You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn't like HBO's "Game of Thrones." Beloved by viewers (even those who haven't read the books), "Thrones" is a critical darling and an Emmy success story. Ratings have been so strong that the show has repeatedly been renewed for another season before the current season finished airing.
But there are a small group of professionals who might have mixed feelings about "Game of Thrones." The pilot for "Thrones" was filmed in 2009, and the series was greenlit by HBO in 2010. But between the filming of the pilot and the filming of the very first episode, a number of actors left the project. Some left of their own choice, while others were replaced after their performances in the pilot failed to entrance those who saw the pilot.
With two seasons of "Thrones" complete, and a third season filming now, this is a good time to look back at the pilot and ask a simple question: Should the actors and actresses who were in the original pilot have stayed on or was replacing them a smart choice?
One of the biggest names attached to the "Thrones" pilot was Jennifer Ehle, a Tony- and BAFTA-award winning actress who is perhaps best known for her performance as Elizabeth Bennet in 1995's six-part "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries. Ehle played Catelyn Stark, Ned Stark's wife, in the pilot. However, after the series got greenlit, Ehle bowed out of the role for personal reasons. It was rumored that despite being a fan of the books, she was uncertain about such a long-term contractual commitment.
Ehle was then replaced by Michelle Fairley. It was perhaps a poor move for Ehle, who is arguably the better actress, but a great boon for Fairley. To the average viewer, Fairley's most memorable role was the very minor part of Mrs. Granger in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1." Getting the role of Catelyn Stark was a huge boost to Fairley's fame.
Another casting swap between the pilot and the first episode was for the part of Daenerys Targaryen. Originally played by willowy blonde Tamzin Merchant, the role is now played by Emilia Clarke, who has become a fan favorite for her emotive portrayal of the dragon queen. Merchant, best known for playing the delicate Georgiana Darcy in the 2005 version of "Pride & Prejudice," would have been a harder sell for the later episodes, where she comes into her own and becomes a leader. Though Merchant has more experience, it's hard to imagine any actress other than Clarke in this now-iconic role.
One last, notable cast switchup was the role of Magister Illyrio. Originally played by Ian McNeice, the role was taken over by Roger Allam (best known for playing Prothero in "V for Vendetta" in 2006). McNeice had to leave the production due to scheduling conflicts. While Allam is an actor who has twice won a Laurence Olivier award, McNeice does have a wonderfully resonant quality to his voice that "Thrones" fans missed out on. On the other hand, perhaps that scheduling conflict was what enabled McNeice to take on the role of Winston Churchill on four episodes of "Doctor Who"-- a worthy trade-off for fans of both programs.