Reaching 111 million fans within its first 28 days of release, the South Korean thriller drama Squid Game is by far the most popular series in Netflix history, according to Paul Tassi from Forbes.

The story follows Seong Gi-Hun, one of 456 people facing poverty and debt in South Korea that are invited to play a series of children’s games with a grand prize of 4.56 billion won. Gi-Hun and the others quickly realize, however, that the game is a matter of life and death, and their very humanity is put to the test as they struggle to become the sole survivor and winner of the fortune.

The drama is a satire on social inequality, greed, and economic injustice that has captured the attention of global audiences. In the words of TV critic James Poniewozik, “The show had something to say and said it with style.”

When such a story is adapted into a reality show for entertainment and profit, it inevitably loses what made it complex and captivating. This was the main criticism for the game show, Squid Game: The Challenge, which made its debut in 2023, two years after the original series was released. It was produced by British companies Studio Lambert and The Garden.

On the surface, it looks like a replica of the series: the set, costumes, and rules of the game are identical. However, as the show goes on and players begin to immerse themselves in the experience, the flaws of the adaptation become visible. NPR writer Linda Holmes calls it a “cynical effort to exploit the most superficial elements” of the original story “while entirely missing its point.”

The purpose of the games in the original story is to reflect the worst in humanity as players struggle desperately to win a fortune at the expense of the people around them. The fundamental immorality of those who conduct the game and watch it for entertainment is what gives “the scene and the series such weight,” says Holmes. Adapting the story into a reality show directly contradicts the deeper meaning.

Nevertheless, Squid Game: The Challenge should still be acknowledged for spotlighting Korean culture at a time when major streaming services like Netflix are helping to bring Korean stories to global audiences. Although New York Times writer Maya Salam says that casting “only English speakers seems… dismissive of the original [show],” it is interesting to see the players engaging with an unfamiliar culture through shows like Squid Game.

For the most part, the original games are retained in the reality show. The first trial resembles the American game “Red Light, Green Light.” Players can only move when the robot doll is turned away and singing, “The Mugunghwa flower has blossomed (무궁화꽃이 피었습니다).”

This is the original name of the game, based on the Korean national flower, also known as the Rose of Sharon. According to NBC writer Hanna Park, the robot doll is also a memorable childhood figure: Yeong-Hee, who, along with Cheol-Su, was a popular character in school textbooks.

The children’s game involves one player turning away and singing the song. The other players can move forward during that time, but if the song ends and they are caught moving, they are out of the game. Of course, this is where things take a bloody turn in the original series, as the Yeong-Hee robot shoots and kills anyone who is still moving when it turns around.

The second game is based on ppopgi (뽑기), a common neighborhood activity where children try to remove different shapes from a piece of dalgona (달고나) for a chance of winning another free candy from the street vendor. Dalgona is a honeycomb-like candy made of melted sugar. Park explains that it was a popular snack in the years after the Korean War when goods like sugar were hard to come by.

The reality show omits ttakji (딱지), juldarigi (줄다리기), and the titular “Squid Game.” Ttakji involves two players hitting paper tiles on the ground in an attempt to flip over the opponent’s tile. Children typically used thick calendar paper to make their ttakji. The game was likely popularized in the 1940s “with an increased supply of paper,” says Park.

Juldarigi, or tug-of-war, was a folk game that was played among Korean villages to celebrate the daeboreum (대보름), the first full moon of the year. According to Park, it brought together members of the community in hopes of a bountiful harvest.

Finally, Squid Game, or ojingeo-geim (오징어 개임), is named after a squid-shaped playing field that is drawn in sand or dirt. Park explains that players are separated into two teams that must protect their home bases. “Attackers” try to dominate the opposing base while “offense players” try to push and pull opponents outside of the lines.

Hwang Dong-Hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, says that “‘Squid Game’ was the most physically aggressive” game he played as a child, which made it one of the main inspirations for the series. He explains that “it’s the most symbolic game” because it is a reflection of “today’s competitive society.”

Squid Game: The Challenge provides a very different viewing experience than the original series, and this can be seen in both positive and negative ways. In the end, though, it has become yet another example of growing foreign interest in Korean culture, and the various ways in which people can appreciate and learn about it.

Visual Credit: Openverse


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