reading while watching

After being constantly chastised by friends for not watching Game of Thrones despite being a film-and-fantasy enthusiast, I finally binge-watched all four seasons of the show in the span of a week during the summer.

I had been meaning to watch the show ever since it first premiered on HBO in 2011 and everyone started gushing about its brilliance, but I’d never actually gotten around to it. By June, frustrated by my inability to comprehend the Game of Thrones references flooding popular culture and confronted by the expanse of summer break that lay before me, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

Needless to say, by the time I was on the third episode, I was absolutely, irrevocably sold.

It wasn’t just the sharp writing, slick production, and stunning, fire-breathing CGI dragons that had me hooked. Watching (and then reading) Game of Thrones gave me the sort of unique, consuming thrill I hadn’t experienced since J.K. Rowling stopped writing the Harry Potter books.

Like millions of kids worldwide, I spent a considerable portion of my childhood at Hogwarts, hungrily reading and re-reading the Harry Potter books and obsessing over the fate of the wizarding world as if my own life depended on it. Though many books and movies I’ve subsequently encountered have been undeniably superior in quality, I’ve never been as invested in any of them as I was in the Harry Potter saga. I’d assumed that this was because I’d never again be the kind of reader I was as a kid, when I had all the time in the world, fewer choices, and a less discerning approach to literature and film. Yet here I was, watching, reading, and breathing Game of Thrones in the same insatiable way I had devoured the Harry Potter books.

When my friends and peers echoed my sentiments, I began to wonder: What was it about these two series that sets them apart from all my other literary and film experiences?

The obvious parallels are, of course, those of genre. Though the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter series couldn’t be more different in subject matter and tone, they both peddle intricately constructed fantastical universes. I have always believed that fantasy has a unique allure because it serves the most primal function of literature and film: escapism. Even so, fantasy remains, in most cases, a niche genre. It is denied the label of ‘serious literature’ and is often considered nerdy and juvenile. Works set in fantastic and alternative realities come and go, sometimes with substantial fanfare along the way, but rarely do they elicit from their consumers the sort of intense, emotional investment that Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have managed to evoke.

Unlike the countless also-rans, the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter series are huge multi-media phenomena whose mass appeal transcends social, cultural, and geographic borders. The Harry Potter series had a uniquely wide multi-national appeal: it has been translated into 67 languages (including Latin) and only the Bible and Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book have exceeded its international sales. As for its movie adaptation, the Harry Potter franchise is the highest grossing film series of all time. Game of Thrones currently enjoys a similar global appeal and holds the dubious distinction of being the most pirated TV show worldwide while the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold over 28 million copies globally.

What makes these two franchises exceptional is that their fandoms bring together not only people of different countries, but also fantasy nerds, critics, and laymen alike. Game of Thrones has received ten Emmys and attracted an online fanbase so passionate that some of its members have reputedly figured out the series’ end. To top it all off, it is now the most-watched show in television history. The show has swept across cultural barriers with such triumph that the world now seems to simply consist of two kinds of people: people who watch Game of Thrones, and people who don’t.

It isn’t just the fact that the series enjoys such massive crossover fandom that makes reading and watching them such an exhilarating experience; another factor is at play here. When children my age—the target audience for Harry Potter—were reading the series, J.K. Rowling was still writing the books, and the release of each new book spawned intense theorizing and anticipation.  As I waited anxiously for my copy of The Deathly Hallows, I played out various possible climactic scenarios in my mind and contemplated their consequences for the magical community and for my own life. Pre-order sales of the last few books in the series broke all records, and I was aware that I was participating in an exercise of speculation alongside the whole world.

Similarly, the Game of Thrones books and TV series are both still being produced as my peers and I are consuming them, and they have generated the same kind of collective anticipation among us. An enormous portion of current conversation in popular culture is devoted to conjecture about the fate of the Iron Throne, and a million theories ranging from ridiculous to ridiculously elaborate abound on the Internet. The thrill of fervent anticipation is so addictive that Game of Thrones spoiler threats have become an almost legitimate form of blackmail, and spoiler alerts seem to have taken on the gravity of trigger warnings. The result is that when we read each new book or watch each new season of the show, we have the feeling that we’re witnessing history being written live, right before our eyes.

Neither of these factors exclusively produces the same effect. The Lord of the Rings series and the Star Wars franchise are both similar fictional epics that had (and still have) huge, crossover appeal and devoted fanbases, but by the time a kid my age was old enough to read and watch them, their stories had already been written. For me, they lacked the thrill of contemporaneity. Many very popular TV shows have the this and generate intense anticipation, but few muster the sort of multi-media, multi-national and multi-demographic appeal that the Harry Potter series had or Game of Thrones currently enjoys.

It is a combination of both these factors  that produces the unparalleled excitement of collective participation in a phenomenon-in-the-making, and makes both these series such uniquely fulfilling experiences.  Reading Harry Potter or watching Game of Thrones is the literary equivalent of head-banging to your favorite band at a years-long, worldwide rock concert. It isn’t just the music that makes the experience so special, it’s the liveness of the moment, shared with the hundreds of diverse yet equally passionate fans in the arena, that makes it electrifying. If Hogwarts was the old arena, the crowds are now thronging to Westeros, ready to bang their heads to the tune of A Song of Ice and Fire—and I am gladly following the herd.

First published Post- Magazine, September 24, 2014. Illustration by Amanda Googe. 

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