Why are South Korean filmmakers making hit shows based on webtoons?
(Credit: Netflix)

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Why are South Korean filmmakers making hit shows based on webtoons?

Comic books and graphic novels have had a deep-rooted impact on pop culture, inspiring films, and T.V. shows at will. It is fascinating to watch the creators breathe life into two-dimensional characters and create engaging stories with striking visuals. Webtoons, a digital comic platform from South Korea, has taken the world by storm.

It is a twist on the usual Korean manhwa (Korean term for comics and cartoons) that is spread across a variety of genres, including horror, romance, drama, action, slice-of-life, comedy and more. Not only has the platform given an opportunity for talented, independent digital creators to tell a story via visual art in long, continuous strips that are extremely addictive, but it also provided plenty of inspiration for South Korean filmmakers to make hit shows based on these webtoons. From Hellbound, Itaewon Class, My ID is Gangnam Beauty, Love Alarm, Nevertheless and D.P. to the upcoming Netflix Original series All Of Us Are Dead; webtoon adaptations have also found immense popularity on Netflix thanks to a growing demand for South Korean content. 

Netflix has already ordered a wide variety of South Korean content due to the current Korean Wave that has splashed down on the world, stirred by the massive success of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s dystopian survival thriller series, Squid Game. While webtoons have been adapted into television films and television series from 2006 onwards, it was not until Netflix ordered Hellbound that the streaming service was seen dabbling in the medium. Although previous romantic K-Dramas like Itaewon Class, My ID is Gangnam Beauty, Love Alarm, and Nevertheless have featured on Netflix, Hellbound saw the first-ever collaboration between the streamer, the filmmaker and the Webtoon creator, Choi Gyu-seok. 

Helmed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, the series focused on the chaos and paranoia that grapples a nation when sinister supernatural forces begin to tear one’s belief system apart. With people getting to know their time of demise and then being pummelled to death and subsequently taken to hell by three demonic, grotesque monsters, the series’ riveting narrative caught the attention of viewers, making it one of Netflix’s most-watched series. Although Choi still continues publishing more episodes to his story, he worked in close collaboration with Yeon to bring this supernatural horror narrative to life. The series ends on a cliffhanger and will most likely get a second season to answer the burning questions that have already found their way into Choi’s artistic sensibility. 

Talking about how they tried quite hard to contain the “understated tones of an illustrated work”, Yeon spoke about his rewarding experience, working with Choi, to bring to life the characters. He also praised the actors for adding depth and dimension to their characters, helping to heighten the palpable anxiety within the series. Yoo Ah-In deserves special mention for his brilliant portrayal of the cold and calculative, orthodox cult leader. 

Even the much-appreciated military drama D.P. started off as a web-based comic. Starring Koo Kyo-hwan and Jung Hae-in, it was indeed a delight for the Webtoon fans to see how well they fit their online counterparts. Coming-of-age romantic K-Dramas like Nevertheless starred Han So-hee and Song Kang in lead roles as the lovelorn couple who feel deeply for each other yet are torn apart by miscommunication, burgeoning feelings and the pressure of adulthood. It is incredible to see how deftly the illustrators manage to capture the fleeting expressions of young-adult romance and encounters mirrored by the actors, who try to stay true to the essence of their characters. 

Since the live-action adaptations of webtoons have always been successful, the upcoming Netflix zombie series All Of Us Are Dead – set to premiere on January 28th, 2022 – will be another addition to Korean filmography in the zombie genre. While South Korean films like Train to Busan and shows like Kingdom within the zombie genre remain timeless due to the crippling fear and paranoia it drives in, Joo Dong-geun’s eponymous 2009 webtoon is equally petrifying. 

Based in a high school, the Webtoon focuses on a crippling zombie apocalypse that takes over the world with a few high schoolers stuck inside their school. Without food, network connectivity, or any means to contact others for help; they must fend themselves against grotesquely ravenous zombies, some of whom are their dearest friends. While all the 130 episodes are available on the Webtoon and require a Daily Pass to be read, the director, Lee JQ, has promised new twists and turns within the series. 

Admittedly drawn in by the idea of survival in a closed claustrophobic space, the filmmaker was also enchanted by the idea of having such young and amateur high-schoolers take over such a daunting task of protecting themselves and each other against such a deadly outbreak. Mirroring the coronavirus pandemic that drove into us, intense fear and confined the world within the four walls of our homes, the series will see the students trapped within the walls of their school with nowhere to escape to, being surrounded by hordes of zombies. The filmmaker has promised to make changes in terms of the diverse characters, government policies, escape situations and the story about the origin of the virus as they valiantly fight against the vicious undead. 

It is not like South Korean filmmakers have run out of ideas and thus must turn to Webtoons for help. The digital manhwa is extremely engrossing with brilliant plot twists. Personally, Jeonghoon Hwang’s Grasp has commanded my unhinged attention for the past few days, and I cannot help but scroll through the webcomics to know what happens next. Addictive, visual arts is indeed a brilliant medium to tell such compelling stories that have the potential of being made into films and shows. Not only does it give exposure to such indie creators, but it also helps them earn much-needed recognition. After Hellbound and All Of Us Are Dead, it is essential for us to see if Netflix orders more live-action adaptations of such Webtoons that are bound to turn into instantaneous hits.

All of Us Are Dead is set to release on Netflix on January 28th, 2022.