Anime fans all over have most likely heard of the two recent Crunchyroll vehicles based on popular Webtoons. Namely last season’s Tower of God and the brand new God of HighSchool. So lots of Gods… I watched Tower of God and plan on continuing to watch God of HighSchool, I’ve also partially read each webtoon but I can’t say I was a die hard fan of the source material before watching the anime.
However I have access to Twitter were there are many fans of the source material who have many views about the anime and more specifically the “quality” and “success” of the adaptation.
I’m no expert on the challenges of adapting a work to anime. In fact, I wrote a post specifically stating I would completely mess up any adaptation I was involved with. But I do have a bit of knowledge regarding the specific pitfalls of adapting serial fiction which I think applies here. And as the subject interests me, I would love to discuss it with you.
Serial fiction is really any fiction that is created in increments but for the purposes of this conversation and as it is most commonly used this days, I will define it as fiction that is created and distributed in increments and were the audience is able to give feedback, potentially influencing the course of the story. Most notably nowadays, this would be fanfiction. Forums where an author publishes one chapter at the time and readers have the opportunity to give their comments and notes.
Webtoons work in very much the same way. Even when they are on platforms that do not incorporate commenting features, social sites like Twitter and reddit are a readily available environment for readers to share their thoughts and for writers to receive feedback. And this has an enormous impact on story structure and narrative that must be taken into account when it comes time to adapting the work.
Basically, adapting a webtoon is different than adapting a manga, even if it’s a manga that originally came out in chapters in Shonen jump and could therefore be considered serial.
I am a boring person that works mostly with chemical compounds and algorithms. However, I have had the chance to work alongside much more interesting people that do exciting stuff, like for example copyright. Which means that at certain points in my career I have had the chance to meet publishers and get a bit of information regarding the pitfalls of adapting works that were originally doled out in bits over the internet, into a single fluid whole. When those original works are themselves fanfiction, there’s another extra layer of intellectual property fun, but I’ll leave that for another day.
And this is what I gathered.
First, a lot of webtoon authors start out self published and are a team of one. This means that any irregularity in their personal lives is likely to really affect the work. And when that work is spread out over months and years, a chapter or two at the time, it can really affect the tone. There are a lot of authors that form a community with their readers, they have little chapter notes and introductions to let fans know what is going on in their lives that puts those chapters in context. It’s actually kind of cool to see how real life events are influencing the fictional work and to watch authors work through those moments or express those joys. You feel like you are sharing along in a journey.
But pretty much every adaptation is going to strip those out, so tonal shifts then need to remain consistent with the narrative or else they become distracting or even unpleasant. And that means editing the tone, which is extremely tricky and requires adjustments on all production levels.
But not all webtoon authors editorialize. And even when they do, those notes aren’t necessarily translated for wider audiences. Yet fans still follow along and enjoy the works. So unexplained tonal shifts by themselves aren’t the only thing that makes webtoon adaptations challenging.
If we go to Tower of God, the adaptation (which I really enjoyed but seems to be getting mixed reviews from webtoon readers) was (in the first season at least) a bit more emotional and melancholy in tone. But that adaptational change was kept up the entire season and so when the more dramatic events which have a bit of a shift in the webtoon hit, it was fairly fluid as far as the anime went.
Another issue I see is that webtoons tend to have much looser narrative structures than manga or western comics. If I look at TOG and Nanbaka (two webtoons I have read and have seen the adaptations thereof) both have extremely short chapters (a fairly common trait) and a lot of narrative space between each panel. Due to the constraints of the authors having to work by themselves and upload their works for mass consumption, a natural selection has occurred, wherein the most efficient way to present the story is to identify the exact moments that benefit the most from being illustrated, either because they give out important information or because they have a huge emotional payload, and then just add enough images in for the readers to follow along with the action.
