On Sept. 3, the Korean thriller drama adaptation of Little Women premiered with top ratings nationwide on TVN and on Netflix. Set in the present-day, we follow three sisters, bookkeeper Oh In Joo, journalist In Kyung, and art student In Hye as they “get embroiled in a great fight against the richest family in Korea” and figure out the conspiracy behind the disappearance of 70 billion won.
It packs a punch, even as the second K-drama version (with the first one from 2004) and part of a long tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women adaptations. Besides its high-stakes storyline, writer Chung Seo-kyung of The Handmaiden uniquely constructs a tale on wealth disparity in Korea through the sisters. So what makes this version special, and even important?
The Legacy of Little Women
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was first published 150 years ago in 1868, but it remains shockingly relevant today as a canvas about enduring class inequality and womanhood. Originally set in Civil War-era America, Little Women is told through the eyes of Jo March, and how her mother Marmee and her three sisters, Meg, Beth, and Amy, navigate and grow under their family’s poverty.
Many of us were likely introduced to these characters through the 2019 version by Greta Gerwig, but Little Women boasts countless adaptations, from a Broadway musical to an anime. Each reflects different, yet consistent attitudes of its time period and culture. However, this k-drama Little Women is one of the few mainstream, live action non-Western renditions.
This drama comes at the perfect time. Stories about class have pushed forward Korea’s reputation in global media, from the chilling Parasite to recent global phenomenon and Netflix original Squid Game. What unites these stories is that they all ask questions about inequality and capitalism in our collective race to the bottom. Little Women only follows this line of thought, especially picking up on Parasite’s cues on how tightly family and class intertwine.
So how does it hold up to the original Little Women so far?
*Spoilers ahead for Episodes 1 and 2*
Successes So Far
Oh In Joo (Kim Go Eun) as Jo March
Jo March leads the original Little Women due to her fierce rejection of socioeconomic expectations. She took more pride in acting openly tomboy and pushing against expectations of courtship, ultimately ending up unwed and committed to her creative work as a writer.
In Joo is the eldest sister, but rather than representing Little Women’s original eldest Meg, she emulates the main sister Jo March the most. In Joo parallels Jo’s social ostracization–albeit not by choice–as In Joo is forcibly and most prominently outcast from her workplace because she is noticeably poorer than her colleagues. She is also divorced, after a failed attempt with a wealthy husband.
While all the sisters share the sense of being outcast, she is especially sensitive to it and goes at length to tell their youngest sister that she shouldn’t accept being seen as lesser. She strives to protect her family, but is also limited in what she can do even for herself, because the society that dictates their circumstances is not in her control.
In addition, she falls more easily to social pressure, initially fawning over her accomplice Choi Do-Il, played by Squid Game’s Wi Ha Joon. When In Joo’s colleagues whisper that she’s a “sly fox” upon seeing the pair talking, she immediately reveals everything that makes her socially unfit for him, her divorcee status and two-year accounting school experience in jarring contrast to Do-il’s London and Wharton business education background. Fortunately, he has already been briefed in and is nonchalant about her outcast status.
Compared to Jo, it is a bit unfortunate that In Joo is a more passive and insecure character. However, this characterization may be the engine for the desperation that pushes In Joo into the terror-laced fight against the richest family in Korea. After all, it is still ultimately In Joo who takes the first dive into uncovering the scheme.
Jin Hwa-Young (Choo Ja-Hyun) as Meg March
Hwa-Young is not one of the Oh sisters, but rather, a mentor and the only friend that In Joo has at work. She has the same job as bookkeeper, but is a literal level above In Joo as the “14th-floor outcast,” while In Joo is the “13th floor” outcast. Just like In Joo, she comes from a poor background but her time at the company has made her more attuned to the activities and appearances of the wealthy, and she uses this to support In Joo.
This is similar to Little Women’s oldest sister, Meg. In previous versions, Meg was used to demonstrate a woman who accepted societal expectations of women as homemakers and mothers, and she did her best to guide her sisters. Rather than focus on the gender aspect of this, Korea’s Little Women talks about how to best perform, and thus assimilate into, class.
When Hwa Young invites In Joo to a fancy restaurant, Hwa Young comments on how In Joo’s frilly pink outfit is not liked by men or women for its overt femininity and socioeconomically untuned “tackiness.” Hwa Young periodically comments on In Joo’s appearance not because she is mean-spirited, but because these items reveal In Joo’s class status. One of her final acts is giving In Joo her own, more expensive and stylish clothes that will allow In Joo to better fit in.
Hwa Young’s time on screen is sweet and short, but her pluckiness and scavenger hunt clues shows us we still have a lot more to find–and understand–about the very rich.
Oh In Kyung (Nam Ji Hyun) as Amy March and Beth March
Amy is an interesting character because she is the youngest and the sister most primed for social mobility. As Florence Pugh’s 2019 Amy famously said to her soon-to-be fiance Laurie, ”So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.” The original Amy’s talent in the fine arts and her stint living with their great aunt made her more comfortable in wealthy spaces, and this social training is what enabled her to maneuver and ascend into higher class status through marriage.
