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You’ve seen the film, now read the book

Literature adapted in Korean film

The Korean Film Council recently publicised on its website the new “Book to Film” initiative aimed at bringing together the film and the publishing industries.

Of course, the practice adapting a book for the big screen is almost as old as the movie industry itself, and some of South Korea’s most successful movies have been adaptations of everything from serious novels to internet stories. A list of such films would go on for rather too long. This post is designed to list out some of those films where the original novel is available in an English translation.

With Korean cultural contents, consumers in the west are more likely to come across a work of Korean literature through film rather than through reading the book in translation. But seeing the film can often make you want to read the book. And while Korean translated literature is by no means mainstream, it can be found, with more becoming available all the time.

Over the years, I’ve been jotting down all the films where I’m aware that the screenplay is based on a Korean (or sometimes Japanese) novel which is available in an English translation. I recently lost those notes, and am now painfully reconstructing them. But here’s a start, in the hope that others will contribute. I know I’ve probably missed some really obvious ones. I’ll certainly add to the list below as I come across new examples or if ever I find my notes.

Links relating to film titles in the table below take you to an LKL review of the movie. Links on book titles take to to the book’s entry in the LKL Korea Book Database, where you can find publisher details and links to online stores.

In no particular order:

Director Film title Author English title of book / story
Choo Chang-min Seven Years of Night (2016) Jeong You-jeong Seven Years of Darkness | LKL Review
E J-yong My Brilliant Life (2014) Kim Aeran My Brilliant Life
Kim Do-young Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 (2019) Cho Nam-joo Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 | LKL Review
Won Shin-yeon Memoir of a Murderer Kim Young-ha Diary of a Murderer | LKL Review
Song Hae-sung Boomerang Family Cheon Myung-kwan Modern Family | LKL Review
Lim Woo-seong Vegetarian Han Kang The Vegetarian | LKL Review
Im Kwon-taek Seopyeonje Lee Cheong-jun Seopyeonje – the Southerners’ Songs
Im Kwon-taek Beyond the Years Lee Cheong-jun Seopyeonje – the Southerners’ Songs
Im Kwon-taek Taebaek Mountains Jo Jung-rae Taebaek Mountains (Forthcoming)
Im Kwon-taek Mandala (1981) Kim Seong-dong Mandala (1978) | LKL review
Im Kwon-taek Genealogy (Jokbo, 1979) Kajiyama Toshiyuki The Clan Records | LKL review
Im Kwon-taek Village in the Mist (1983) Yi Mun-yol An Anonymous Island (available in New Yorker Magazine) | LKL review
Im Kwon-taek Hwajang / Revivre (2014) Kim Hoon From Powder to Powder (2004) | LKL review
Shin Sang-ok My Mother and Her Guest (1961) Chu Yo-seop Mama and the Boarder (1935)
Im Sang-soo The Old Garden Hwang Sok-yong The Old Garden | LKL review
Jeong Ji-yeong White Badge Ahn Jung-hyo White Badge | LKL Review
Jang Sun-woo Petal Choe Yun There a Petal Silently Falls | LKL essays
Yu Hyun-mok Aimless Bullet (1960) Lee Beomseon A Stray Bullet (1959)
Yu Hyun-mok Kim’s Daughters Park Kyung-ni The Curse of Kim’s Daughters (1962) | LKL Review
Yu Hyun-mok Martyrs (1965) Richard E Kim The Martyred (1964) | LKL review
Yu Hyun-mok Descendants of Cain (1968) Hwang Sun-won Descendants of Cain (1954) | LKL Review
Jeon Soo-il My Right to Ravage Myself (2003) Kim Young-ha I have a right to destroy myself | LKL Review
Byun Hyuk The Scarlet Letter Kim Young-ha Photoshop Murder (and Meditation on Mirror – not yet translated)
Yu Hyun-mok Son of Man (1980) Yi Mun-yol Son of Man
Jang Yoon-hyeon Hwang Jin-yi Hong Seok-jung Hwang Jin-yi (excerpt published in Literature from the “Axis of Evil”) available from Amazon
Lee Man-hee The Road to Sampo Hwang Sok-yong The Road to Sampo (1973)
Kim Soo-yong The Seashore Village (1965) O Yong-su Seaside Village (1953)
Kim Soo-yong Mist (1967) Kim Seung-ok Record of a Journey to Mujin (1964)
Kim Soo-yong Night Journey (19y7) Kim Seung-ok The Night Outing (1969)
Ko Young-nam The Shower Hwang Sun-won The Shower (1953)
Han Hye-jin and An Jae-hoon Leafie, a Hen into the Wild (2010) Hwang Sun-Mi The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | LKL Review
Song Hae-sung Maundy Thursday (2006) Gong Ji-young Our Happy Time | LKL Review
Choi Ha-won Trees on a Slope (1968) Hwang Sun-won Trees on a Slope (1960) | LKL Review
Kim Ho-Seon Yeong-Ja’s Heydays (1975) Cho Seon-jak Young-ja’s Heyday (1973)
Park Chong-won Our Twisted Hero (1992) Yi Mun-yol Our Twisted Hero (1987) | LKL review

