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Television The mythical unaired Game of Thrones pilot hints at just how easily things could have gone wrong

Sean Bean played Lord Eddard Stark in the first season of HBO's beloved fantasy series Game of Thrones.

NICK BRIGGS/HBO

Winter might not have come. That’s the consensus of anyone who read, worked on or saw the unaired pilot episode of Game of Thrones. In a quasi-epic quest that parallels the HBO series itself, superfans have sought out and shared every breathless detail of the Thing That Was Not Good.

They have gathered around the glowing rectangles of their laptops to parse a bootleg copy of the script that floats in the nether regions of the interweb. Insanely detailed line-by-line comparisons to the Pilot That Aired did ensue, though many doubts were cast. (A report on the website Gizmodo said, “We’re not 100 per cent certain that this pilot script is genuine, but it seems to be. Also, of course, we can’t be sure this is exactly the script that was used for filming, or that there weren’t tons of rewrites on set.”)

The Globe’s Game of Thrones guide: How the show changed books and TV, and what comes next

They’ve travelled to the wilds of College Station, Tex., to visit Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library, where George R.R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels that inspired the series, has been depositing his papers for two decades. There, HuffPost writer Bill Bradley unearthed a better version of the unaired pilot’s script – not better as in better-written, just more likely to be the script of the misfire that was filmed between Oct. 24 and Nov. 19, 2009, directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight).

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They’ve recounted the legend of the Red Screening of early 2010, when co-showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss showed some friends a rough cut of the epic they’d been working on for four years, and screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover) handed them a notepad with the words MASSIVE PROBLEM in capital letters. (“One of the most painful experiences of my life,” Benioff has said.)

They’ve asked the actors what was so bad about the unaired pilot. “They made a lot of mistakes,” Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, told the Guardian. “It didn’t look right, didn’t feel right.” And they responded with a hearty chortle to learn that Weiss and Benioff vowed to release the unaired pilot on YouTube if Harington ever irks them. “Every now and then,” Harington said, “they send me a screengrab, just as a threat.”

They have made lists – oh, so many lists – of What Was and What Was Not: Cersei burned a feather, Jon Snow did not have a beard. The opening credits featured a bird. The White Walkers spoke. Daenerys said “yes” when Khal Drogo said “no.” Catelyn was originally played by Jennifer Ehle, not Michelle Fairley; Daenerys was originally played by Tamzin Merchant, not Emilia Clarke. They have even estimated the number of scenes in the Pilot That Aired, directed by Tim Van Patten, were cadged from the Pilot That Died – about 10 per cent.

Mine own eyes do glaze over when confronted with this Mount of Minutiae, but I confess I am touched by the sheer number of fans who want to dig under their favourite show and curl up against their favourite character. When a superfan gasps in horror – “Imagine if Cersei had burned that feather, we would be robbed of the payoff that is sure to come in this eighth and final season that begins April 14!” – what they are really saying is, “Imagine if this thing we adore did not exist.”

Because any piece of art, especially filmed art – and especially filmed art that employs hundreds of actors, sprawls over Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Northern Ireland, and keeps every tour guide in Belfast afloat – is a miracle. Every project that works is haunted by the spectre of all the ways in which it could have gone wrong: every cheesy line rewritten, every bad wig restyled and yes, every ill-fitting cast member replaced.

Casting directors have tone meetings with their directors to set parameters: What age are the characters, how much diversity do you want, what is the mood of the show. But what they are alert for, always, is magic – the chemistry they have with other actors, the layers they can suggest, the room for surprise. Jennifer Ehle is a very good actor, but did she have Michelle Fairley’s otherworld-blue eyes, her mother-bear fierceness? Can you imagine anything more evocative than Emilia Clarke’s delicacy set against Jason Momoa’s bulk?

Actors are recast a lot more often than you may think. Type the word “recasting” into Deadline Hollywood’s search box, and you get 309 results (Ben Lawson replaces Josh Cooke as the male lead opposite Katey Sagal in the ABC comedy Nana; Fox drama Prodigal Son is recasting its lead; and so on). What you don’t often see is a network that is so committed to an idea – and let’s face it, has such deep pockets – that it will allow its showrunners to toss away 90 per cent of a show already in the can, and support them as they reimagine it. (That’s why so many HBO devotees, myself included, are terrified that its new owner, AT&T, plans to drastically increase the network’s output. It seems inevitable that quality will suffer.)

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I have neither seen nor read Game of Thrones’s unaired pilot, but I can guarantee you its main problems were not, “Is Jon Snow too drunk too early?” or “Viewers need to be told sooner that Cersei and Jaime are siblings.” Its main problem must have been that elusive elixir known as tone. They hadn’t yet found that specific mix of sex, cowardice, mud, eunuchs, loyalty, blood, dogs, betrayal, goblets and heroism. That thing that encourages you to have conversations where a friend says, “I could never be a Baratheon, I’m such a Stark,” and you reply, “I know!” instead of “Do you need a doctor?” That place that teeters right on the edge of parody, where old maps used to read, “There be dragons.” The line between the Seth Meyers sketch “Jon Snow at a dinner party” and Jon Snow coming back to life is thinner than the finest Lannister sword, and just as deadly if you get it wrong.

The late, legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” But I’d modify that. I think nobody knows the Thing – the thing that’s going to reach out of the screen and pull a viewer close. The unaired Game of Thrones pilot didn’t have it. So the creators, undaunted, began again.

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