It’s not surprising when fans of a show or film completely miss the thematic point. You can look at Star Trek or Star Wars fandoms for that problem on display. You’re supposed to fight against the evil Empire, not become it.
It’s not much of a surprise to see corporations miss the point of the shows and movies they make either. Corporations are all about the almighty dollar. If they are publicly traded, they are legally bound to increase shareholder value and most take that to mean “making more money.” The machine of big business cranks onward, leaving spent intellectual property and content in its wake.
What is surprising is to see one miss the point this hard. Today, Netflix announced a reality competition show based on Squid Game, the hit Korean television series from 2021. Squid Game: The Challenge will have 456 players facing off against one another for a payout of $4.56 million. Netflix is calling it the biggest reality competition ever.
“Squid Game took the world by storm with [director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s] captivating story and iconic imagery,” said Brandon Riegg, Netflix VP of unscripted and documentary series. “We’re grateful for his support as we turn the fictional world into reality in this massive competition and social experiment.”
This is the exact opposite of what Squid Game was about. If you haven’t seen the show, it was about Seong Gi-hun, a man who had fallen on hard times due to gambling debts. Gi-hun joins the games mentioned in the title as a chance to free himself from poverty. The competition is children’s games writ large, with the price of failure being death.
Without diving too deep into spoilers, the games are sport and spectacle for the rich. They enjoy watching the impoverished fight and die. Every death adds to the prize pool. Squid Game is a condemnation of the system that Gi-hun finds himself in, a hyper-stylized parody of capitalism where the rich can literally watch the poor die. That’s text, not subtext.
“Well, these days we are, in fact, living in a deeply unfair and economically challenging world. Especially after the pandemic. I mean, there is more inequality, more severe competition and more people are being pushed to the edge of their livelihoods,” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s true that season one ended in an open-ended way, but I actually thought that this could be good closure for the whole story, too. That was, in fact, my way of communicating the message that you should not be dragged along by the competitive flow of society, but that you should start thinking about who has created the whole system — and whether there is some potential for you to turn back and face it.”
And yet, here we are with a Squid Game reality show. No one’s going to die in the show, of course, but it still feels like it’s spitting on the thematic core of the original work. A reality competition show is capitalism at its worst and there will be contestants undertaking these games for whom that money could be life-changing. An entire show of desperate people trying to claw their way toward success, edited into winners and losers for our entertainment.
This isn’t even just Netflix’s mistake. The creator is seemingly on board, as he’s giving this his blessing while he works on Season 2 of Squid Game. I understand getting that bag, but Squid Game: The Challenge just feels crass. Netflix needs consistent hits and Squid Game was one of its biggest. Reality TV, despite the general disdain for it, is rather popular. Bringing together two popular concepts seems like a win for Netflix. It just feels like the worst outcome one could get from the success of the show.