In Kyung is very much the same, having also lived with their great aunt Oh Hye-Suk (Kim Mi-Sook) when she was younger. In fact, In Joo even comments that this upbringing made her the only one of the sisters who buys “rich people ice cream”.
Compared to Amy’s love for art, In Kyung’s passion is in economics and she was so successful that she, as a preteen, was able to turn her aunt’s gift of 5 million won into 70 million won through trading stocks. Especially today, this change from art into an obviously money-oriented, “get rich quick” field of economics makes much more sense for a poor family, as fine art remains a woefully inaccessible career.
Unfortunately, In Kyung’s great aunt wanted her to continue trading instead of pursuing higher education, and she ended up majoring in journalism instead of economics like she had wanted.
This is where In Kyung then begins to reflect the third sister, Beth March. Beth was incredibly kind and helped out those who were even poorer and sicker than the March family. However, this contact is what causes her to fall sick and then pass away.
As a journalist, In Kyung often cries as she reports on difficult stories about people who face injustices. Despite her skills and drive as a journalist–so much so that a colleague brazenly asks if she grew up poor because she never complains–her softheartedness is what threatens a reporter’s composed facade. She develops an alcohol use disorder, like their father, as an attempt to control her emotions, but is ultimately suspended for this behavior. Still, it is because of her heart that propels her to muckrake and expose the evils of the wealthy, which feels like a much more hopeful portrayal of the power of empathy and working class solidarity.
Let’s Wait and See
Oh In Hye (Park Ji-Hu) as Amy March
We haven’t seen enough of In Hye’s personality yet, so it’s unclear what sister she most closely represents besides sharing Amy March’s artistic talent, or if she is a new reckoning entirely. As the youngest sister, she is most angered by her sisters going at lengths to provide for her, and is more riled at her mother’s dismissal of her talent than what others think about her or her family.
She prefers doing what it takes on her own. Thus, In Nye is forced to accept a ghost-painting scheme hatched by a classmate, the daughter of the wealthiest family. Her work ultimately wins awards that do not go to her, but with her headstrong emotions and talent in hand, something is definitely brewing on the horizon.
Ahn Hee-Yeon (Park Ji Young) as Marmee
The Oh sister’s mother, Ahn Hee Yeon, is an infuriatingly selfish parent. From the minute she is on screen, she shows no appreciation for her daughters’ work and talent, and prioritizes her money squandering husband over her own children. She finally leaves, but not before stealing her children’s money..
Hee Yeon is the most different character from the original, as Marmee was a sort of “moral center” for the original Little Women. She provided for the entire family after her husband was enlisted, and it was through her maternal nurturing that the sisters became their own Little Women. It’s disappointing that this matriarch is so selfish because the original Marmee was as important to the family as each sister was, as an older woman who had endured years of socioeconomic struggle on her own, before and after her four children.
This failed representation is no surprise, given that many other adaptations have also overlooked the importance of Marmee and her own fight she had within regarding the historically hardened inferior status of women. As Laura Dern’s 2019 Marmee said, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” This is a righteous anger Marmee feels as she remains “unable to change a world in which her daughters were forced to sell themselves in exchange for a modicum of power.” By doing away with this spirit of Marmee, the one who was first “fiercely angry with the fact that the world doesn’t repay that kindness,” the story loses a large part of its heart.
It is also important to be wary of negative depictions of low-income parents because the media overwhelmingly portrays them as lacking, when research finds the reality is that “low-income parents are not an unusual or deviant group parenting differently to everyone else.” It is so extreme that past eugenics movements focused on deeming women with disabilities and poor women of color unfit to have children and particularly vulnerable to reproductive coercion. Believing that poor people should be parents stems from the eugenicist view that “poverty itself were a kind of heritable condition,” rather than the results of exploitation and extraction. This is why it is so important that the original Marmee, although poor, was never seen or portrayed as incompetent as a parent.
Ha Jong-Ho (Kang Hoon) as Laurie Laurence
While some have speculated that Choi Do Il may be the beloved Laurie, Jong-Ho seems to be a more likely candidate. Jong Ho is the grandson of In Kyung’s neighbor, which matches Laurie’s relation to the sisters in the original Little Women. For the girls, he represents an option for social mobility as a wealthy love interest. Unfortunately, compared to the original Laurie who was friends with and romantically interested in Jo, Jong-Ho has not added much to the story other than being a cute, supportive wannabe boyfriend. He may prove himself later on, but until then, he can only wait for In Kyung to recognize his feelings.
What Are the Little Women Fighting For, or Against?
The most obvious difference is that there are obvious enemies to be chased down. Previous Little Women versions closely followed the storyline and accepted that the conflict was larger societal structures in the background of one’s daily life. But for today, when we recognize that our power structures of governments and corporations are composed of the wealthy, it no longer makes complete sense to keep them anonymous. We know who the enemies are, but are we willing to take them on?
In Little Women, each sister has a different part to play in the fight, and we can’t wait to see how it all goes down.
Watch Little Women on Netflix.
Want more on K-dramas? Read our dive in Extraordinary Attorney Woo here!