her wedding night could in a sense be seen as statutory rape, so it is possible the showrunners simply thought it was less controversial to honestly present it as "rape" instead of showing her ultimately enjoying it. The TV show invented several rape scenes for characters who don't have rape scenes in later seasons, however, so it is now uncertain exactly why they changed the Daenerys/Drogo wedding night between the pilot and final versions. When Martin himself was asked in this interview why the change was made, he only said, "You'd have to talk to David and Dan about that".
The report on the pilot script that Martin gave to Cushing Library matches his description given in the 2017 interview, that it played out just like the book version, with Daenerys putting Drogo's hands between her thighs and saying "Yes", etc.
The report on the Cushing Library pilot script went on to describe how the sex scene between Jaime and Cersei Lannister, however, was very different from the final aired version: they have very rough sex, with Cersei saying "No!", and it isn't overtly clear to the audience that it's consensual - without the script notes spelling out that Cersei is actually into it, non-verbally:
- [The naked man grabs her by the hair and forces her to rise to all fours. She gasps with pain.]
- Cersei: "Stop..."
- [He does not stop. Keeping one hand on her hair, she pushes himself to his knees. He seizes her hip with his free hand and pulls her toward him, thrusting deep into her.]
- Cersei: (moaning in pleasure) "Stop it...stop it...please..."
- [Her voice is low and she does not push him away; the harder he pulls her hair, the more she moans.]
As noted in the Huffington Post report, this is conspicuously similar to the debacle surrounding the Jaime/Cersei sex scene in the Great Sept in episode 4.3 "Breaker of Chains": Cersei's only dialogue in that scene was her saying "Stop!", even though the actors insisted that the script instructions said it was consensual. Freeze-frame analysis revealed that Headey was indeed doing non-verbal things to indicate Cersei's consent - even as she was, confusingly, shouting "Stop". See "Breaker of Chains/Jaime-Cersei sex scene".
Apparently they were made to change the scene to a more obviously consensual version in the aired version of the final episode "Winter Is Coming" (Cersei doesn't say "Stop", except to warn Jaime that Bran has seen them). The actual way the episode 4.3 sex scene played out is very close to this unused pilot version. It is unclear if it is outright "re-using" it, or why Benioff and Weiss would even want to re-use it if that was the case. They also never stated their exact intentions with the Great Sept sex scene either. There are at least three possible explanations:
- 1 - Benioff and Weiss were annoyed that the scene was changed from the pilot, and wanted to play the Great Sept scene similarly, to prove their behind the scenes critics wrong...only for this to fail spectacularly, when as warned, numerous critics said they thought it looked like Jaime was raping Cersei.
- 2 - Benioff and Weiss had no petty intentions, but simply forgot that they had been specifically warned about writing a scene this way during the pilot, four years before - that without clear verbal consent, it looks like Jaime is raping Cersei.
- 3 - They were actually never "warned" at all about filming the sex scene like that in the pilot, but the episode's director and the two cast members simply reworked the scene without informing them - but in Season 4, the different director simply filmed the sex scene as scripted (with Cersei confusingly saying "Stop!")
Material retained in the first episode
Several scenes shot by McCarthy were retained in the finished episode, "Winter Is Coming". These scenes are shot on film rather than the digital recordings made for the rest of the series, making them appear slightly different (most notable in the scene in Winterfell's crypts). These are known to be:
- A few brief shots during the Prologue scene, when the Night's Watch rangers are fleeing from the White Walkers through the forest, were retained for the pilot.
- Inside Winterfell's crypts where Robert Baratheon asks Eddard Stark to become the Hand of the King.
- The scene at the Winterfell feast where Ned and his brother Benjen Stark discuss the Night's Watch ranger that Ned executed.
- Sansa's scene during the feast at Winterfell when Catelyn introduces her to Queen Cersei. Because Catelyn was recast between the pilot and the finished episode, Catelyn's appearance had to be re-filmed with new actress Michelle Fairley. However, because one camera angle is pointed at Catelyn and Cersei, and the opposite camera angle is pointed at Sansa, the original footage of Sophie Turner in this scene from the pilot was simply intercut with the new footage of Michelle Fairley as Catelyn. Notice that in the finished episode, in this scene Sansa is never in the camera frame with Catelyn and Cersei at the same time (only a stand-in wearing her dress, of which the sleeve is visible).
- This is the only retained scene featuring one of the child actors, and because they aged a full year by the time of the reshoot, Sophie Turner noticeably looks younger in this scene than she does in other scenes filmed a year later with Fairley (combing her hair, etc.).
- Tyrion Lannister's first scene, at the brothel with Ros. Tyrion has much more light blond hair in this scene - in the regular series this was changed to a more dirty blond (in real life, Peter Dinklage has dark brown hair, thus the pure golden blond in his original look didn't match the actor very well).
- The scene in Winterfell's courtyard where Tyrion Lannister and Sandor Clegane exchange a few words before Robert and Eddard ride out to hunt. Tyrion again has much lighter blonde hair than in the scenes filmed later. Moreover, Theon Greyjoy is also shown in this scene with blond hair rather than the brown hair he sports for the series proper. Also, the makeup design for Sandor Clegane's facial burns is somewhat different in this scene than what we see in subsequent episodes.