All comics are that way up to a certain point. There is an almost subconscious inference of how the story got from one panel to the next. It’s what I call the space between the panels. But since most anime adaptations are not entirely made out of jump cuts, those spaces need to get illustrated. Usually it’s a pretty obvious and natural transition, Not too much artistic licence to be had in those moments. But in webtoons, those “spaces between the panels” are much larger I find, which means that the adaptation has a lot more of those transitions to fill in. Although these moments rarely have a huge obvious impact on the story, they can add up to make an adaptation feel just a little off for a fan of the webtoon. It’s very difficult to detect since all the moments and images of the source material are there, sometimes completely verbatim, but still the flow is off. The destination is right but they journey is difficult to recognize. It’s uncanny.
However, of all these elements, I think audience feedback is the most important. Let me give you a few actual examples I know about to illustrate my point.
For example, let’s say we have a fiction that has been going on for some time and is fairly popular. The author wishes to keep it going. Their original arc has been finished for some time but the world building and lore allows for a much deeper exploration and an overarching story line that could go on for years. The author knows exactly how they want to end it and some of the important narrative beats they want to hit but they haven’t plotted out each and every chapter in detail and are trying out a few potential plot threads.
If the audience reaction to a particular arc is positive, it’s not unlikely that the author will then decide to focus a bit more on it. Deepen the conflict, add some more layers maybe even add a whole new bit of world building and character development. They might rewrite a superficial arc original intended to be a handful of chapters into a much more meaningful adventure spanning dozens. On the flip side, if the readers are clearly uninterested in a particular plot, it would be reasonable for the author to drop it. Maybe just hastily throw in a conclusion and move on to the next thing.
When you are reading along and part of the community, these changes make sense. You also have all these accumulated foundations from the series that you can use to create a consistent headcanon. But when you try to collect all that into a singular storyline, you end up with frustrating dropped threads and uneven exposition. Logically, an adaptation should completely strike out those story arcs that seemed to have been dropped and move around the exposition of the deepened ones to make it feel like they were always meant to be a full story but then you run into the spiderweb problems. You see, plot threads aren’t always neat and sequential. It’s not unusual to have a few running in parallel. You have to untangle them. And maybe an author introduced an element they really liked in a plot they drop but bring back that one bit later on in a way that’s important to the story. So what do you do? Write in something completely new to introduce that element? Well then you are changing the source a lot, fans will be outraged. And that built in fanbase is the main reason the adaptation is being made at all.
And it’s not just plot threads. It happens that an author will create a random character with a very limited role, like to give a specific bit of information to the protagonist. That is what that character is for and therefore that is all there is to them. They have no backstory, no motivations and really no personality to speak of. They are in fact a utilitarian plot element. But maybe the artist was feeling a bit more playful that day so they gave this unimportant mob character a really nice design. Or maybe they weren’t even trying to do that, it’s just that this one turned out really well and maybe kinda really pretty.
All the sudden, fans notice and keep asking about that one character that maybe doesn’t even have a name. Memes are made. Fanfiction is written. Sexy ships are created. And a smart author who wants their webtoon to succeed and pay the bills cannot be blamed for thinking to themselves, well maybe I should bring that character back. So they do, they give them a backstory. Maybe they even try to find an excuse to include them in the main story line. A bit of backfill here, some retcon there and bam! It’s like they were always here! Fans rejoice. They have all seen the sexy ships for months now and they are just happy to get this character back.
But how do you add that in the anime. Do you add it right away in season 1. After all, the author would have included them from the start if they had known the character would be such a hit and fans want to see them. Do they take the backfill and weave through the story so that it’s not backfill anymore but organic character growth? Sounds good to me. But then you run into that artistic liberties problem again. And maybe you realize that a good bit of the character’s popularity is the mystery around them that fuelled those memes and speculations and without that, they’re not that interesting.
It’s way harder for an anime to course correct than for a webtoon and the production doesn’t have the advantage of instant feedback. They have to rely on the previous reactions of fans of the webtoon to gear their adaptation. But in the increasingly digital world, webtoons are a way more communal and inherently interactive experience than anime and therefore, the impact is simply not the same. It’s this distinction that makes the adaptations particularly tricky in my opinion and it’s why these adaptations have such a high risk of either alienating established fans of the source or confusing newcomers.
What are your thoughts on webtoon or even just serial adaptation. Is there a way to please everyone? O.k., the answer to that is NO, but is there a way to please most people? I’m really curious.