Indeed, all of the variables, at least on paper, pointed to an auspicious formula for accomplishing the ambitious aim of showcasing a fantastical tale. Set during the ancient “Age of Heroes,” the story would become relegated to Westerosi legend—as briefly teased on the main series in Bran Stark’s warg-induced flashbacks—about the origin of the Children of the Forest, and the vengeful member of the First Men who would become the Night King and unleash the white walkers and an undead army of wights during the Long Night, a period of perennial darkness across the known world. Moreover, with its era set around 8,000 years before the main series, the prequel would have operated in a version of Westeros that—in an arguably refreshing manner—is unrecognizable to fans. In fact, in 2019, Martin himself teased a chaotic dynamic due to a setting filled with 100 separate “petty kingdoms,” although guaranteeing the presence of direwolves and white walkers.
However, based on Greenblatt’s comments, the pilot didn’t seem to evoke the Game of Thrones branding in a strong enough manner to justify its existence. It’s an understandable notion, given the project’s clear detachment from most familiar and iconic elements from the main series. While hardcore fans would be excited to see a radically different, practically-prehistoric version of Westeros, the larger demographic of casual watercooler viewers would likely struggle to make meaningful connections. Additionally, with the main series having already played out the threat of the Night King in his attempt to recreate the Long Night and conquer Westeros, starting with Winterfell, such stakes would be a hard sell. Plus, some theorists believe that the duo of Clarkson and Goldman took the ancient setting—and its mythical status in Martin’s lore—as a license to take the series in unproductively anachronistic directions that would have further alienated the series from the sacred small screen continuity and its literary source material.
Regardless, upon the 2019 completion of the exorbitant pilot, HBO quickly impaled it with a proverbial dragonglass dagger, shattering its series hopes to pieces. “So, we unfortunately decided to pull the plug on it,” explained Greenblatt. “There was enormous pressure to get it right and I don’t think that would have worked.” However, from what was, in hindsight, an egregiously costly mistake, came a new prequel strategy that will finally bear the fruit that is House of the Dragon. While its 200-years-past setting relegates the series to history, it will nevertheless be a modern tale in the context of the mythos, focused on the travails of Targaryens, Starks and yes, even those damn Lannisters, in familiar settings, with drama that’s more immediately relevant to the main series. Moreover, HBO executives opted to exercise patience by picking a project that works and greenlighting it as a series, rather than blow $30 million on an untested concept. Yet, it’s a lesson that had to be twice-learned, since Game of Thrones famously abandoned its underwhelming original pilot.
“I’m the one who encouraged Casey to greenlight it to series,” said Greenblatt. “I said, ‘Let’s not risk $30 million on a pilot.’ You can’t spend $30 million on a pilot and then not pick it up. So, I said, ‘Let’s not make a pilot. Let’s get a great series that we feel good about, and just make it. Or not.’”
Fortunately, the course correction seems to have proven expedient, since House of the Dragon has been in production since April, and even enticed fans with a trailer in October, teasing a 2022 HBO release date. Additionally, amongst the subsequent slate of mooted prequel projects, it appears that Dunk & Egg—set around 90 years before the main series, following the famous prince and uncouth knight companion—is gaining momentum, with HBO having reportedly hired Steve Conrad (Perpetual Grace, LTD, Patriot) to write and develop a potential series. Yet, it will be interesting to see if “The Long Night” pilot would ever surface, if anything, to mollify our morbid curiosity.