Webtoon Adaptations and the Challenges of Serial Fiction

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.

sharing

’cause sharing is caring?

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.

shonen jump

I highly recommend getting a Shonen Jump subscription – it’s great

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.

journey

we all love that

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.

1 Tower of God ep13 (8)

I quite liked Tower of God

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.

drawing anime

I’m getting too literal again

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.

Welcome-to-the-Ballroom audience crowd

I wish all fanbases were like this

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.

boring

it happens to every one

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.

Rini 3 (13)

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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13 Responses

  1. Kryptonitezz says:

    I’m reading webtoons for years. Webtoons popularity are skyrocketing these days and in few years I’m expecting it to outgrow manga popularity in West . The reason is because it’s digitally consumed , coloured(many just can’t get into manga because of its black and white feature and I still remember reading my first few webtoons without knowing that it was not a manga and astonished to see all coloured pages) and scrolling feature of them makes it easy to read. But most important part is it’s content(it’s not limited to any particular country) . While it’s started in Korea but now it’s there are contents from all around the world and there is freedom to try new ideas and audience gets to decide if it’s good or not(in simple words)

    It’s relatively new in comparison to manga. While webtoons are also considered as manhwa but it’s not accurate. Manhwa used to be black &white like manga too (example Breakers).

    Coming to the adaptation part,
    First 3 webtoons that get adaptation are the 3 most old webtoons which already got a decent fanbase, atleast in case of TOG which is quite popular in west .

    In case of TOG there were many issues with adaptation.

    First and main reason for fans to dislike the adaptation is pace and cutting of contents. But it’s still not that bad when you realize that in GOH anime studio(CR) adapted more than 110+ chapters in just 13 episodes (in TOG case they adapted 80 chapters) .

    Second issues is changes which you pointed out. In TOG case, many small and big changes are done and some of them are not logical. But TOG is a quite complex and s1 in particular is very special for its fan. They did many changes which contradicts future contents and misinterpreted the situation.

    For example , YURI brought hammer guy(kuruden) and gamer Khun boy (Hastchulling Khun) with her on floor of test.

    The gamer Khun was a light bearer and his role was to support Yuri and co. In her goal. He approached Khun only to use his lighthouse(he hacked his light house) and has nothing to do with Khun Aguero Agnis or Maria. He neither know AA khun nor give a damn about him. But in anime this was changed and it forcefully tries to show that Khun is depressed over Maria while in webtoons it wasn’t the case.

    Now let’s come to hammer guy. Yuri didn’t kill Ren herself as she would have been branded as traitor. In anime it was shown that hammer guy directly appear and smash Ren revealing himself which was terrible because this would have hinted to Ren that Yuri is involved with WOLHAIKSONG which would have been more terrible.

    In webtoon that hammer guy didn’t appear before Ren but uses a long range shinshu skill and smashed REN which gives no evidence about who did it and so there is nothing to put Yuri in troublesome situation. That was the reason Yuri brings that hammer guy with her and not just anyone else.

    Also REN wasn’t supposed to be declared dead as he is alive and his real body was not there .
    Ghost guy was also not dead but anime showed him to be. This little small looking changes will hit hard later on.

    There were many changes which makes a fan thinks if they even read future contents.

    Tbh it’s hard to explain without describing changes done and the impact it will have in future.

    As it’s fan for me it was an very good anime
    8.5/10 but a very bad adaptation 3/10

    In GOH case. In simple words it suffers due to adapting so much in only 13 episodes. Every details and explanation got cut due to it.

    I think Chrunchyroll wasn’t sure about webtoon adaptation success so they want to play safe but at same time they want to milk these webtoons as much as they can. So they decided to give only 13 episodes to them but wanted to adapt as much as possible (to get most they can from CR &Webtoon collaboration). On webtoon part, I think there priority was to attract more readers which I’m sure that it does (although koreans didn’t like TOG webtoon adaptation. Many pretty much dislike it. In Korea TOG is extremely popular and If you don’t know TOG is considered ONE PIECE of Korea. )

    It can also be seen as that webtoon achieved its goal.

    On your last question. In case of TOG most people would have been satisfied if it was not rushed and changed(I’m sure of it. Most fans who dislike the adaptation is due to logicless changes done in anime) . Animation was beautiful and OST was top tier.

    • Irina says:

      I read and watched TOG but I really like the adaptation. I’m not sure if the point of it was to get people interested in reading the webtoon, in which case it really succeeded and the changes work in the favour as the new fans that ae coming from the anime will get intrigued by it and will likely keep reading in order to discover the reasons for the differences or if the point was to have more seasons to come and adapt the entire thing in which case the adaptation biases may cause future problems.

