The untold truth of Game of Thrones

In 2016, more than 23 million people watched each episode of Game of Thrones, eager to find out which intricate plots would unfold onscreen. But did you know some of the most interesting storylines actually take place behind the scenes? Take a closer look at some of the little-known truths of HBO's fantasy hit. Warning: contains spoilers.

Pop quiz, hotshots

Author George R.R. Martin had long been notoriously reluctant to adapt his novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, because he didn't want the onscreen version to tarnish the brilliance of his books. So when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss approached him for HBO, Martin agreed on one condition: they had to answer one question. He asked them who they believed Jon Snow's true parents are, and when Benioff and Weiss gave the correct answer, Martin gave his blessing. While the rest of the world finally learned during the season six finale that Jon Snow is really the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, we have to admire Benioff and Weiss for sussing out the truth years ago.

HBO nearly canceled it before it aired

You heard that right: the original pilot episode wasn't that great. HBO executives and producers were so unhappy, they almost ended the show before it began. Actress Sophie Turner said, "We had to re-shoot basically all of it because it was really bad." Showrunners also made major changes to the cast. Notably, Emilia Clarke was brought on to replace Tamzin Merchant in the role of Daenerys Targaryen, and Michelle Fairley took over Catelyn Stark from Jennifer Ehle. The original pilot never aired, which is a shame—we'd really like to see George R.R. Martin's cameo during Daenerys' wedding scene. "It was, sad to say, left on the cutting-room floor," Martin explained. "I was a Pentoshi nobleman in the background, wearing a gigantic hat."

Congratulations, everyone hates you!

Until Ramsay Snow hit the screen during season three, Joffrey Baratheon was perhaps the most universally despised character on the show. Irish actor Jack Gleeson did such a convincing job as the sadistic boy-king that Martin sent him this note: "Congratulations on your marvelous performance; everyone hates you!" Gee, thanks, George.

Lady Stoneheart

If you're a show-only fan of the series, you might be unaware that one of the most important and celebrated book characters is missing. In the novels, the Red Wedding isn't the end of the story for doomed matriarch Catelyn Stark. Instead, the Freys throw her naked body into the river, where it floats for three days before being recovered by Beric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood without Banners. Beric demands that red priest Thoros of Myr give her the breath of life—as he's already done for Dondarrion countless times. Thoros refuses—it's been too long, he says. Undaunted, Lord Beric bends and gives her the rite himself, which causes him to die as the spark of life passes to Lady Catelyn.

When she rises, her skin is grey and melting in places like tallow, her hair has turned brittle and white, and her face is a mass of shredded wounds filled with clotted black blood—a result of Catelyn raking her face with her fingernails following Robb's death. She cannot speak, because the "bloody bastards cut her throat too deep for that. But she remembers." She remembers, and she hates. Catelyn Stark is dead, and Lady Stoneheart's reign has begun. She becomes the leader of the Brotherhood, and directs them in a bloody campaign of vengeance against Lannisters and Freys.

Why is she so important? Because—spoiler warning—she eventually captures Brienne and Pod, and threatens to hang them if Brienne doesn't betray Jaime and kill him with Oathkeeper. The last we see of the Kingslayer, he's riding off into the wilderness after Brienne tells him she needs his help. Obviously, this storyline is completely different from the direction of the show, which may explain why so many book-readers have been up in arms over Lady Stoneheart's absence. What do we want? Zombie Cat! When do we want it? Four seasons ago!

Me nem nesa

Although Martin only created a rudimentary outline for the fictional languages of his novels, Game of Thrones producers required a much broader vocabulary to use on the show. They turned to Language Creation Society founder David J. Peterson, and he created entire languages for both Dothraki and Valyrian, including grammatical rules and pronunciation guides. Some of the vocabulary was influenced by other popular shows, however. On The Office, character Dwight Schrute (played by Rainn Wilson) teaches Erin some Dothraki phrases in a scene and uses a new form of grammar while doing so. Peterson was so impressed by this that he added the new grammatical rules to his guide, calling it the "Schrutean Compound."

If you'd like to learn either language yourself, start here. Bonus points if you can translate the phrase we used above.

The Red Wedding really happened

Well, sort of. Martin frequently draws from real history for his books, and a notably nasty incident in Scottish history served as inspiration for the infamous Red Wedding in season 3. In 1440, William, the 16-year-old Earl of Douglas and his 10-year-old brother were invited to a feast with James II, the child King of Scotland. The king's advisors dragged the young Earl and his brother outside, gave them a mock trial and then beheaded them both. The incident would later be known as "The Black Dinner." Similarly, the Purple Wedding where Joffrey meets his maker was based on a real incident: the poisoning and death of England's Prince Eustace at a feast in 1153.

