What Critics Said About The ‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot

We looked back at the reviews of the 2011 ‘Game of Thrones’ pilot and explore some of the common questions the show has – and hasn’t – answered.
Ned Stark
By  · Published on April 12th, 2019

After eight-plus years of production, one abandoned book series, and the most uninspired attempt at misdirection ever perpetrated by a television network, the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin‘s immensely popular Game of Thrones series is finally coming to an end. It’s been a long and a winding road, and while the recent seasons have emphasized conclusion over continuity, it’s hard not to be wonder how this whole thing will turn out. Which is why here, in the end, we’re going to do what we do best: look back at the beginning and see how far the conversation about Game of Thrones has come since its initial release.

It may seem ridiculous now – when every major entertainment site, this one included, is running a dozen-plus pieces about the cultural legacy of Game of Thrones – but there was a time when a television adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire series seemed like a major gamble. When A Clash of Kings hit the New York Times Best Sellers list in 1999, Martin was courted by multiple producers who wanted to turn his books into a movie. “It took three films to make Lord of the Rings, and the entirety of Lord of the Rings, all three of Tolkien’s books, is only the size of one of my books,” Martin told the New York Times days before the first episode of the HBO series was released. “So we’re talking 20 films. What studio’s going to commit to 20 films?”

Even after Martin found the right platform for an adaptation, it would still take years for Game of Thrones to find its way to the small screen. HBO officially acquired the rights in January 2007; the show premiere on April 17, 2011. Because the show was so faithful to its source material out of the gate – and because Game of Thrones fans had long reveled in the complexity of these books – the earliest reviews walked a fine line between referencing the books and ignoring the storylines. And those that did acknowledge Martin’s work often did their best to downplay the confusion and complexity they had to offer.

It’s easy to forget that fantasy as a genre was deemed a tough sell for television writers in 2011. “Game of Thrones is more fascinated with corruption and decadence,” Boston Globe critic Matthew Gilbert wrote. “That’s what helps give the show more range than you might expect from fantasy.” The Chicago Tribune even ran a full-page feature the Friday before the premiere explaining why Game of Thrones could be appreciated by the non-fantasy crowd. “Yes, the characters speak of dragons and gods and White Walkers,” admitted Curt Wagner, “but there’s nothing whimsical about the magic in Westeros. Every fantastical element is grounded in stark reality.”

This idea – that Game of Thrones should be celebrated despite, not because of, its status as a fantasy series – was woven into many of the show’s earliest reviews. “That it’s a fantasy series shouldn’t scare anyone away,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman, “because – like Lord of the Rings – there’s a real allure to costume-dramas that pair dense mythology with all of the crowd-pleasing elements of war, honor, pride, lust, power and, yes, even humor.” Culture writers and critics alike were drawing a line in the sand: here is fantasy, and here is grown-up fantasy, and Game of Thrones falls easily on the more mature side.

Many reviews – positive and negative – acknowledged that Game of Thrones seemed to be constructed with primarily (only) a male audience in mind. “There’s often a discomfiting amount of female nudity,” A.V. Club writer Todd VanDerWerff argued in his review of the pilot, noting that there seemed to be a “cold calculation” by the showrunners of how they could leverage nudity to appeal to their audience. Wired‘s Dylan Tweeney agreed. “There’s seemingly no bit of exposition, by the way, that can’t be improved by a bit of nudity,” he wrote, one of several pokes at the show’s gratuitous nudity in his write-up.

Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times took things a step further, dismissing the entire series as generally unpalatable to women. “Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half,” she wrote, leading to the inevitable deluges of emails and negative tweets by male readers who felt she misunderstood the point of the series and female readers who took offense as Bellafante’s assertion that no woman would ever read the Game of Thrones books. “There is room for a discussion of Martin’s books, and the genre as a whole, from a feminist perspective,” wrote HuffPost contributor Ilana Teitelbaum. “But that is very different from dismissing the genre outright as ‘boy fiction.'” Even in its earliest days, Game of Thrones was already raising questions of how its male and female audiences might navigate the material differently.

Finally, even after a handful of episodes, critics could already feel that the size and scope of Game of Thrones set it apart from like-minded shows. “There’s a richness of story detail here that not even a three-hour movie can equal,” wrote Postmedia critic Alex Strachan. “And when it’s done well – and Game of Thrones is done very well, indeed. At times – the effect is special.” Others pointed out that the show – while good – moved at a pace that seemed ill-suited to the seven-ish seasons needed to capture all of Martin’s proposed books. While Verne Gay of the McClatchy Newspapers publishers loved much of the show, she also noted its lack of urgency and its penchant for being “obsessively dedicated to the proposition that no detail is too small, no line of dialogue too obscure, to stuff on the screen.”

Now, of course, these questions have been answered. Fantasy has become a staple of prestige television; Game of Thrones never did get around to sorting out its male gaze, and the density of the show would eventually give way to blockbuster set pieces as Game of Thrones moved desperately to consolidate storylines once it moved past its source material. But whether you are finishing this season of Game of Thrones out of love, obligation, or hate, there’s something to looking back at how different the series was once it finally made its way to television. We may never see a series like this again.

In this series…

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)