HBO’s hit drama series Game of Thrones returns for a fourth season on Sunday, April 6, to the delight of fans and critics alike. Even for a prestigious network like HBO, Game of Thrones provides an almost unparalleled injection of critical acclaim and cultural buzz to HBO’s lineup.
Game of Thrones is adapted from the high-fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, which consists of five published books and two more planned novels. A Song of Ice and Fire is credited with revitalizing the fantasy genre in literature by practically subverting it, shying away from the classic “good vs. evil” tropes in favor of a grittier, realistic political approach.
David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two writers who were tasked with adapting the gigantic series for the small screen, took to selling the series’ concept as “The West Wing in Middle Earth,” referencing the famous NBC political drama and J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings.
With a plot so epic in scale and a cast of characters in the hundreds, the Song of Ice and Fire series could never have worked as a movie. Only a television show, with its serialized storytelling over dozens of hours, would suit the novels. Even though the series was being adapted for the small screen, that doesn't mean it would be cheap. Game of Thrones is one of the most expensive TV series to produce in history, and its budget has increased concurrently with its popularity.
HBO started out the series with an extraordinary budget, which allowed for rich production values typically found in feature films. As the series has exceeded even the wildest of expectations, HBO has increased the show’s budget even more. Buoyed by the show’s success, HBO now spends more on a season of Game of Thrones than many film studios budget for a blockbuster movie.
The show actually saved some money by casting relatively unknown actors and actresses for most major parts. While established actors Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage contributed excellent performances, the bulk of the show’s success was built by up-and-coming actors rather than established stars. Performers like Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Aidan Gillen, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, once unknown to the entertainment world, are now household names and stars of the television’s hottest series.
By finding fantastic value in cheaper acting talent, the producers of Game of Thrones were able to spend more on things like exotic filming locations, complicated sets, ornate costumes, huge special effects, and even research like language development and sword fighting instruction.
The result was a series that looked and felt real even as it told the story of warring medieval political forces in an increasingly supernatural world. With a budget of more than $7 million per episode for the upcoming season, the continued success of the series both critically and financially is a safe bet. Here is a look at the top five most expensive production costs in the Game of Thrones television series.
5 Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister: $150,000 Per Episode
Unlike most of the cast, Lena Headey came to Game of Thrones with a resume full of impressive acting credits. Headey even had experience playing a fantasy queen before, from her turn as Queen Guinevere in the TV miniseries Merlin. In Game of Thrones, Headey plays scheming Cersei Lannister, queen of the seven kingdoms and daughter to the richest man on the continent. Cersei is a character most fans love to hate, so it takes an especially rich acting skill set to play a despised character with the kind of passion needed to sustain her heavy involvement in the plot. For those skills, Headey is paid handsomely, at $1.5 million for a 10-episode season.
4 Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister: $150,000 Per Episode
3 Season 1 Per Episode Budget: $6 Million
Season one of the show introduced millions of new fans to the series, and it had to walk the tightrope of being accessible to new viewers while satisfying the expectation of the books’ super fans, whose reaction to the adaptation would surely drive the critical talking points of the show’s freshman season.
The first season succeeded on both fronts. Season one of the series opened with a CGI-rich pilot, but then quickly shifted focus away from the supernatural to the political in-fighting that characterizes the show’s main plot. Focusing on the struggle for power in the nation’s capital, King's Landing, between the honorable Stark family and the wealthy, amoral Lannisters, the first season of the show hooked viewers with its mix of fantasy and political realism. None of this came cheap for HBO, which spent about $6 million per episode in the first year, not counting the series pilot, which cost even more.
2 Season 2-3 Per Episode Budget: $7 Million
As the series picked up steam both critically and in the ratings, HBO saw fit to invest another 15 percent in the yearly budget, bumping up the per-episode budget to around $7 million. It came at a good time, too, as season two of the series required a good deal more action, fighting, and supernatural scenes to be filmed.
The bigger budget was surely useful in the climax of the second season, which depicted a spectacular battle in Blackwater Bay, the harbor guarding the capital city of King's Landing. Though the script originally called for a whopping nine ships to be built and filmed, producers got by with just one, using camera tricks and clever editing to give the appearance of a harbor full of boats.
1 Pilot: $10 Million
According to a Vanity Fair interview with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the Game of Thrones pilot they originally filmed was so poorly made it had to be discarded, and the creative team had to start over from scratch. Looks like that decision paid off, as the second version of the pilot was beloved by both old fans of the Song of Ice and Fire books and viewers new to the series.
The pilot opens with an expensive, CGI-laden scene featuring rangers of the Night’s Watch as they encounter “White Walkers,” the undead ice zombies whose presence serves as both a ticking time-bomb and the embodiment of symbolic dread throughout the series. After filming that scene, an adaptation of the first book’s prologue, all that was left was for the pilot to introduce the large ensemble cast and the several principal locations for the first season’s fast-moving plot. With filming locations in Malta, Ireland, and Scotland, the first episode cost $10 million to produce, ranking it as one of the most expensive television pilots of all time.