Sometimes fans do the work

While Martin created a lush and vibrantly detailed world in A Song of Ice and Fire, he does occasionally leave things out. As a result, Benioff and Weiss sometimes have to use their own imaginations—or that of others—to fill in the gaps. In one prominent example from season 6, the show's costumers were tasked with creating a sigil buckle for Howland Reed (played by Leo Woodruff) to wear during the Tower of Joy flashback scenes. Martin had described it in the books as an alligator-like "lizard-lion," but he never offered a complete description. Luckily, fans have been creating artwork based on Martin's vision for years, and producers must have been impressed with at least one image: they copied it exactly.

Real horsepower

In season 6, during the breathtaking cavalry charge of the Battle of the Bastards, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) stands alone on the battlefield as Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) and Umber horsemen ride toward him at breakneck speed. But Snow's army suddenly rushes up behind him, igniting one of the show's most impressive battle scenes. If you thought it had to be green-screen trickery, however, you were wrong. Showrunners revealed in a behind-the-scenes video that those were 80 real, live horses charging Harrington at full gallop.

Lady got a happy ending

One of the most heartbreaking moments on Game of Thrones came during season 1, when Prince Joffrey orders the death of Arya Stark's beloved direwolf Nymeria. When the Lannister soldiers can't locate Arya's pet, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) orders that Sansa's direwolf—Lady—be killed instead. Although Ned Stark (Sean Bean) did give Lady a swift and merciful death, the gentle pup's final whimper still haunts us. Thankfully, Lady (or rather, the Northern Inuit dog that portrays her) got a happier ending: Actress Sophie Turner bonded with the animal during the shoot, and she adopted her.

Let the bodies hit the floor

How did producers create that impressive pile of bodies on the battlefield during the battle for Winterfell in season 6? A behind-the-scenes video from HBO reveals that all the bodies were actually life-sized dummies, not computer-generated fakery. The crew acquired hundreds of mannequins, dressed them in appropriate House Umber and House Bolton armor, then coated them in mud and fake blood and piled them in a gigantic heap. Even the dead horses among the men are dummies equipped with saddles.

Lady Ygritte

Unlike the rough-around-the-edges Wildling she portrays on television, English actress Rose Leslie grew up in an actual castle. As a child the actress lived in Lickleyhead Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland. Her father, Sebastian Arbuthnot-Leslie is a chieftain of the Leslie clan, and the 17th-century castle has been in their family for more than 500 years. If you'd like to see where our favorite "kissed by fire" Wildling grew up, you can rent the entire castle out for just $800 a night.

More than meets the eye

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) have purple eyes and Game of Thrones showrunners planned for them to have them on the show, as well. Unfortunately, the purple contacts affected Clarke so badly that producers decided to ditch the contacts and re-shoot the scenes with her natural baby blues. And that's not the only eye-opening tale from the set: During most of season six, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is blinded during her training with the Faceless Men. In order to accurately portray the role, Williams wore completely opaque 16mm-thick contact lenses for her speaking scenes, and a pair with only a pinhole in the center during fight scenes.

Nom nom nom

We all remember the scene. In perhaps one of the most memorable moments from Season 1, Daenerys chows down on a stallion heart in order to win the approval of the Dosh Khaleen. Well, Emilia Clarke wasn't faking her disgust—the "horse heart" she was eating was made of a gummy bear-like substance, which had been injected with a red sugary syrup so "blood" would realistically burst out of the heart and flow down her face as she ate. Just because something is sweet doesn't make it palatable, though. Clarke described it as "sort of a congealed jam kind of thing" and claims that she spent much of the day "heaving into a bucket" in between the multiple takes it took to complete the scene.

A Lannister always pays his debts

While Tyrion and Cersei have a very contentious relationship on the show, that isn't true for actors Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey. These two on-screen siblings are actually great friends in real life and have been for some time. It was actually Dinklage who suggested to Headey that she audition for the role of Cersei after he had landed the part of Tyrion. The two were filming together on the set of the film Pete Smalls is Dead, and Dinklage was reading the script for the Game of Thrones pilot. Headey took his advice, show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss loved her audition, and the rest is history.

Reading is for nerds

Despite the show passing the plot of the books in Season 6, a large contingent of the cast still has not read the novels the series is based on. Currently, there are five books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, and only a handful of the Game of Thrones actors have read them all. Notably, Maisie Williams hasn't read any of the books, nor has Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, or Liam Cunningham (Davos, didn't Shireen teach you better than that?). Iain Glen has read only the first book, but reported to RadioTimes that show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss like it that way. "They didn't particularly want actors coming to the scripts from the book, always suggesting what the book did and how it was different," Glen claimed, "I could see the glazed look in their eyes when that happened." So who has done their homework? Hats off to Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Alfie Allen, Ian McElhinney, and Gwendoline Christie.

