Every sacrifice defines us. Every choice changes us.
I won’t deny the excitement I felt when I saw this announcement on Instagram. I quickly reread the book to reacquaint myself with the characters and then watched the episodes as soon as I could so I could write all about it. Ever since I saw it and watched the trailer on YouTube, I have counted the days until its release. In addition, since reading the book for the first time in 2017, I have become a low-key K-drama fan, doubling the excitement.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book and would like to, I suggest you skip this review and return when you have read it. Otherwise, we are pretty good to go!
Pachinko is inextricably linked to Sunja and her duty to her children. If you read the book, Sunja’s choices beginning with her love for Hansu, are the basis of the novel. No matter how many characters become part of the story, it’s hard to forget that it all begins with Sunja. It is Sunja’s story.
The TV series goes off in another direction. It tells two stories; Sunja’s story, the past, and Solomon, her grandson, the future. The series tells both stories concurrently, showing the past and present. The story follows Sunja as a young child before her father’s death, her choices, and how she ends up in Japan.
The show intermittently switches to the future to follow her grandson, Solomon, an ambitious investment banker who’s a bit of a prick. To gain a promotion at his job in the US, he transfers back to Japan to close a business deal. These future scenes with Solomon evoke nostalgia as it is clear that coming back to Japan is comparable to walking into the past. Especially with regards to Hana, his childhood infatuation.
Book Vs. Series
Book adaptations generally create a buzz amongst fans of a particular book. However, this excitement is quickly diminished when they remember how this goes. It’s almost like a toxic relationship. We know that the screen adaptation will undoubtedly ruin that perfect book. Still, we just can’t help but want to see the characters and stories we love existing outside our heads.
Before I go into how much of this book’s personality has been stripped off, I admit that adapting a book for screens is a more difficult task than one would imagine. One of the significant constraints is the runtime. Although, when you see a book being adapted into a series instead of a movie, you will hope for a little more faithfulness to the novel. But then, in promotional trailers and posters, you would see the words or ‘disclaimer’: ‘Based on a book,’ meaning the same character names and the skeletal plot is retained. Everything else is up for rewriting.
Pachinko, the book is a subtly told story that drives powerful emotions nonetheless. The series loses that subtlety which isn’t surprising. It has to rely on character dialogue to reveal insights that cause it to lose its potency.
I will start with the most significant breakaway from the book. Sunja’s story is one about choices. But all of her choices stem from the romance she had with Hansu. The series starts chronicling their relationship from episode two when Sunja as a young woman, meets Hansu, the new fish broker. The book tells their love as an intense, enthralling experience for Sunja, who has had very little to do with men asides from her mother’s room boarders. However, the show brushes over its slow intensity.
In the book, Hansu is held spellbound and captivated by Sunja at first sight, asking her questions every day with no replies. The show speeds it up with Sunja speaking to Hansu first, a bold move considering the reverence most of the other Koreans hold him in. Then there is a scene where he sees her for the first time, another scene where she stands up to him, and then finally, the scene where he saves Sunja from the Japanese delinquents.
When Sunja informs Hansu that she is pregnant, Hansu, instead of her, instigates the rift between them with his harsh words in response to her request for marriage. This is a significant change in Hansu’s character. It trivializes the connection he feels to Sunja, making it seem as though he was merely using her. Afterward, Hansu displays his domineering character around Sunja, foreshadowing that he will be vengeful toward her as the story unfolds.
The other changes to the story are minor. Still, they essentially build up to a story and characters that are not quite familiar to readers of the book. Sunja’s character is adjusted. She has always been shown as someone with quiet strength in the book, rarely expressing her opinions without need. In the series, she is more outspoken.
Episode 1 adds more color to Sunja as a young girl than the book. In that episode, she is shown as a quiet but insightful child who is also a deep-sea diver. Hansu is quickly demystified; there’s even an entire episode chronicling his early life. Isak overhears Sunja telling Yangjin her mother about the pregnancy and then proposes marriage to her directly without her mother’s knowledge.
Some encounters do not happen in the book; Hansu meets Isak and also talks with Noa earlier than in the book. Isak gets arrested for being a low-key activist, something his book character wouldn’t do. Solomon doesn’t have a Korean-American girlfriend. And finally, Sunja goes to Korea for a visit.
The series highlights a theme that forms the novel’s historical and cultural backdrop: the Japanese occupation of Korea and its subsequent echoes. The series displays the intense dislike the subservient Koreans had for their subjugators. The Japanese allow no form of rebellion, even drunken words spoken in the dead of night are punished severely. It is clearly shown that the Koreans fear their colonial masters.
The ripples of this relationship are still evident decades later as the story unfolds around Solomon. A stranger in a land he has always known; he isn’t even considered a legal citizen. He was born in Japan and spoke Japanese fluently, yet receives subtle jabs at his Korean roots.
As a book lover, this series is a disappointment. As a K-drama fan, this series was a disappointment. I wouldn’t even call it a K-drama, so be warned if you are a fan. Pachinko, the series does not contain all the quirkiness and cheesiness you usually look forward to. Although, it has been renewed for season two. I will not be watching it.
On the other hand, I did enjoy how the series stayed faithful to Hoonie’s love for his daughter Sunja. As the book says, “Few fathers in the world treasured their daughters as much as Hoonie, who seemed to live to make his child smile.”
I also enjoyed how the actors spoke Korean, Japanese, and English.
I’d suggest you skip the series and if you haven’t read the book, please pick it up. Until the next book adaptation comes along to disappoint us, Ciao!