Novels in the Age of One-Source Multi-Usage (Late 1990s-Today)

  • onOctober 28, 2014
  • Vol.6 Winter 2009
  • byGong Ji-Young

From the mid-90s up to now, out of the newly coined phrases to appear during this period, the most culturally relevant phrase, is probably “one-source multi-usage.” The phrase describes a phenomenon where one cultural item becomes reinterpreted and disseminated into different formats and genres. A good example: the play Yi was turned into a film, and the script for the play was used for the film version as well. Strictly speaking, this unfamiliar and foreign term is related to a process that is normally referred to as an adaptation. Adaptation usually involves a single process; for example, a play gets turned into a movie, or a novel is adapted into a film. On the other hand, with the phrase “one-source multiusage,” the focus is on the word “multi.” In other words, the idea is to disseminate a single artwork into as many different genres as possible. In this age of post-capitalism, where the value of cultural content is evaluated in terms of investment and profit, it’s necessary to make the most out of a single source.

This phenomenon coincides with the advent of the “10 million film,” a film that attracts over 10 million viewers. The success of director Lee Joon-ik’s King and the Clown (2005) was unexpected and came as a surprise to everyone. Worth noting here is the fact that this film is an adaptation of the play Yi. A film adaptation of a play becoming successful has its precedent in director Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003). Based on Come to See Me, a play by Kim Kwang-lim, this film was successful in defining the 80s as an age of ignorance and violence.

Since both the play and the film were based on actual events.the Hwaseong serial murder case of the 80s.after the success of Memories of Murder, its relationship with the play Come to See Me didn’t get much attention. On the other hand, the fact that the author of Yi contributed a great deal to director Lee Joon-ik’s film version is quite well known. Other examples of plays becoming popular films include The Big Scene by director Jang Jin, who directed the original play as well; and Welcome to Dongmakgol, director Park Gwang-hyun’s film adaptation of Jang Jin’s play. The popularity and critical success of films based on plays is one of the unique trends of the new millennium.

A notable trend of the 90s Korean literature scene is the advent of female writers in their mid 30s, and a new form of feminist literature that appeared as a result. Writers such as Eun Hee-kyung, Jon Kyongnin, and Gong Jiyoung awoke women from their slumber of motherhood and wifedom and pulled them out of their domestic setting. The best example of this is Ardor (2002), director Byun Young-joo’s film adaptation of Jon Kyongnin’s novel A Special Day That Comes in My Life. Gong Ji-Young, the author of Mackerel and Go Alone Like Musso’s Horn, and Shin Kyong-sook, the author of Deep Sorrow, both became bestselling authors and many of their novels were adapted into films. The feminism of Gong Ji-Young and Jon Kyongnin is different from the feminine sensibility displayed in Shin Kyung-sook’s novels. But what these authors all share in common is the fact that they created a new type of femininity with the support of a female readership.

In discussing film adaptations of novels after the mid-90s, one phenomenon we can’t leave out is the adaptation of online novels. The first online novel to reach the big screen was The Soul Guardians (1998). This fantasy adventure film, which was serialized on Hitel, an online portal site, holds an important place in Korean cinema history. My Sassy Girl didn’t just treat this phenomenon as a mere fad but fully embraced it. It became a huge hit and was enthusiastically received by not only fans of the original but the general movie-going public as well. My Sassy Girl (2001), titled The Bizarre Girl in Korean, was also a popular online novel before it was made into a film. At the time, Korean popular culture was obsessed with all things “bizarre.” Before, “bizarre” was an adjective used only to describe murder or heinous acts, but after the success of My Sassy Girl, the Korean word for “bizarre” became a word that described anything that was either strange or peculiar. Befitting the Guiyeoni-mania of this period, Guiyeoni’s novels were turned into films three times: Romance of Their Own (2004), which helped actor Kang Dongwon become a heartthrob, Doremifasollasido (2008), and He Was Cool (2004). Despite questionable literary and ethical values, due to their online popularity, these stories were quickly adapted into films. What’s rather problematic is the fact that, excluding My Sassy Girl and Romance of Their Own, film versions of online novels didn’t fare too well at the box office.



Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)                                                                                              ⓒ SHOWBOX

By the mid-90s, anxiety over the future of literature reached a boiling point. Faced with the onslaught of new mediums, literary magazines were quick to discuss the diminishing stature and the death of literature. But ironically, as a source of dependable original stories, novels were becoming increasingly important to the film industry. Sometimes the film proved to be more popular then the original story; a good example is director Park Chanwook’s second film JSA: Joint Security Area, which was based on DMZ, a novel by Park Sangyon. In Park Chanwook’s film, a uniquely Korean condition.the divided distilled into an image of physical and ideological borders, and by doing so, the director shows us the realities of the divided state as not as an experience but as a visual image.

