George R.R. Martin says Game of Thrones was originally pitched as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire served as the inspiration for HBO’s massively successful fantasy series Game of Thrones. So huge was the GoT universe that HBO is soon to premiere a spinoff, the prequel series House of the Dragon
The original Game of Thrones of course looked like a long-shot to succeed when it first arrived on HBO way back in 2011. The show indeed got off to a rocky start production-wise, as the original pilot had to be largely re-shot before finally airing. Set in the fictional world of Westeros, the show mainly concerned itself with a chess game between various factions vying for power: making the series’ focus a literal “game of thrones” (but with fantasy elements like dragons and magic thrown into the mix).
Given Game of Thrones’ fantasy concept it was indeed no surprise that folks would compare it to that most classic of all literary fantasy stories, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In fact, Lord of the Rings and its Middle Earth setting were brought up by GoT showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss when they originally pitched the series to HBO. But as book author Martin revealed recently in an appearance at the Santa Fe Literary Festival, another show much closer to HBO’s heart was also brought up during that early pitch (via The Independent):
It’s also good in a pitch to compare things to previous things that have been successful. When Game of Thrones was first sold, David Benioff and Dan Weiss – I was still writing the books as I seem to be for the rest of my life, forever – and I was out of television for some years. So David Benioff and Dan Weiss who would eventually be the showrunners, were the guys taking it around, and taking it to HBO and other places to try to get someone to buy them and option them and make them. And their pitch was “Sopranos in Middle Earth.” You have to be able to, high-concept things, you have to be able to say it in a sentence or two, you know?
The Sopranos of course preceded Game of Thrones as the biggest thing on HBO and indeed has been credited with kicking off the entire era of prestige TV. The saga of angst-ridden New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano and his family and mafia compatriots, The Sopranos on the surface could not seem more different than a fantasy show featuring dragons, giants and supernatural ice creatures. But in fact there are certain thematic similarities between The Sopranos and Game of Thrones: both deal heavily with family; both concern characters trying to gain power via brutal violence and behind-the-scenes scheming; and both feature horrific death happening sometimes at the drop of a hat.
Indeed Game of Thrones and The Sopranos would also end up having another important thing in common, as both shows featured controversial endings that are still being debated to this day. And like GoT, The Sopranos would get its own prequel spinoff, the movie The Many Saints of Newark. GoT of course is in line for multiple spinoffs, with House of the Dragon reportedly to be joined eventually by The Sea Snake, The Ten Thousand Ships, The Tales of Dunk and Egg and The Golden Empire. The future of The Sopranos as a franchise however seems much murkier, with nothing officially in the works after Many Saints.
Whether it actually makes sense to compare Game of Thrones in any real way to The Sopranos, Benioff and Weiss’ weird pitch obviously worked as HBO picked up the show. Martin’s story indeed serves as a great lesson to would-be TV writers who want to get the attention of network executives. Just compare your great new idea to something incredibly familiar and successful, even if the comparison seems completely bizarre on its face.