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The Present and Future of South Korea's "Screensellers"




The word "screenseller" can now be heard every now and then in everyday conversations. "Screensellers" are original novels that gain interest after they are made into movies. Even those who do not use the word screenseller on the personal basis, the concept is now well-known among readers and moviegoers. Read on to learn how screensellers came to be in South Korea, diverse screenseller film festivals in the country and books that are likely to become screensellers in South Korea.


The Emergence of Screensellers in South Korea


It has been less than a decade since the word screenseller emerged in South Korea. The word was first used in 2009 as the Twilight series, Higashino Keigo's Into the White Night and books related to South Korean television drama “Queen Seondeok” saw much popularity. After several news reports on these kinds of screensellers and its concept, the word rooted itself into South Korean society.


The situation of the publishing industry and marketing-related factors played key roles in screensellers gaining interest from the public. In South Korea, many South Korean authors' books have been recreated for the screen over the years like Beomseon Yi's Obaltan (The Aimless Bullet), In-ho Choi's Deep Blue Night and Mun-yol Yi's Our Twisted Hero. These movies all achieved some level of success; whether through overall quality or the size of the audiences they drew. The difference between today's screensellers and these movies, however, was the fact that back then it was a natural thing to turn novels into films rather than marketing projects today where the goal is to create synergy for the film and the book itself.


In the 21st century, the publishing industry took a downturn and publishers were forced to make more efforts and investments into getting books on bestseller lists. When original novels were turned into movies, publishers would join hands with film businesses and theaters to expand their marketing territory. It provided an opportunity for publishers to reach more people. The interest of readers was drawn further by swapping the original covers of books with still images from the movies or posters. Also, when the movies or television dramas saw great success, the sales of the book would skyrocket, leaving publishers no reason to say "no" to this new marketing strategy.


The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane from Korean television drama “My Love from a Star” (LEFT) 
Memoir of a Murderer, currently playing in theaters (RIGHT)


In addition to the word screenseller, there is also the word "mediaseller" which has recently emerged, but has not spread in the public like the former. Mediasellers refer to books featured in stories either in movies or dramas, instead of becoming the story. For instance, in 2014, copies of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane sold like hotcakes after the book was featured in extremely-popular South Korean television drama “My Love from a Star”. In the drama, the main character, Do Min-jun, was seen reading the book and the drama used the book's storyline to foreshadow future events in the television show. In this sense, it would not be an exaggeration to call mediasellers screensellers from a broad point of view as this particular book was introduced to viewers in product placement that fit with the drama's storyline.


Meanwhile, from the perspective of those producing movies or dramas based on bestselling books are likely to draw in the readers of the original work to view the adaptations. It is an attractive business option for production companies in the fact that the movies or dramas are being created based on strong characters and storylines that have been proven to be well-made. Memoir of a Murderer is one good example. Recently opened in theaters, this movie was made based on a bestseller written by Young-ha Kim, and was thus able to attract readers of the book to theaters. The book quickly turned into a mediaseller after the writer recently appeared on a popular television show. The movie saw more than 1 million in ticket sales and was heading towards 2 million as of this article's publication. The book has also made it back on bestseller lists, making it an example that cannot be ignored.


Who Comes to Screenseller Film Festivals?


This August, the third 〈One Summer Night's Screenseller Film Festival〉 wrapped after seeing much success. As the organizer of this event, it is slightly embarrassing to admit it was a success, but the reaction from the public was very positive.


The screenseller film festival is an event that was launched from 2015 to introduce movies based on novels to the public. Participants can read the books and watch films at the festival. We had not fixed a specific number of films to be shown at the event, but every year since then, four films have been introduced at the festival. Special guests considered to be the best at understanding the material are selected to discuss the movies, novels and life featured in them at "cinema talk" segments.


Readers or moviegoers who prefer one medium or the other were able to experience both at the event. Those who came said it was a special experience to discuss the tension, turn of events or meaning found in between scenes found in the movies. The event has been hosted by a bookstore for three years and it has succeeded in what it sought out to do.


The screenseller film festival was not an event that was started with a grand plan in mind. The division I am currently a part of is a marketing group for e-books at a large bookstore company. There was a prerequisite all the movies introduced at the festival had to be published in e-book form. The aim was to plan an event where e-books could be introduced to the public and they could, in turn experience content in different forms. Before then, e-book marketing in South Korea was limited to price-focused events, like discounts or cash-back programs. We had wanted to show it was possible for readers to experience more.