This is the end

While there has been more than enough dark humor in the Game of Thrones fandom about George R.R. Martin dying before he finishes the novel series, apparently Martin himself considered it to be smart to clue the show creators in on how it all ends—just in case. David Benioff reported to Vanity Fair that they spent a week in 2013 with George R.R. Martin at his Santa Fe home. "If you know the ending, then you can lay the groundwork for it," Benioff explained. "And so we want to know how everything ends. We want to be able to set things up. So we just sat down with him and literally went through every character." With only two seasons—13 episodes—left to go in the series, the show will need to rapidly accelerate the plot to wrap everything up before the final credits roll.

The auditions

In the years since Game of Thrones has become a worldwide sensation, audition videos for some of the show's stars have surfaced online. It's quite amazing to see how the actor's portrayals of their characters have evolved since their initial auditions—especially in the cases of the child actors, many of whom had no prior experience. Here are some of our favorites: Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, Rory McCann, Jason Momoa, and the audition reel ultra-cut above provided by HBO.

Westeros' Got Talent

In addition to acting on one of the hottest shows on television, quite a few of the Game of Thrones cast members are also talented musicians. Jerome Flynn (Bronn) had a successful music career in the '90s as part of English pop cover duo Robson & Jerome. Both of their studio albums hit #1 on the charts and had multi-platinum sales in the UK. Iwan Rheon is also a musician and released his first full-length solo album, called Dinard, in 2015. Natalia Tena is the lead singer and plays accordion for the ska/gypsy/salsa fusion band Molotov Jukebox. Kristian Nairn is a talented DJ and plays shows all around the world.

Michiel Huisman was part of a Dutch band named Fontane in the early 2000s before embarking on a solo music career. Carice van Houten is also a singer and released an album in 2012 called See You On The Ice. Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays bass in a band called Winnet alongside his mother, sister, and father. Ed Skrein (who played Daario in Season 3) is a rapper. Last but not least, Jonathan Pryce is a talented musical theater performer. Not only did he star in the film musical Evita, but he also originated the part of The Engineer in the popular musical Miss Saigon—a role for which he won a Tony Award.

It runs in the family

Although many Game of Thrones actors have become famous around the world for their roles on the show, for several members of the cast, fame runs in the family. For example, Oona Chaplin (Talisa) is the granddaughter of silent film sensation Charlie Chaplin and was named after her grandmother, Charlie's fourth wife. Harry Lloyd (Viserys) is the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, and Lloyd even wrote his college thesis about his famous ancestor. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen) is a second cousin of English actor Hugh Grant. Alfie Allen (Theon) is the little brother of singer Lily Allen, and she even once wrote a song about what a slacker he was.

Who's that guy?

On any show that runs more than a single season, it's usually inevitable that the series' creators will have to deal with recasting a character in the middle of a show's run. Thankfully on Game of Thrones, that has only happened with secondary characters so far. Notably, Gregor Clegane has been portrayed by three different actors since the first season, with Icelandic actor and strongman Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson currently in the role. The dragon queen's erstwhile love interest Daario Naharis was played by a blonde and long-haired Ed Skrein in Season 3 but was replaced by Michiel Huisman in Season 4.

Tommen Baratheon was played by Callum Wharry during the first two seasons, who was then replaced by Dean-Charles Chapman. (Chapman had previously played a bit part as Martyn Lannister, whom Lord Karstark kills.) Nell Tiger Free replaced Aimee Richardson in the role of Myrcella Baratheon in Season 5. In Season 6, Vladimir Furdik took the helm of the Night King over from Richard Brake, and Max Von Sydow became the new Three-Eyed Raven, replacing Struan Rodger.

Throne facts

In the books, the Iron Throne is gigantic, made of a thousand swords and with actual stairs you have to climb to reach the seat. For the purposes of Game of Thrones, the show's producers decided to with something a little more realistic. The throne on the show is made of more practical materials like resin and paint, but it does hide some pretty awesome Easter eggs—if you know where to look. When the prop-makers were creating the throne for the show, they reused molds of swords from other productions along with generic ones. If you look closely, you should be able to spot Gandalf's sword, Glamdring, from the Lord of the Rings films, as well as swords from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Eyrie, the weirwood throne upon which Lysa sits and dispenses (her idea of) justice was given lots of care by the production team. HBO revealed in its Season 1 production diary that the prop is made from three pieces of wood welded together, and it is so massively heavy that it required a crane to move it into place. In Season 7, we're going to get our first look at the throne at Dragonstone, the ancestral Targaryen seat. The show's set developers chose to model the Targaryen throne upon the amazing flysch rock formations found at Zumaia in Spain, where part of the Dragonstone filming took place this year.