16 thoughts on “You’ve seen the film, now read the book

  1. You have listed White Badge, and there are two other novels by Ahn Jung-hyo, written in both Korean and English by the author, that have been filmed. The first to be filmed was Silver Stallion (1991), directed by Chang Kil-soo, and the third, which I haven’t seen, was Llife and Death of the Hollywood Kid (Chung Ji-young, 1994).
    Ahn Jung-hyo translated Kim Sung-dong’s novel Mandala, which was filmed by Im Kwon-taek, with Ahn Sung-ki, in 1981.

    1. Now updated for Mandala, Aimless Bullet, Seven Years of Darkness, My Brilliant Life, Kim Ji-young Born 1982, Memoir of a Murderer, Night Journey. Still need to update the list for the Studio MWP animations.

  2. On second thoughts, I suspect there’s no English edition of “Hollywood Kid”. Certainly I’ve never seen a copy, and I can’t find any reference to one on the internet. I have read Silver Stallion in English, and I see it’s on Amazon.

  3. Thanks for compiling this list. I wish more of the films were available in the U.S. but this is valuable to me as I’m starting to teach more and more literature in translation and global literature adapted to film. It’s a difficult subject to research, as Americans aren’t typically eager to embrace subtitled films, to say nothing of foreign literature. I was particularly bummed that I was unable to find the film version of The Vegetarian, which I taught last semester.

    If you have any ideas about really good films adapted from literature (any genre) I’d be extremely happy to hear them. Thanks again for your work.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for visiting. The list needs a bit of updating both for new movies and new translations. Off the top of my head there’s My Brilliant Life, Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 and Seven Years of Darkness but come back in a couple of weeks and I’m sure I’ll have thought of more!

      1. Thank you. I’ll check back regularly. Can I ask you the name of the story collection that includes “The Abject”? Is it The Prophet and Other Stories? I intend to find Secret Sunshine if it costs me my kneecaps.

      2. I just ordered a dozen Korean books based on your reviews and recommendations. I trust you, sir.

  4. I’ve seen Secret Sunshine 3 times, including a screening attended by Lee Chang-dong and Jeon Do-yeon at a Bifan festival, but I wasn’t aware until now that it was based on a novel. The author, Lee Chung-Joon, also wrote some other books that were filmed, going back to Kim Ki-young’s Iodo, but as far as I know, none of them have been translated into English. Am I wrong?

  5. Now having read the posts properly, as I should have done, I see that the source novel, The Abject, is in translation, as well as others of his stories.

  6. A couple of additions:
    Rainy Days (Jangma) (dir. Yoo Hyun-mok). The Rainy Spell by Yoon Heung-gil (in The Rainy Spell and Other Korean Stories. Translated by Suh Ji-moon. I’ve just found it’s age-restricted on Youtube, and I don’t know how to get around that just now.

    The Room in the Forest (dir. Oh Byungchul). The story (A Room in the Woods) is by Gang Seok-gyeong. It’s in Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers, translated by the Fultons. (The author’s name appears in MR in the book). The film doesn’t appear to be on YouTube, but I did find this Arirang TV introduction (which contains spoilers).
    I saw the films and read the stories many years ago, and I’ll re-read them now. The latter film was a bit hard to track down. It’s not listed on Imdb, though it is in the Wikipedia entry of its star, Choi Jin-shil, who tragically committed suicide in 2008. I see the director also died young, of throat cancer, in 2005.

  7. And I notice that Silver Stallion (1991, director Chang Kil-soo, author Ahn Jung-hyo) isn’t on the list.

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