Is it controversial — a wildfire take, if you will — to claim that Game of Thrones is the most successful show of the 21st century? It has the most Emmy nominations and wins (of any scripted show ever); it’s the last proverbial watercooler show; and let’s not forget the Game of Thrones tours, albums, board games, card games, video games, pinball machines, sneakers, booze, door holders, and countless other merchanding tie-ins. When was the last time The Big Bang Theory was on a package of Oreos or Mountain Dew can?
It’s been a wild ride since the “t*ts and dragons” show premiered on April 17, 2011, but a lot of things had to happen just right — for author George R.R. Martin, for co-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, for the cast and crew, for HBO — to get here. Let’s take a look at the most notable ways Game of Thrones could have turned out to be a commercial and/or critical disaster.
1. Game of Thrones: The Movie
When all is said and done, when the dragons will have come home to roost (or destroyed Westeros, I dunno), there will have been 73 episodes of Game of Thrones. It’s like — and I’m sorry to my former colleague Alan Sepinwall for this — a 73-hour movie. That sounds awful, but not as awful as combining thousands and thousands of pages of source material into a single film. That was an early option. “The second book, Clash of Kings was the first to make the best-seller lists, and I got inquiries from various producers and filmmakers who were interested in the rights,” Martin told the New York Times before Thrones premiered in 2011. “But they wanted to do it as a feature film, and even then I said it cannot be done as a feature film. You would have to cut it to shreds.”
A single book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series is nearly as long as all three Lord of the Rings novels combined, “so we’re talking 20 films,” Martin continued. “What studio’s going to commit to 20 films?” Of course, adapting Game of Thrones, with its ubiquitous scenes of sex and violence, for television has its own challenges. Thankfully, HBO is all about sex and violence.
2. If the creator and showrunners didn’t play nice
For a massive as huge as Game of Thrones, there’s been shockingly little behind-the-scenes drama. For instance: Martin and Benioff and Weiss have more often than not gotten along. There have been bumps in the road, like when the author “argued against” the absence of Lady Stoneheart, but it’s a mostly peaceful relationship ever since they correctly guessed Jon Snow’s mother. “I’m still here whenever they want to talk to me, and I’m always glad to weigh in,” Martin told Time. “David and Dan have come to Santa Fe and we’ve discussed many of the ultimate developments, those landmarks that I spoke to at the end of the road that we’re both driving for. So I don’t need to be quite as involved as I was at the beginning.” Many authors would demand complete creative control. Not Martin (who also could have gone the Alan Moore route and badmouthed the project from the get-go). He has faith in Benioff and Weiss to not screw things up. And they’ve done a good job of not letting him down.
3. The original pilot
Maybe in the distant future, when the Game of Thrones franchise is creatively bankrupt and there’s no money left to be made, HBO will release the unaired pilot. It’s an “unbelievably bad” “piece of sh*t” and a “deeply humiliating [and] painful experience.” When Benioff and Weiss showed it to their screenwriter buddy Craig Mazin, his first note was, “You guys have a massive problem.” If I had a choice between seeing the pilot or waiting a year to watch the series finale, I would pick the pilot, without question. An estimated 90 percent of the episode was reshot, Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark were played by different actresses (Tamzin Merchant and Jennifer Ehle, respectively), and the showrunners use it as a threat against Kit Harington. “If I ever piss them off too much, they’ll release it on YouTube,” the actor said. “Every now and then, they send me a screengrab, just as a threat.” It’s hard to believe Thrones would have become a sensation if Jon Snow was clean-shaven and wearing a wig.
4. The young cast
Young actors are a tricky proposition. What if they’re unable to deal with fame? What if they have controlling parents? What if a cute kid grows up into a… less-cute teen? What if they’re just annoying? Think: Dana Brody on Homeland, Manny on Modern Family, Dawn on Buffy, etc. Game of Thrones managed to avoid all these issues (as well as the “they grow up so fast” problem) with its young cast. Maisie Williams got the role of Arya Stark before she turned 13, despite no previous acting experience — and yet, her (and Sophie Turner’s, Isaac Hempstead Wright’s, and Jack Gleeson’s) performance in the early seasons holds up quite well, and she’s only refined her skills since. Put another way, it’s not insane that Williams was nominated for an Emmy. Can you imagine saying the same thing about Carl from The Walking Dead? Even he can’t do that.
5. A lack of funds
The dragons, the world-trotting cinematography, the sprawling cast, the iconic costumes — these are only possible because HBO opened its wallet. Maybe that’s a cynical, commercially-crass way of looking at Game of Thrones (guilty!), but it’s hard to imagine “Beyond the Wall” looking as impressively epic as it did on a season one budget. In the early days, episodes cost approximately $6-7 million with an occasional extra million thrown at something like “Blackwater.” All six episodes in the final season have a $15 million price tag. That’s the difference between Tyrion being knocked out before a battle because the cost would have been too high versus the “most sustained action sequence ever made for television or film.” A Lannister always pays his debts, and HBO always picks up Game of Thrones‘ bill, as long as 16.5 million people are watching.