Poster for 2nd year of 〈One Summer Night's Screenseller Film Festival〉


During the past three years, it is true our efforts to help readers have more opportunities experience e-books in a more sophisticated way have softened somewhat. However, it is a certain fact readers and members of the general public have much interest in how existing stories turn into film and vice versa. And they also want to share their experiences. At the cinema talk events after the movies were shown, participation was extremely high while there were many questions on the movies and original novels. This article mainly discusses screensellers from an industry point of view, but it is worth taking a look at how screensellers garner popularity from the point of view of readers or those familiar with publishing culture.


Another interesting point to shed light on would be the fandoms that are created for screensellers. The experience usually doesn't end for readers who love the original work or those who feel the same about the content on the screen -- they go on to become fans.For instance, there was a fan that saw the film “A Silent Voice” fifty times with the help of the film festival this year. This fan could be seen asking questions at the cinema talk event and it was evident the fan had read the original work many times as well. When the movie was shown at the festival, there was a small problem with the projector, and this fan later expressed their disappointment on their social networking account. There is a growing number of fans like this person, who wish to enjoy works of art in a fuller way. These "true fans" are growing and fandoms are taking root as part of the screenseller phenomenon.


Is South Korea a Leader of Stories?


Kyobo Book Centre, where I am currently employed, has always shown sensitive movement to these flows in the industry or changes in readers. One good example of that sensitivity is the "Kyobo Book Centre Story Competition" in its fifth year this year. An important point of the story competition is that winners are selected based on the changes of readers and industry changes to expand readers' experiences and their fandoms. The competition has not made immense strides yet but it is worth looking at how the competition is carried out by keeping in mind how the stories can later be used in video form.


Original novel Singleville (LEFT), Chinese television drama “Single Villa” (RIGHT)


The event saw some achievements, with stories exported abroad. Singleville written by Eun-gyo Choi, the author of Lucky Romance, was turned into a television drama in China and it later saw the top viewership among shows in the same time slot. This story of romance, which can be found under the title “Single Villa” on Netflix, featured a script written by Choi herself and the drama's production was led by a Korean team. Currently, diplomatic conflict between South Korea and China has made other advances into China difficult and there have been few others like “Singleville”, so it is yet early to call this a trend.


As of now it is difficult to find examples of Korean novels that have been turned into movies. The motif of comic Priest by Min-woo Hyung was partially adapted into a Hollywood movie. Currently inside South Korea, webtoons with their bold, strong characters and visible storylines have been seen more film adaptations than novels. Webtoons tend to stimulate readers' imaginations more than novels and they are more accessible than novels as they tend to be read on the Internet.


When we look at just the export side of the situation, there have not been many success cases. Recent South Korean movies like “Helpless”, “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Broken” in addition to television series “Boys over Flowers” have rather been based on Japanese works. It is also true there is a lack in a variety of storylines or genre sensibility. When wandering bookstores while traveling abroad, it is surprising how many countries have separate sections in stores for Japanese manga. This reflects the popularity Japanese manga has globally. This leads one to think about how Japanese stories are often adapted into films in both South Korea and the United States. Is South Korea truly a strong country when it comes to storytelling?


This may be a textbook statement, but the vitalization of the novel market in South Korea should come first. More sources of more diverse stories should be created and shared and this culture should find root inside the country. There is a need to create an environment where those offshore can look at South Korea's novels and stories, rather than move them to the big screen first. As Han Kang's Vegetarian saw much success, many other Korean novels should be published with good translations to show foreign readers the strength of Korean stories. Japan has produced many Nobel literature prize winners and touts authors who are strong candidates for future awards, like Haruki Murakami. Japanese comics like Naruto or One Piece are loved by fans around the world. When comparing these to South Korean novels, it is evident we still have a way to go.


FROM LEFT: Novel The Whale, Concealment, The Private Life of Plants


Personally, I would like to see the imagination of Myung-gwan Chun's The Whale or Myung-hoon Bae's Concealment on the big screen. Works like Concealment would be fitting as a spy-thriller like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. It may also be a good idea to adapt Seung-woo Lee's The Private Life of Plants in Europe as the novel has already seen success in France. It would be even better if directors like Lasse Hallstrom were to direct it.


To introduce South Korea's stories to the world, it is important for South Korea story fandoms to grow. The number of actual cases is growing slowly and achievements are steadily being made; the situation is not bad. I have hopes a wide range of South Korea's stories from novels, webtoons to comics will attract the interest of global readers and become screensellers.



Written by Young-jin Huh (Content Project team at Kyobo Book Centre)


Young-jin Huh (Content Project team at Kyobo Book Centre)

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