Oldboy: A case study in intercultural adaptation theory

This post is based on a paper I wrote for Dr. Blair Davis‘ class on Adaptation during the Spring 2014 quarter at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. The purpose of this assignment is to “Choose any media text (I.e. film, comic book, novel, radio or television program, etc.) that is an adaptation of a text from another medium. You may choose a text from any era or country, but it must be based upon something from another medium (I.e. don’t choose a film that re-envisions another film, for instance). For example, the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds has been adapted as a 1938 radio program, a 1952 film and a 2005 film, and either of these three adaptations might be examined in relation to the source text.” Therefore, I decided to look at how the various versions of Oldboy can be used as a case study to reconsider existing adaptation theories in relation to the phenomenon of cross-cultural adaptation, which is becoming increasingly common in the globalized world of the 21st century. BE WARNED: there are major spoilers for all three versions of Oldboy here, so if you have not seen/read them and want to remain unspoiled going in, you might want to skip this post. Otherwise, I welcome any and all feedback, so please feel free to join the conversation on adaptation by leaving a comment in the comments section. Thank you.


The phenomenon of intercultural adaptation has become a common practice in the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.1 In the contemporary transnational media landscape, many adaptations not only represent material that has been transposed from one medium to another, but also from one cultural or national context to another. With increasing regularity, a source text that originates in one specific context will often yield an adaptation generated within a completely different context.2 Therefore, intercultural adaptations illustrate the need to reconsider existing adaptation theories to address notions of cultural specificity. Indeed, many of the current canonical adaptation theories are rooted in literary theory, and tend to focus on the idea of fidelity and whether or not the adaptation functions as a faithful recreation of the source text. Soo Jung Hong, however, argues that when considering adaptations in a transcultural or transnational context, it is often more important to focus on representations of tone in relation to the different cultural contexts involved in the adaptation and whether or not it reflects or highlights any sort of commonly shared cultural values.3 Hong writes that “fidelity of the adapted text can be a possible standard measuring the cultural implications a text is generating as a product in a cultural community.”4 In other words, while the theories that currently comprise much of the scholarship surrounding the phenomenon of adaptation remain relevant and useful for considering notions of fidelity, they nevertheless must be reconsidered to take into account the cultural and national contexts that frequently define adaptations in the increasingly globalized 21st century.

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