Why House of the Dragon Will Feel So Different from Game of Thrones

We speak with the showrunners and cast of House of the Dragon about creating a very different game of thrones.

Matt Smith in House of the Dragon
Photo: HBO

From its first moments, House of the Dragon looks like a different beast from Game of Thrones, the decade-defining fantasy series from which it sprang. In theory, this should be no surprise considering House of the Dragon is a distant prequel to that former HBO flagship, one which tells the story of the Targaryen dynasty at the height of its power roughly 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones.

Yet upon watching the series premiere of Dragon, the subtle but striking tonal difference between the shows is immediate. You can glimpse from just the far more colorful pageantry that the lords and ladies of Westeros enjoy during the reign of King Viserys I (Paddy Considine). For the new series’ showrunners, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, the latter of whom directed some of Game of Thrones’ most iconic episodes, including “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” that is by design.

“This is one thing we changed from the outset,” Sapochnik says when sitting down, alongside Condal, with Den of Geek. “We wanted to avoid having that tint that the original show had which differentiated where you were.” Sapochnik is referring to the subtle use of color correction on the original show that made the snows of the Wall more frigid, and the golds of King’s Landing more radiant. When watching Game of Thrones, nearly every location was dipped in its own color-coded shading. It was meant to subliminally tell viewers where they were instantly.

“We don’t have that geographical problem,” continues Sapochnik. “We wanted to do stuff [differently] in art direction and the costume design, and it was kind of all in-camera, and therefore it got a lot more colorful.”

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The effect of this is immediately recognizable during the first scene of House of the Dragon, which takes place many years before the rest of the series. In a prologue set during the reign of the previous Targaryen king, Old Jaehaerys I, all the highborn lords and ladies of Westeros gather in the ruins of Harrenhaal to settle a fateful question of succession: will they select Jaehaerys’ oldest living heir Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), who was the daughter of his first son, or Viserys, a grandson born by a younger prince who also passed away before the Old King.

Given the synopsis of the show, and the real-life way many men still react to the prospect of women becoming leaders, it’s not hard to guess how the lords of Westeros vote. Yet the sight of them in their reds and blacks, greens and blues, and even shades of violet, suggest a splendor never seen among the grays and browns often utilized by Game of Thrones.

I think we kept talking about opulence and decadence when we were worldbuilding,” Spachonik explains. “If you imagine the Targaryens, for a long time they became a nomadic race [after the Doom of Old Valyria]. They had to move around, and nomadic races tend to not have a lot of stuff. And then they find their spot with King’s Landing, and they plot and they start making things. So it’s like idle hands.”

The co-showrunner and director even muses that sights already glimpsed, such as the above of Matt Smith’s Prince Daemon Targaryen in a dragon helm during a tournament, are intended to suggest the frivolousness of a dynasty that is going on 70 years without a challenge when House of the Dragon begins.

Says Sapochnik, “We often talked about this idea that at the jousting tournament, they’d be wearing such crazy armor that literally didn’t work because it didn’t protect them, because it really wasn’t about that anymore.”

Yet it is more than just the look of House of the Dragon, and its now monstrously bigger Iron Throne, that is different. As we note to the showrunners, the first episode of the new series feels far more intimate and insular with the focus of three main families all living in the same castle: the Targaryens; the Hightowers, from whom hails one of the richest men in Westeros, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King; and the Velaryons, whose patriarch Ser Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) happens to be the other richest man in the realm. It’s also worth pointing out Corlys is married to Rhaenys Targaryen, the Queen Who Never Was. It all feels a little incestuous, no?

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“Sometimes, literally,” Condal acknowledges with a wry laugh. “The original Game of Thrones started out very broad and wide-spanning. You have the story of the Wall and across the Narrow Sea in the south, and then also people moved around a lot. It was a lot like an odyssey, and then at the end of the series, people came together. But it took seven or eight seasons for Jon and Daenerys to meet, or Tyrion and Jon to reunite, and Tyrion and Daenerys to meet for the first time. Whereas this show starts together under the same roof because it is the story of one family. It’s a Greek tragedy happening in slow-motion.”

In a separate discussion with Matt Smith and Fabien Frankel, the latter of whom plays a Dornish knight named Ser Criston Cole, the subject of those tonal differences comes up again. For his part, Smith says House of the Dragon is more “forensic” in nature.

Frankel adds, “It’s quite interesting to start this way, with the kitchen sink. Everything’s there in this one place, and all these characters are there at the same time. So it’s fascinating, because whereas Game of Thrones starts [with a sprawling setup]… I think in our case, most of us got the chance to work with pretty much everyone else, which is a rarity.”

Of course given that House of the Dragon begins during the prelude of the bloodiest civil war in Westerosi history, close proximity does not necessarily breed kinship. Even among families.

House of the Dragon premieres on Sunday, Aug. 21 on HBO.