Netflix’s reality TV adaptation of Korean drama series Squid Game, titled Squid Game: The Challenge, has proved highly controversial — for both viewers and participants.
The original Squid Game satirized the horrors of capitalism; creator Hwang Dong-hyuk describes his show as “motivated by a simple idea. We are fighting for our lives in very unequal circumstances.”
Squid Game portrays desperation and infighting among the working class participants, who all risk their lives for a massive cash prize (and the amusement of a shadowy group of billionaires behind the deadly game).
The show exploded into one of Netflix’s biggest hits, resonating with viewers around the world and quickly becoming a cultural phenomenon. Netflix expanding on one of their biggest franchises was inevitable, even if it very much misses the point of the original series.
Here’s the controversy behind Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge, explained:
Entertainment Over Safety
Long before the show was released on Netflix, contestants have claimed that they endured a troubled production, alleging that entertainment was prioritized over the safety of the players.
Several Squid Game: The Challenge contestants opened up about their experiences filming the show in an interview with Variety, with one describing the shooting conditions as “absolutely inhumane and had nothing to do with the game.”
Now, a number of contestants are threatening to sue Netflix. They claim that the “Red Light, Green Light” challenge saw contestants endure cold temperatures while dressed in thin tracksuits that matched those worn by the characters in the original series.
Allegedly, the contestants were pressured not to wear jackets, to ensure that their black ink squibs and tracksuit numbers were visible. It has also been claimed that the challenge ran for an extended period of time, well beyond what was initially promised. As a result, some contestants claim to have suffered from hypothermia and nerve damage.
Recently, a contestant confirmed to EW that supplies ran low during filming, claiming that contestants were so desperate for chapstick that they ended up wiping lubricated condoms on their lips.
Squid Game And The Death Of Satire
The most common criticism of Squid Game: The Challenge is that its very existence makes a mockery of the original message.
While writing the screenplay, Hwang Dong-hyuk was living the bitter reality of the show’s fictional contestants. Hwang spent a decade attempting to sell his story while living with his mother and grandmother; he was even forced to sell his laptop to raise money, putting a pause on his screenwriting career.
Local film studios repeatedly rejected his pitches, believing the concept behind Squid Game to be “implausible” and “too grotesque.” Netflix proved more savvy and picked up the show, recognizing that the show’s themes “spoke to reality.”
Hwang’s contract with Netflix, however, saw the writer forfeit all intellectual property rights and guaranteed no residuals (royalty payments). For Netflix, it was a bargain; the international success of Squid Game reportedly increased the value of the streaming giant by $900 million, and accumulated more than 1.5 billion streaming hours.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hwang said that Squid Game had earned him “enough to put food on the table,” but saw the success of the show as somewhat bittersweet.
“At first, it was exciting to think that people all around the world would be able to watch my show,” said Hwang. “But now I’m thinking, ‘So what?’ I’m not getting anything out of it.”
Following the success of the show, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos confirmed that a second season was in the works, and that there was plans to expand Squid Game into a multi-media franchise that could branch off into live experiences, merchandise and mobile gaming. And of course, reality television.
‘The Squid Game universe has just begun,’ Sarandos said.
Squid Game Becomes Meta
Irony aside, it was always inevitable that the success of Squid Game would spark a goldrush, a feeding frenzy as content creators and merchandise vendors attempted to profit from the show’s popularity, almost like a meta-commentary of the show’s themes.
Youtube star Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson was one of the first to capitalize on the trend, meticulously recreating the trials of the game and inviting 456 random players to take part, with a $456,000 cash prize for the winner.
MrBeast’s video, Real Life Squid Game!, has since accumulated more than 538 million views on YouTube, and was generally well-received. Of course, at the time, MrBeast was criticized for missing the point of Squid Game’s satire (at least the participants of his game did not claim that they were mistreated).
MrBeast might have missed the point, but in hindsight, he seems to have done a better job than Netflix. The YouTuber also released his video at the perfect time, when Squid Game was at the peak of its popularity and cultural influence.
MrBeast also had the advantage of a tightly edited video; Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge, is stretched out into ten episodes, and lacks focus. Although the cash prize of $4.56 million is higher than what MrBeast offered, the atmosphere has changed.
Hwang has since reflected on the success of his show, and believes that the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic worsened income inequality. “The world has changed,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “All of these points made the story very realistic for people compared to a decade ago.”
For many, watching the players struggle to “survive” until the end feels even more distasteful in the current economic climate. One X (Twitter) commentator reacted to a clip of an emotionally devastated contestant who failed his Squid Game challenge, writing:
“This is really capturing why game shows aren’t fun anymore aka — it’s not money to take the family to Disney anymore, it’s money to pay off student loan debt, save the family house, or finally afford the get your health needs met.”
Executive producer of Squid Game: The Challenge, Tim Harcourt, even attempted to downplay the themes of the original series. In an interview with TV Guide, Harcourt stated:
“For us the anti-capitalist allegory is only one very small part of Squid Game. I often say to people, Star Wars is about swashbuckling rebels overtaking an empire, but people don’t necessarily just focus on that as being about freedom or being about anti-imperialism. So for us, that was one element.”
Online commentators quickly pushed back against Harcourt’s comment, citing examples of the series’ blunt messaging.
One X user countered with a simple, but devastating comeback: “the second episode of the show is called ‘hell’ and its set entirely outside the game.”
Squid Game’s Success Feels Sad
While the show remains a cultural phenomenon, Squid Game, as a franchise, has come to resemble the target of the original satire. Even from the beginning, the show’s popularity was viewed as somewhat depressing.
In an interview with the The Guardian, Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae discussed the unprecedented success of the series, stating:
“It’s great that audiences are consuming Korean content around the world,” Lee said.
“But if you think about the themes of Squid Game – how far are we willing to go to accumulate personal wealth, the lengths people are forced to go to – the fact it resonated with so many around the world is worrying. You get a sense this is the reality for so many people globally. And that makes me feel hugely sad.”
Squid Game’s extraordinary success echoes another Korean story with similar themes; Parasite also resonated with audiences around the world, winning Best Picture of the 2020 Oscars ceremony.
The popularity of the film came as a surprise to director Bong Joon-ho, who reflected on the success of his film and came to a similar conclusion to Lee:
“I kind of worried whether international audiences would be able to sympathize with this story,” Bong said. “But ever since we screened the film at Cannes, it seemed that people reacted very similarly to the smallest details — even I didn’t quite understand why. After Cannes, I was at the Sydney Film Festival, Munich, Telluride, Toronto — the reaction was all the same everywhere.”
Bong went on to speculate:
“I think maybe there is no borderline between countries now because we all live in the same country, it’s called capitalism — I think that’s the reason.“