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How Popular TV Shows Got Their Start: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
is the epic story of nine noble families caught up in a fight for the Iron Throne and the right to rule a magical realm where summer can last ten years and winter can last a lifetime. The HBO original series is an adaptation of George R.R. Martins bestselling fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice, and is named for the first book in that series—Game of Thrones. The show, which is now airing its third season and preparing to start filming the fourth season in July, was an instant hit with fans and critics alike.  How did this extremely complex fantasy saga end up being such a big hit on the small screen?

The first installment of Martin’s novel series had already been around for ten years by the time David Benioff, who is a novelist and screenwriter (Troy and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), began reading it in 2006. He was so completely enthralled by A Game of Thrones that he called his friend D.B. Wiess, and asked him to read it too. Wiess found the book equally compelling, and finished the 700 page book in just a day and a half. Though they were originally reading the book to consider adapting it for a feature film, both were convinced that the novels would make a fantastic television series.

Benioff and Wiess met Martin for lunch and spent several hours trying to convince him that they could adapt the books for television. This took a lot of convincing, because Martin became a novelist, in part, so that his writing and imagination wouldn’t be limited by budget and scheduling restrictions that he had experienced as a screenwriter for television. He thought he had written novels that would be impossible to film—with stories too complex for even the longest film and scenes too expensive to produce for television. Martin explained why he never said yes to the many requests to make his novels into films:

The novels were simply too big and too complex, and to make the sort of deep cuts that would be necessary to get them down to feature length would have required losing nine-tenths of the characters and three-quarters of the plot.

But television production quality and visual effects technology had come a long way since he first started writing his novel series. Benioff and Wiess were able to convince Martin that his novels could be adapted for television, and that they had a passion for the story and an understanding of the characters necessary to create a successful series. Martin actually tested their understanding with the question: “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?”  and they got the answer right.

Pitching the show to HBO was a little harder. For one thing, the executive they pitched to made it very clear she wasn’t a fan of the fantasy genre; but, fortunately, they were able to convince her that though the story takes place in a fantasy world, the characters feel like real human beings. Another thing that made pitching the show challenging was that Benioff and Wiess didn’t have experience creating television:

 When HBO was mulling whether or not to green-light the pilot, we kept telling them the show would be a big hit. But we’d never made a TV show before so we didn’t actually know what we were talking about. And we knew we didn’t.

They finally did make a deal and received the green-light to shoot the pilot, but they weren’t satisfied with the results. They ended up rewriting many scenes, recasting two key roles, and moving the scenes originally shot in Morocco to new locations in Malta. These changes meant that almost every scene had to be reshot. Benioff said reshooting the pilot not only gave them the opportunity to work with director Timothy Van Patten, who helped them establish the tone and look of the show, but also gave them some valuable insights:

It was a good experience for us, in that we got to go back and…learn from some of the mistakes we made the first time, some of which were scripted ones. We would show the original pilot to friends of ours…and they would get to the end of the pilot and have no idea that Cersei Lannister and Jaime Lannister were brother and sister…So, we clarified some of the relationships.

This time, they got it right. They created a beautiful and compelling pilot that set up the complex story with dozens of characters and multiple plotlines. Today, with just one episode left in season three, millions of fans look forward to the big finale and hope for the best for their favorite characters; because in this world, no one is safe—after all: ‘Winter is coming.’