Squid Game and the Significance of Derivative Television
Quite some “Netflix Originals” are actually derivative. While often understood as a derogatory term, Evert Jan van Leeuwen argues how significant the derivative character of popular culture can be by exploring Squid Game’s close-intertextual relations to earlier deadly-gameshow stories.
Today’s television landscape is defined by a plethora of re-makes, re-boots, and re-imaginings of familiar shows. Many “Netflix Originals” are far from original in fact. For instance, the characters, setting, plot structure and themes of Stranger Things were unashamedly lifted from Horror, SF and Adventure hits of the 1980s and 90s: Stephen King novels, The Goonies, Dungeons & Dragons, the cult show Eerie – Indiana, etc. While derivative, such “Netflix Unoriginals” do manage to engage global audiences. As such they remain significant because they continue to bridge the gap between the fictional world of the story and the lived-experience of their audiences. Recently, Remco Breuker and Flora Smit explained in the Dutch media how the current Netflix hit Squid Game reflects current Korean, but also more broadly shared, socio-economic concerns. What struck me most about this show, initially, was its derivative character. When you look past its aesthetics and plot details this dystopian drama about 456 debtors who participate in a sadistic survival game is just one of the many re-imaginings of Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” from 1958 (figure 1). However, rather than dismissing the show as merely derivative, I believe this show underscores the significance of derivative television; its derivative character makes it so relevant.
Sheckley’s “original” is a story about Jim Raeder – a man doomed to live his life in the margins of American society as a voiceless, invisible hard worker within an unforgiving socio-economic machine. In a world in which money and property rule every aspect of life, individuals without capital have only one option if they wish to rise on the social ladder: they have to invest their flesh, blood and spirit in a high-risk gameshow. In Raeder’s America, national television gives the exploited worker a chance to become rich: shows such as Spills, Emergency, Torero, Underwater Perils, Hazard, en The Prize of Peril offer the losers of the economic system a chance to become winners, to gain celebrity status. Participants who lose the game, however, lose their investment: their life. Raeder manages to survive the increasingly dangerous games and wins the sought-after cash prize; tragically, in the process of ensuring his material welfare he has destroyed his mind.
In 1970, Sheckley’s original was adapted for German television as Das Millionenspiel; in 1983 into the film Le Prix du Danger. Stephen King’s The Running Man (1982), adapted to film in 1987, is another retelling of Scheckley’s story (figure 2). In King’s plot, the focus shifts from merciless economic competition to the destructive nature of the mass media that supports the system. In 1979, King had published The Long Walk, another appropriation of Sheckley’s themes. In this story, families can sign up a candidate for the yearly long walk. In this national-wide sporting event the last remaining walker wins a huge cash prize and another prize of choice. Again, it is those who lose out in the hegemonic economic system who sign up family members for this deadly game, in the hope of escaping their dire straits. Again, the game’s losers are sadistically murdered: walkers who fall below the minimum pace are shot on sight.
In the winter of 1988/89, British TV audiences saw how Dr Who was caught up in another deadly game on the planet Segonax. Recent films like Battle Royale (Japan, 2000), 13 Beloved (Thailand, 2006) and The Tournament (UK, 2009) also borrow heavily from Sheckley’s original and foreshadow much in Squid Game. The Hunger Games is the most recent bestseller in the “deadly-game” dystopian subgenre. Again it concerns an economically stratified society in which material prosperity brings social status and political power, in which success is measured in conspicuous consumption. Again, a highly organised and manipulative mass-media system gives the exploited workers the illusion that they have a chance at success, as long as they are willing to step over the corpses of their fellows in order to reach the finish line.
For Horror/SF fans Squid Game is old hat: yet another variation on Sheckley’s foundational story. But it is exactly its derivative nature that makes Squid Game significant. Sheckley’s story can be endlessly reimagined because the experience of its protagonist is the experience of so many hard-working people within the global capitalist system: systematic exploitation and unfreedom. Collectively, the many variations on Sheckley’s story form a sustained and increasingly loud critique of the socioeconomic injustices brought about by the hegemonic capitalist free-market. Behind the doublespeak of equal opportunities the system claims countless losers for every winner, and only the winners count.
The consequences of a worldwide obsession with beating the competition, within capitalism, are reflected in the current state of television and sports culture. On both amateur and professional level, sports are corrupted by financial interests and the drive to win at all costs. It is not about playing the game, or perfecting the craft; only success matters; winning is all, because only winning ensures profit. Today, cheating, gambling, drug-abuse and organisational bribery are rife in many sports. TV producers today are obsessed with competition-shows in which normal people battle to be the best chef, designer, sewer, singer, baker, Lego builder, etc. As long as somebody can be the best, and the others lose.
Earlier variations on Sheckley’s story contained meta-textual reflections on the corruptive power of mass-mediated competition within sport- and gaming-culture. Squid Game lacks this self-reflective aspect. Instead, the audience of the drama becomes the target audience of the game. Is Squid Game suggesting that the fictions of Sheckley, King and Collins have become reality? Watched in the context of the many “deadly-game” stories that preceded it, Squid Game is derivative, but all the more significant because of this. It adds another voice to a growing international choir of Horror and Science Fiction stories that sings Wordsworth’s lament about “What man has made of man” within the so-called free, but also highly destructive global marketplace.
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