In 2019, we had Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but in 2022, we were gifted with the Korean adaptation of the 19th century American classic. “Loose interpretation” might be a better term for the K-Drama that works as espionage thriller, high-stakes political drama, supernatural mystery, and Cinderella story. Each episode clocks in at over an hour, drawing viewers into the twisted world of the Oh sisters: In-Ju, an accountant; Ji-hyun, a disgraced reporter; and Ji-hu, a talented student. Recognizable as the March sisters, their journey departs quickly from the source material when In-Ju is suddenly the heir of 70 million won. Motifs from Alcott’s original novel make surprising appearances throughout the series, like Meg’s hurt ankle or Jo’s burnt manuscript. Aunt March is replaced with Great Aunt Badass. This series is so twisty I took notes while watching. Adaptations don’t always have to be direct visual copies of the book, and I am so ready for more.
I am not Korean, nor can I claim any expertise in Korean culture, but I am now hungry for more gritty K-Drama adaptations of classic novels. My assessments of these books as imagined adaptations is merely based on my experience of watching various K-dramas. When curating this list, I wanted to be mindful of books that require certain cultural context, such as The Color Purple.
Once you’ve finished Little Women (currently on Netflix USA), grab your index cards; it’s time to start storyboarding these classics into something more sinister.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
This 1978 children’s mystery is deliciously twisty, with eccentric characters and closed room structure. When Samuel Westing, owner of Sunset Towers dies, he names various tenants as his heirs, with the caveat that they must solve his murder that one of them committed. The tenants are paired randomly, with a stack of cash and a set of bewildering clues. As a gritty K-Drama, very little would need to be changed, including the Hoo’s baseball-themed Chinese restaurant. The Ameri-centric clues could be adapted to fit South Korean culture and history. The Westing Game has yet to have a proper screen adaptation, although HBO currently holds the rights to a TV series, so we may see some kind of grim, R-rated adaptation on the horizon.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
This 19th century French classic has already been transformed into a K-Drama twice in the past decade, but what’s one more? Promised captainship, young sailor Dantés spends years wrongfully imprisoned. During his imprisonment, Dantés learns of an immense fortune that he uses when he escapes to become the Count of Monte Cristo. One by one, Dantés exacts his revenge on those who imprisoned him, ruining their reputations and relationships. Retribution, treasure hunting, and serialized storytelling — The Count of Monte Cristo is practically meant for TV. As a K-Drama, The Count of Monte Cristo could be an espionage thriller, a political drama, or costume drama.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I know, I know, this book is SO American, but put that aside for just a minute. Place Daisy, Nick, and Gatsby in 21st century Seoul, and it’s essentially the same story. A story of class and identity, The Great Gatsby would work beautifully as a K-Drama. The disillusionment of the American dream is replaced with bleak millennial cynicism, forever chasing impossible stability. Gatsby, the mysterious nouveau riche supposed playboy, obsessed with success, is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Original elements of the book — Myrtle’s death, Tom’s brutishness and racism, and the eventual death of Gatsby are disturbing enough to expand into a full series.
One Thousand and One Nights
Gathered over centuries from multiple countries in Asia and Northern Africa, this massive collection has been adapted hundreds of different ways. In the frame story, Scheherazade crafts tales to amuse her husband, King Shahryä, and spare her life — at least until the next night. These stories are funny, scary, erotic, and fantastical, with elements of poetry, complex storytelling, science fiction, satire, and horror. A K-Drama series could explore the different editions and translations, playing on classic themes of fate and destiny, and mirroring a precarious frame story.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic just needs a few twists and turns and it’s halfway to being a Gothic thriller. Spoiled orphan Mary is sent to live with her uncle in the English countryside in a dark, bleak manor home. The Secret Garden is a story of softening and growth as Mary finds her place and forms friendships. In a more sinister adaptation, Misselthwaite Manor would entrap an older Mary, letting the darkness grow inside of her. Uncle Craven would play the part of the villain, cruel and dangerous. Dread would creep through the home, growing like vines in the garden. As in many K-Dramas, a supernatural element would appear in the garden, with Aunt Lillias’s ghost warning Mary of Craven. The refuge of the garden acts more as a prison, entangling Mary and the viewers until she finds her way out.
The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
First published in 1954, this Japanese coming-of-age novel is an adaptation of the ancient Greek novel of Dapnis and Chloe. Shinji, a young fisherman, falls in love with pearl diver, Hatsue. Vicious rumors spread quickly in the small village, and Shinji must face a typhoon alone to prove his worth. Although this novel is short, universal themes of man vs. nature, class, power, and love make The Sound of Waves relevant for a K-drama adaptation. Shinji’s rival, a wealthy hothead, could be any contemporary K-Drama villain. Chiyoko, pining after Shinji, is the secondary love interest, and would be given a revenge plot. Hatsue’s wealthy, neglectful father would still try to marry Hatsue to someone else in an updated version.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Surprisingly, this 19th century French doorstopper has never been adapted into a K-Drama. Jean Valjean, a convicted bread thief, spends the rest of his life seeking redemption. Complex, political, and populated by vibrant characters, Les Mis is a harrowing epic of justice and love. So much of the novel takes place in the sewers that a gritty K-Drama adaptation would seem sterile in comparison.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Divided into 12 chapters for months of the year, this Mexican novel is prepped for TV serialization. Fifteen-year-old Tita experiences intense emotions connected with those around her, literally pouring her feelings into her cooking. Forbidden from marrying, Tita is forced to remain at home under her mother’s controlling hand. Seemingly whimsical with enchanted recipes, this family saga is full of closet skeletons and angry spirits. Similarly, other Magical Realism classics, like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits, would make beautiful, dark K-Dramas.
What classics would you love to see taking shape on the small screen? Check out these 10 Showstopper Books for K-Drama Fans for some further reading inspiration.