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Hey, book readers vs. show watchers: Just chill

Contributed by
Sep 4, 2018

This year has not been good to the fandom. Toxic behavior, trolls forcing actors to abandon social media, petitions to remake entire films, and shameless Twitter rants have dominated the conversation when it comes to fan bases across genres and media. Belonging to a fandom has always been a kind of double-edged-sword situation, but the emergence of Peak TV has finally brought a nasty war before contained to the dark and dingy recesses of the internet (read: Reddit) to the harsh light of day.

That’s right. We’re going there.

It’s finally time to end the battle between book readers and show watchers once and for all, and as someone who toes both sides of the line, I’ve decided to shoulder this great burden so the rest of you won’t have to bear it. (I’ve also become completely numb to the daily death threats in my DMs with a potent mix of dark chocolate and dessert wine, so really, there’s no stopping me, trolls!)

Let’s begin.

Gather round, children, and let this elder millennial spin you the tale of when books, not TV shows, were the most popular form of entertainment. It was the age of Xanga, Myspace, and AOL Chat. Flip phones and sidekicks had yet to be crushed under the capitalist heel of Apple smartphones. There were no streaming platforms, Blockbuster was thriving, and books were fetch. (Fetch, sadly, never happened, but if you don’t get that reference, pay attention, this is for you.) Most of the offerings on TV were sitcom comedies or family dramas. Buffy the Vampire Slayer came around eventually, but if you were a genre lover, TV was slim pickings.

Books, on the other hand, opened a fantastical new world. Schools of witchcraft and wizarding, medieval fantasy epics about warring houses, Twilight – we know better now, but the early aughts were a strange time filled with angst and confusing hormones that made sparkling, pedophilic vampires and shapeshifting a**hole bros seem forbidden and, therefore, desirable – they were all explored on the page first. A connection was made with each word read, that source material becoming a holy grail.

Then something changed. People in power, the “tastemakers,” started to catch on to the profitability of genre. They discovered that hordes of teenage girls repping Team Jacob or Team Edward would spend money on movie tickets, that geeks outfitted in wizarding robes would shell out for theme park adventures and gimmicky merchandise. And so genre made its way to film and, eventually, to the small screen too.

Now we’re living in the age of Peak TV, where trilogies, miniseries, and long-running shows are being crafted from the kind of genre fare once relegated to book nerd status. Outlander, The 100, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, all of these series began with a book, and so we now have a divide between source material purists, people who devoured these stories on the page, and bandwagon show watchers, people who’ve come to them through the medium of television.

That divide is a deep trench into which the vilest of Reddit comments and subtweets have been hurled. Spoilers live there as well, as smug Twitter threads and a handful of Wikipedia page entries, and for plenty of fans, shouting pompous nonsense and whining about book-informed predictions into the void of that trench seems like a fine way to vent their frustration and anger.

But what if, now stick with me, we bridge the damn divide already?

What if book readers could just chill the f*ck out? Congratulations, you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, you have posters of your divine fantasy overlord George R.R. Martin pinned all over your walls, you know what a loss that axed Lady Stoneheart subplot truly was. Is your viewing experience superior to mine just because you’ve managed to ingest thousands of pages of (let’s just say it) dry writing while I’ve chosen to follow the story episode by episode?

And show watchers, you’re not off the hook either. Yes, spoilers are insidious, tempting things. No one wants a Red Wedding or Professor Snape’s death ruined before it plays out on screen, but when it comes to watching a genre show or film based on a book (or a series of them), ignorance is not always bliss. Crying foul play every time something slightly spoilery stumbles its way onto your Tumblr feed even as you’ve made the conscious decision not to read the source material a show is based on isn’t a good way to gain sympathy.

I know these are hard truths to contend with, especially as a genre lover. For a long time, being a passionate supporter of these fringe pieces of pop culture just wasn’t cool. You were a nerd if you liked Harry Potter, Outlander was time-traveling chick lit intended for stay-at-home moms, Game of Thrones was for the World of Warcraft bros who liked history. Genre hasn’t always been mainstreamed, no matter how many superhero flicks Marvel releases to prove otherwise, and people who enjoy these stories based in sci-fi, fantasy, or the supernatural are often looked down upon in a nonsensical way.

That’s why, when it comes to genre, we as fans should be careful not to fall into that same trap. A book reader is no better or worse than a show watcher. In fact, in the grand scheme of Peak TV, coming to a show like Game of Thrones as a book purist can often be a hindrance. Crafting a television show from an epic like Martin’s series, while he’s still trying to finish it, means expectations aren’t met, characters are altered, and plots are abandoned. Writing a book and creating a prestige television drama for the masses are two different things. For book readers to think these films and TV shows should be “faithful” to the original work, should cater to their notion of what the story is truly about, is dangerously presumptuous.

As a former book purist, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that nothing is owed to me by the TV gods. I might be able to predict a few character deaths or a subplot here and there, but I don’t own the story or a showrunner’s vision of it. In fact, it’s a TV show’s job to reach a wider audience than the fanbase of its source material, so I should expect changes, sometimes drastic ones, that help accomplish that goal.

And as a show watcher, a “bandwagon jumper,” I’ve also learned to give respect where respect is due. I cover plenty of genre TV for a living, and I’ve never walked away empty-handed from a discussion with a fan of a book series that I wasn’t familiar with. Book readers are invested in TV adaptations in a way that show watchers just aren’t. It doesn’t make them higher up in the fandom hierarchy (spoiler alert: there is no fandom hierarchy) or necessarily more knowledgeable. For a show like GoT, one that’s deviated radically from its source material, often book readers are as in the dark about plot specifics as the rest of us. But book readers bring background, they bring depth and value to the water cooler conversation. They’re able to ask questions no one thought to ask, to spot easter eggs we weren’t even looking for, and yes, sometimes, to make predictions that border spoiler territory.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s equal value in being a book reader and a show watcher. There aren’t two sides to the coin, one isn’t better than the other, and maybe, if we started realizing that, we could actually enjoy these genre shows and films the way they were meant to be experienced: together.

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