The truth about Valyrian steel

In the series, Valyrian steel is a mysterious substance which only was made in Valyria before the Doom. The art of making the metal—which required spells and possibly dragonfire—has long since been lost to modern blacksmiths of Westeros and Essos. Did you know that Valyrian steel was based on a real-life metal? Damascus steel was a rare material much like Valyrian steel, with beautiful rippled patterns and an unnaturally sharp edge, that really existed and was commonly made by blacksmiths before 1750. But the art of creating Damascus steel has long been lost to time, and nobody knows how to make it today. While some smiths today have attempted to reverse-engineer and recreate the process, nobody has yet struck upon the ancient formula.

The Night King vs. the Night's King

On the show, the Night King is the imposing leader of the White Walkers. While his appearance is based on the White Walkers from the books, the show has added much of its own invention to this character. In the books, there is a character named the Night's King, but he is mostly unrelated to the White Walkers. The Night's King was the 13th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch—before he deserted his post to pursue a woman who was as cold as ice, "with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars."

He sets up his own dominion in the Nightfort, which he ruled as a king for 13 years. During his reign, horrible atrocities were committed, and many men of the Night's Watch died. It wasn't until the King in the North joined forces with the King-Beyond-The-Wall that the Night's King was finally defeated. Additionally, in the books the White Walkers do not appear to have any noticeable social structure or hierarchy, let alone a king. So other than the name, there's no real connection to the Night King as seen on the show.

Rip out their tongues

Game of Thrones is a television sensation around the world, but some countries aren't as enthusiastic about the show as others. For example, when China's state TV station began re-airing the series in 2014, fans quickly noticed that the governmental agency had heavily censored the episodes before they aired—cutting as much as 20 minutes of footage from the episodes. Additionally, in Turkey, the government banned the show in 2014 from being played at the country's military training schools—citing a desire to protect recruits from viewing images of "sexual exploitation, pornography, exhibitionism, abuse, harassment and all negative behaviors."

Bought the farm

Game of Thrones helped save one Irish farmer from going out of business, and some of his livestock from extinction. At Forthill Farm in County Armagh, Kenny Gracey and his wife raise farm animals of all kinds—including several very rare breeds. Before HBO came knocking, Gracey said that the farm had been "struggling to make ends meet after the recession hit." For the show, the producers did not want to use modern farm animals that would look out of place in the medieval setting. So they turned to Gracey and his wife, who were quite happy to provide the show with sheep, goats, deer, chickens, and even two pigs from a rare and ancient breed. Because of the show, his farm has seen a resurgence over the last several years, and Gracey reports that the series "did help save my passion for rare animal breeding," which means that he can focus more on saving more farm animal breeds from the brink.

Mother of sea slugs

You have probably heard about all the parents who have named their newborns after characters in the show. With the population of little Aryas and Khaleesis on the rise, it shouldn't be too surprising that a group of scientists was also inspired by the show. In 2013, Brazilian biologists discovered a new series of sea slug and were inspired to name it Tritonia khaleesi after the Mother of Dragons. They chose the name because they thought part of the slug looked like the queen's braided hairstyle.

Wandering minstrels

In addition to all the musically talented actors on Game of Thrones, there have also been quite a few musicians to have had cameos on the show through the years. Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody sang a little Westerosi ditty as Vargo Hoat's crew escorted Jaime and Brienne to Harrenhal. Coldplay drummer Will Champion was among the Frey musicians present at the Red Wedding, and Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Ros performed "The Rains of Castamere" at the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery.

Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds, and Brann Dailor of metal group Mastodon made an appearance as wildling wights during the battle at Hardhome, and Mastodon front man Brent Hinds will make a reappearance in season seven in the same role. Additionally, British band Bastille are set to appear as wildlings during Season 7, and singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran will also make a cameo, which was orchestrated as a surprise for his fan, Maisie Williams.

Stunt butt

While many Jon Snow fans may have swooned when we got a glimpse of his bare bottom during the cave scene with Ygritte, unfortunately that wasn't the real deal. Harington revealed in an interview with RadioTimes that shortly before filming was to begin for that season of Game of Thrones, he fell from his roof during a drunken attempt to retrieve his keys. When Harington fell, he broke an ankle, which left him unable to film full-length shots for the first few weeks of the filming schedule, including the cave scene. Luckily, a similarly built crew member stepped in to help out, but he had to cut off his luxurious long black hair in order to play the part. "so the only time you saw my ass, it wasn't my ass," Harington concludes. We've been buttboozled!