  2. Andy says:

    To be honest I haven’t delve into the webtoon world all that much as it’s a new concept to my traditionalist consumption methods. I did watch a bit of In/Spectre awhile ago, but beyond that I can’t make a comparison between webtoons and their adaptations.

    That being said I’m not sure every author does have a plan for every character they create in their comic. It may very well just be a case like you said where one’s appearance catches fire in the community and suddenly their presence becomes a cash cow.

    That’s not so much of an issue in manga adaptation usually, but I can think of one case where a series deviated and made a ruckus by adding flair to a character that created much debate. Chika’s added dance at end of episode 3 in season 1 of Kaguya-sama: Love is War was loved and hated for a variety of reasons. The director very easily could have added that in season 2 knowing full well it worked the first time, but there was no such antics from Chika in that season which leads me to believe the creators are not at the beck and call of the community response and decided to enhance other elements instead, which in my opinion was a benefit for the show overall.

    • Irina says:

      I doubt every author has a plan for every character they create. That seems crazy. Not every author forces themselves to develop a character they have no feel for and no narrative use for though.

  3. I noticed on Comico they sort their manga into “short”, “medium” and “long” chapters…or at least, they used to. They don’t any more, now that I check for the first time in a long while…

    That spiderweb stuff occurs with manga as well, not just web-based stuff. Jump infamously has reader surveys which can basically predict what will get an anime soon or what will be wrapped up soon. Of course, all adaptions (not just webcomic to anime) have the problem of possibly “bringing forward” popular characters or shuffling events around – e.g. those Shousetsuka ni Narou (Let’s Become Novelists) isekai web novels normally have print runs, then manga and then anime, so that leaves plenty of times to shuffle things around to make sense in different formats. Let’s not forget the feedback mangaka and similar creators can get from Twitter and other corners of the internet, as well…

    Well, as someone who’s been both a consumer and creator of serial web content (is blogging regularly a kind of serial web content too…?), I guess I know the pros and cons of this stuff personally.

  4. Alicia says:

    Very interesting, I have always felt that adaptations usually divide fans, also with books: which one was better, the book or the movie/series? I never considered the serial fiction factor when adapting webtoons/ webcomics and what you said made things clearer to me (who was constantly confused as to why they need to change the original journey). Probably not completely related to the subject, but I remember hearing that sometimes (or always, dunno?) anime based on a manga is made hoping to entice new fans to start buying the manga (if they want to know the rest of the story) and the already fans get to consume even more material about their fav story (which translates into producing an anime with an already established fanbase = less risk). Fans might be 50-50, but if it brings more people from Crunchyroll to Webtoons and Webtoon readers to Crunchyroll, I guess companies won’t mind about making most people happy. I think I see it like a sports game: a divided audience but that’s part of the fun. Btw yes to a copyright and intellectual property post! 🤩 you make these subjects entertaining and informative.

    • Irina says:

      I have also heard that most animme is basically just an extended commercial for the manga which both makes perfect sense and is a little odd in a way. I never even thought of western blockbusters being commercials for the books they are based on but it does help sales when a movie does well, I guess. Then again, I’m pretty sure Marvel’s priority isn’t comics anymore now that the movies went out of control.

  5. Dawnstorm says:

    Interesting post. I read it yesterday, but it was so hot that I could barely think.

    I’ve heard about manga and light novel editors making demands of the sort “change this and I can sell it”, so it’s interesting to think that if you cut out the middle man, authors can directly react to fan feedback. It’s especially interesting, since I’ve heard from Western webtoon authors that they’re advised not follow fanfiction to avoid copyright suits.

    I often wonder how copyright works with adaptions and original content. Are there cases of ongoing manga that include anime original characters in the later volumes? (I’m guessing the production comittee model would help with communication, but one wonders.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well i’m just going to leave this here in case you didn’t see the comment in the last post.
    I personally hold no ill will to you at all whatsoever and i’ve got a few female otaku friends online and we get along just fine even if we do have disagreements. To be honest my mood as of late isn’t really good and i’m just always constantly in a negative mood where i’m always annoyed,bitter and antipathetic and because of this i can’t really enjoy the hobbies that i want to be doing as much now and i’m starting to get pretty bad body pains as well too because of my state of mind.
    I really would love to get back to enjoying my hobbies and be much more happier about my life and i also see you as one of the most easy going and positive person i met in the anime community online and i’m happy to cross paths with you. Maybe rest is what i need and i should really start looking more into self care techniques to help calm me down and alleviate my current state.
    I’ll see you later and i feel like a walk outside could be a start

  7. Morningstar says:

    I think it is 50-50

  1. August 2, 2020

    […] Webtoon Adaptations and the Challenges of Serial Fiction […]

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