From Fiction to Television Dramas: The Adaptation of the Korean Historical Drama

Offering escape from the present by projecting fiction onto the past, contemporary costume dramas continue to intrique audienced.


Characteristics and Development

The historical drama genre is a dramatic reinterpretation of historical events or the lives of historical figures. Most enjoy great popularity because while the events are based on historical facts, the stories are told from a modern perspective that reflects pressing issues today. Such public interest in historical dramas can be traced to the fact that the fewer prospects people have in the future and the harder life is in the present, the greater the desire is to look back to the past. The historical drama as a genre takes full advantage of this aspect of history.

The historical drama invites viewers to engage with characters from the past but offers a forward-looking perspective. This was not always the case, however. In the infancy of the genre in the 1970s, historical dramas were used by the government to promote national solidarity. In the 1980s, however, historical drama turned towards unofficial records of intrigue and romance within the royal palace for subject material. Ratings soared as the public was captivated by stories featuring palace officials conspiring against each other in bitter feuds in order to secure the king’s favor.

It was not until the mid-1990s that the historical drama became more like a dialogue between the past and the present. Lavish KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) historical dramas such as “Tears of the Dragon” and “The King and Queen” were set during the turbulent years of the Joseon era when King Taejo seized the throne in a de facto coup d'état. This was also the period when historical dramas began to have stories focusing on the everyday lives of ordinary people. One of the most famous examples of this trend would be “Heo Jun,” a historical drama produced by MBC. This change in subject material to stories that reimagined the daily lives of everyday people coincided with how historical research in academia was changing at the time. One notable example of this change is the success of “The Immortal Yi Sun-shin,” a KBS drama that aired in 2004 that focused on the man Admiral Yi Sun-shin as opposed to the typically idealized portrait of the hero.

Historical dramas underwent a massive change in the 2000s. So-called faction became the most popular style of drama as writers began to fictionalize historical material. The term “faction” itself is a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction.” One of the pioneers of the genre was “Damo,” the tragic story of a damo, a maid at the Joseon court that offered up a fictional reinterpretation of the Joseon era. Another notable example of faction is “Dae Jang Geum,” a drama based on the life of the female physician Dae Jang Geum that focused on the lives of women during Joseon.

The historical drama in the form of faction has continued to evolve, embracing an open-ended point of view of history as opposed to the rigid, didactic style of storytelling that was de rigueur for the genre in the past. One such example is “Chuno,” a drama about a slave-catcher set in the chaotic years following the Japanese and Manchu invasions of Korea from the 16th to 17th century. “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” was another hit that approached history from a fresh point of view, featuring a cast of young lovers in a coming-of-age story set during the time of Jeongjo, one of the most progressive kings of Joseon. “The Princess’ Man” reinterprets the events surrounding the bloody coup of 1453 in a power struggle between Prince Suyang and Kim Jong-seo from the point of view of their children, who are star-crossed lovers. Another prime example of the genre is “The Deep-rooted Tree,” a drama that follows the events leading up to King Sejong’s creation of the Korean alphabet from a detective’s point of view.

As faction becomes the norm for historical dramas, the importance of historical accuracy becomes less of an issue with its viewers. Korean historical dramas have thus expanded beyond the bare bones of fact to accommodate flights of fancy. “The Moon that Embraced the Sun” is credited with taking the genre further with a story set in the Joseon era but with a fictional king as its protagonist. A love story at heart, “The Moon that Embraced the Sun” heralded the coming of a new kind of historical drama with its story of a just king struggling to protect his people from greedy palace officials.

1. The Days of Sungkyunkwan
Confucian Students
(2 vols.)
Jeong Eun-gwol, Paran Media, 2009, 423p
ISBN 9788963710051 (Vol.1)
2. The Immortal Yi Sun-shin (8 vols.)
Kim Takhwan, Goldenbough Publishing Co. Ltd.
2004, 346p, ISBN 8982736832 (Vol. 1)
3. A Novel: Dong Eui Bo Gam
Lee Eun-seong, Maroniebooks
2012, 412p. ISBN 9788960532205

Adaptations and Evolution

The change in Korean historical drama, from propaganda and historical fact to the imagined, is closely related to the change in Korean hist...