Novels that are loved by readers are considered to be suitable for film adaptation. In fact, popular novels always become either films or television dramas. And among film adaptations of bestselling novels, Marriage Is a Crazy Thing and My Wife Got Married deserve special mention. Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), director Yoo Ha’s film adaptation of Lee Mankyo’s novel, discusses how Koreans’ views of weddings have changed over the years. In doing so, the film directly questions marriage itself. By strongly defining marriage as a “crazy thing,” the film criticizes the hypocrisy lying underneath marriage as a system. The female protagonist, Yonhee, leads a double life: she keeps a sexy but economically incapable man as her lover, and keeps a boring but economically stable man as her husband. She’s no different from the patriarchs of the past who kept both a wife and a mistress. These men kept virtuous women as wives and sexually attractive women as mistresses. The fact that she so closely resembles these men is quite troublesome. Yoo Ha’s film, told from the perspective of the woman’s secret lover, is a realistic depiction of the changing times.

Director Chong Yunsu utilizes the concept of polyamour to attack this “crazy” system called marriage. While faithfully following the original story by Park Hyunwook, the adapted screenplay adds some interesting flourishes; the film links soccer with dating and love with marriage. Various episodes that occur throughout courtship and marriage are discussed through soccer analogies. If Marriage Is a Crazy Thing is an honest look at the changed reality, then My Wife Got Married is a bold statement on how reality should change: If you love two men at the same time, you should be able to marry them simultaneously. The Old Garden (2006), director Im Sang-soo’s film adaptation of a novel by Hwang Sok-yong, shows us how a recent past, in this case the 80s, can be placed in a contemporary context, and how it can be romanticized. If remembering the past was a major literary trend of the 90s, Hwang Sok-yong’s The Old Garden displays how this trend can be updated for the new millennium. Director Im Sang-soo uses a more refined method to make this story relevant for the present. The Old Garden portrays the prototypical cool sister; the type of older women that boys in the 80s idealized. Today the “cool sisters” are nowhere to be found, and everyone is busy scrambling for a buck. Still, remembering past love affairs and hanging our hopes on the next generation offer us consolation.

A noteworthy trend from the mid-90s to the 2000s is the frequent film adaptations of novels by Yi Chong-Jun. Director Im Kwon-taek’s Sopyonje, which was considered a national film in the early 90s, was an adaptation of Yi Chong-Jun’s novel The People of Namdo. The film is about Songhwa, who is blinded by her father, and the strong bond between her and her half-brother Dongho. Through cinematographer Jung Il-sung’s luminous cinematography and director Im Kwontaek’s sophisticated direction, a profound level of Koreanness is fully realized. Beyond the Years, which was also director Im Kwon-taek’s hundredth film, is a sequel of sorts to Sopyonje, and for the screenplay, Yi Chong-Jun was directly involved. Unlike the novel, the film adds historical facts such as the Jeju April 3rd civil protests, and fleshes out the relationship between Dongho and Songhwa.


Secret Sunshine (2007), directed by Lee Chang Dong, can be seen as an answer of sorts to a question raised by Yi Chong-Jun’s novel The Tale of a Bug. Yi’s novel is about a woman who commits suicide after the loss of her child, and Secret Sunshine, by using a specific location and the images it conjures up, expands the original story with questions the relationship between man and god, and the primal energy which keeps us going. Secret Sunshine is very much like The Tale of a Bug, and yet is nothing like the original at the same time.

After the 90s, taste became an important criterion in Korean culture. This is in part due to the diversification of culture, but it also means a change in society from its authoritarian past into a society where relativism was taken more seriously. After the 90s, at a time when taste became an absolute criterion, the novel was at a crisis point, about to be declared dead. Talk of a literary crisis were at an all time high, but at the same time, in this supposedly dreary age of “one-source multiusage,” the demand for novels as a source for original stories was now greater than ever. From the 90s to the 2000s, literature was in a state of flux. The novel as something sacred and the novel as a source for original stories: today, the state of literature lies somewhere in between.






1. Go Alone Like Musso's Horn
Gong Ji-Young, Prunsoop Publishing Co. Ltd.
2006, 325p, ISBN 89-7184-482-5 03810
2. Come to See Me
Kim Kwang-lim, Pyungminsa, 2006, 152p
ISBN 89-7115-387-3 03680
3. A Special Day That Comes Only Once In My Life
Jon Kyongnin, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2005, 286p, ISBN 89-8281-205-9 03810
4. Deep Sorrow
Shin Kyung-sook, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2009, 583p, ISBN 89-546-0127-8 03810
5. Romance of Their Own
Guiyeoni, Bandibooks, 2006, 345p
ISBN 89-5804-091-2 (Set)
  6. The Old Garden
Hwang Sok-yong, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 331p, ISBN 978-89-364-3590-1
7. Sopyonje
Yi Chong-Jun, Yolimwon Publishing Co.
2009, 223p, ISBN 978-89-7063-158-5(Set)
8. Marriage Is a Crazy Thing
Lee Mankyo, Minumsa, 2005, 307p
ISBN 89-374-2028-7
9. Beyond the Years
Yi Chong-Jun, Yolimwon Publishing Co.
2007, 147p, ISBN 978-89-7063-551-4 03810
10. My Wife Got Married
Park Hyun-wook, Munidang, 2008, 357p
ISBN 89-7456-330-4