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

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.16 Summer 2012
  • byJeong Eun-gwol

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 historical fiction. The same kinds of variations of the genre, from straightforward historical novels sticking close to the facts, to popular historical novels based on alternative histories, are to be found in Korean historical dramas. Korean historical fiction as a genre underwent a massive change as the appetite for stories with a strong fictional element increased over traditional historical novels. The genre gained a huge boost as many of these subversive, alternate versions of historical fiction gained popularity and were made into television dramas.

Lee Eun-seong’s A Novel: Dong Eui Bo Gam, about the life of Heo Jun, author of the seminal encyclopedia of Korean medicine, the Dongeuibogam, played a major role in shifting the focus of Korean historical dramas away from the political. The novel was adapted for television in the hugely popular drama “Heo Jun” and credited with pioneering a new branch of Korean historical drama that dealt with the lives of ordinary people as opposed to royalty or court officials. Dongeuibogam, the source material of the drama “Heo Jun,” was itself an adaptation of the drama “Obsession” that aired in 1976. It was serialized in the magazine Ilyo Geongang but was left unfinished when its author passed away. It gained fresh recognition in 1990 when serialized installments were published in a collection of three books, from which the drama “Heo Jun” was born.

Adaptations of historical dramas have also changed. In the past adaptations mostly stayed faithful to the source materials, but now bold changes are being made to central motifs and plot structures. One of the best examples of this new approach is the drama “The Immortal Yi Sun-shin,” which takes its source material from two different historical novels. “The Immortal Yi Sun-shin” used the story of Yi Sun-shin, an admiral who emerged victorious against impossible odds, to ask what kind of leadership is needed in the 21st century. Kim Hoon’s Song of the Sword and Kim Takhwan’s The Immortal Yi Sun-shin are the source material of this KBS historical drama. Song of the Sword, winner of the 2001 Dong-in Literary Award, offered a detailed portrait of Yi Sun-shin both as a military genius crucial to the survival of Korea and as a human being struggling with individual and social expectations. The Immortal Yi Sun-shin is an epic novel that reinvents Yi Sun-shin as a man of flesh and bone who adapted to the circumstances history threw his way rather than as the unrealistically idealized hero usually depicted in history.

“The Immortal Yi Sun-shin” paved the way for more dramas that use historical novels for basic source material but give screenwriters a free hand with the details. “Sungkyunkwan Scandal,” an adaptation of Jeong Eun-gwol’s The Days of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Students, and Lee Jungmyung’s The Deep-rooted Tree are notable examples of this approach. These examples show how historical fiction using the romance and detective genres has played an important part in the evolution of the Korean historical drama.

The novel The Days of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Students is a lighthearted account of a young woman who disguises herself as her younger brother and takes the national exam to study at Sungkyunkwan, the royal university. Its adaptation “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” stayed close to the story’s roots but made major changes to the personalities and backstories of the characters and added new material from “The Tragedy That Must Not Be Forgotten.” “The Tragedy That Must Not Be Forgotten” is an essay written by King Yeongjo that became a source of conflict not only between the two ideological factions at the time, but also between King Jeongjo and his subjects.

The novel The Deep-rooted Tree deals with the mysterious deaths of scholars from the Hall of Worthies at the time the 28 letters of the Korean alphabet were created. Its adaptation sticks to this basic plot of solving serial murders of scholars at the royal palace right before King Sejong is set to introduce the new alphabet. Unlike the original, however, the television adaptation added material related to the childhoods of the king and the slave Kang Chae-yoon, in order to build up the relationship between them. The television drama also upped the suspense and action by introducing more political enemies opposed to King Sejong’s efforts than in the book.

Korean historical drama as a genre has continuously evolved since the early 2000s with the adaptation of popular novels as source material. Popular historical fiction has played a major part in the transformation of Korean historical drama from propaganda to faction. As fascinating as the relationship between Korean historical dramas and Korean historical fiction is, however, the audience and readers’ awareness about historical events and characters is what matters most.