Squid Game, to practically everyone's surprise, is the most-watched TV series in the world right now. It's Netflix's top show, beating out previous record-holder Bridgerton. At a time when Hollywood is saying audiences want aspirational, positive, life-affirming stories, along comes Squid Game. With its melodramatic, sadist violence and angry commentary on class warfare as desperate contestants in a death game have to win children's games or die, it has taken the world by storm. Class warfare as a theme in thrillers is in, kids!
The series stars Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict who takes part in a mysterious game to settle his debts and win 45.6 billion won, but soon learns that losing means getting killed.
Ironically, Squid Game director and creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has said that the series took over 10 years before Netflix came along and made it. The premise of poor people who agree to play a game where they have to compete to the death is a genre that's been in Japanese and South Korean comics, anime, video games, and pop culture for years. Some of the entries were even hits, but none as big as Squid Game.
"'Squid Game' involves survival games, but it's actually about people… So it doesn't take long for audiences anywhere to understand the rules of the games, which gives more room for them to follow the emotions of the characters who are playing the games," he told The Korea Times. "Other similar genre series or films follow one hero solving difficult puzzles to become a winner. But this series is a story of losers. There are no winners ― no geniuses ― but rather a person who takes each step forward with the help of others."
Hwang said he came up with the story back in 2008 and wrote the script a year later, but for over 12 years it was constantly rejected by several studios due to its "bizarre", "grotesque" and "unrealistic" concept. "But after about 12 years, the world has changed into a place where such peculiar, violent survival stories are actually welcomed.
"People commented on how the series is relevant to real life. Sadly, the world has changed in that direction. The series' games that participants go crazy over align with people's desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrency, real estate, and stocks. So many people have been able to empathize with the story."
"Making the story into the series was still an adventure, just as it was about a decade ago. I knew that it would be all or nothing; either a masterpiece or a quirky flop," he said. "The idea behind this work was very experimental."
After the coronavirus pandemic hit and exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor, Netflix thought that Squid Game's themes of class struggle spoke to reality, Huang said. "The world has changed. All of these points made the story very realistic for people compared to a decade ago."
And the most telling thing is that it was Netflix that recognized a hunger for this type of story now when no Hollywood or Korean network would. Given that a hit US network show only gets 4 million viewers and up, the tens of millions of viewers that Squid Game has gotten might show that Netflix has a better finger on the pulse than the networks do.
Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.