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Television adaptations of online comics aren’t as easy as they look

Nov 13,2018
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KBS2’s recent drama “Feel Good to Die,” left, based on a Daum webtoon of the same title aired on Nov. 7 to a 3.3 percent viewership rating. Right, tvN’s “Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter,” a Naver webtoon, first aired on Nov. 5, with a 5.6 percent viewership rating. Actor Moon Chae-won, pictured, plays the lead role. [SCREEN CAPTURE, KBS2 ,TVN]

A number of TV drama and movie adaptations of popular web comics, also known as webtoons in Korea, have become major hits over the past year and judging by their success, there aren’t any signs of the trend slowing down. Webtoons are becoming an increasingly popular source for dramas to base their stories on.

The tvN series “Secretary Kim” was one of the most popular dramas this summer, hitting a high viewership rating of 8.7 percent on July 11, and 8.6 percent for its finale on July 26 - a notable feat for a cable channel drama.

And while cable channels are more apt to venture into new content, KBS2 also jumped on the wagon in July with the “Your House Helper” series, which aired from July 4 to Aug. 29. The 32-episode series did not perform as well as adaptations aired on cable networks, but with a ratings high of 4.5 percent in a landscape where cable channels dominate drama ratings, the performance was considered a success for the national broadcaster.

Last week, a slew of webtoon adaptations premiered. On Nov. 5, “Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter,” debuted on tvN, and “Eunju’s Room” premiered on cable channel Olive on Nov. 6. The following day, KBS2 aired the first episode of “Feel Good to Die.” Additionally, JTBC’s “Clean Hot” (working title) and Netflix show “Love Alarm” are set to premiere early next year.

The reason for choosing webtoons as the raw material is clear: they have a set story and an established fan base. “Popular webtoons have already been proven of their story, because it’s something that young people likes and reads on a daily basis,” said pop culture critic Ha Jae-geun.

“Because they already have a set fan base, it’s easier for the producers to get themselves out into the market. By using something that’s already [popular,] it’s easier for them to see a big reaction from audiences.”

Having a built-in audience that is already fond of the plot works as an advantage for the drama. “Even though creators struggle with meeting the fans’ hopes for the dramas to be similar but different, their works still get high levels of public exposure, with the fans eagerly comparing them to the original work,” says Kim Gyo-suk, a popular culture critic.

But having a loyal fan base can sometimes work against producers. This was the case for JTBC’s “Gangnam Beauty,” despite its high viewership. Because fans of the original webtoon were eagerly looking forward the TV adaptation, they were critical of every detail of the show that was released even before the show started shooting. From the cast to changes in the plot, faithful fans made it hard for the production staff to make amendments to the original story. The decision to cast actor Cha Eun-woo was a point of contention for many fans. They were also upset when the drama failed to depict scenes that shed light on the subtle sexism that young women face daily. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there wasn’t a day that passed that the drama did not make headlines.

Cable channel tvN’s “Mama Fairy” is currently going through similar hardships. Fans of the webtoon complain that the characters in the show are nothing like the original story, and have criticized the computer graphics used to depict Jeom-sun, a character that frequently transforms from a human to a cat.

“Because people have seen how webtoon-based dramas can succeed, this trend is going to keep rising, as long as webtoons keep getting more popular.”

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]