Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

Showrunner Soo Hugh on Adapting New York Times Bestseller "Pachinko" for Apple TV+

"Pachinko" is the latest upcoming series for the Apple TV + lineup this spring, premiering on March 25. The eight-week series is an adaptation of Min Jin Lee's New York Times bestselling novel of the same name.

We were lucky enough to sit down with the series showrunner to learn how this incredible story of a family's struggle to fit into society progressed from a novel to the screen. Catch our interview with showrunner Soo Hugh below!

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Pachinko series promotion with character faces in background

How Did the "Pachinko" TV Series Come to Be?

As soon as "Pachinko" hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, fans of the book have wondered if "Pachinko" was being made into a movie. But it's getting a different treatment instead. Apple TV+ is bringing the series to life through a television adaptation of "Pachinko" with eight episodes. 

The television series for "Pachinko" is the result of an incredible original story, a determined agent, and a showrunner who just happened to be the perfect fit for the project.

"Pachinko" showrunner Soo Hugh previously helmed AMC's "The Terror" and wrote for shows including "The Killing" on Netflix and "The Whispers" on ABC. It was on a fateful trip back home from London that Min Jin Lee's novel finally made its way into Soo's hands.

"I was deep, deep in post on my last show, "The Terror," for the first season of "The Terror," and my agent at the time, Theresa Kang-Lowe, she told me there was this book that I had to read called "Pachinko."

Soo held on to the book for a while, too caught up in other work to get right to reading it.

"[Theresa] really did such a wonderful job nagging me, like, "have you read it yet, have you read it yet?" It's a seven-hour plane ride from London, and I had the book with me physically, and I was exhausted," Soo described. "And I was like, I'm going to crack it open."

Soo couldn't put the book down, hooked in by a scene she immediately recognized as having a theme that could carry an entire show.

"It comes fairly early in the book, and I always talk about it as a touchstone scene for me, just emotionally and also, I think, thematically of what I saw in the show," Soo explained. "There's a character named Yangjin. Her daughter Sunja has just been married, and she wants to buy some grains of white rice for her daughter's wedding night. And at that time in Korea, white rice was very restricted in the production and the selling of it. So Yangjin, she's trying to hold her dignity, and she says to the grain seller, "I just want to offer my daughter one bowl of white rice before she leaves me."

The emotional scene was a turning point for Soo, and the dream of the television adaptation began. 

"I'm on the plane, and I'm reading this scene, and I'm just sobbing. And I felt that everyone around me is going, what is going on here? And I think that was the scene where it felt compelling that I had to do the show."

What is the Story of Pachinko About?

In Japan, Pachinko is a pinball game that is hugely popular with the Korean Japanese immigrant community. But the unforgettable story told by multiple generations of one Korean immigrant family is about more than an arcade game.

In the novel "Pachinko," the themes of hope, belonging, community, and survival are told through the eyes of each Baek family member, starting in the early 20th century in Japanese-ruled Korea.

A 16-year-old girl named Sunja falls in love with an older man. She gets pregnant then learns the man is already married.

To avoid disgracing her family, a Christian minister offers to marry Sunja and take her from her impoverished and occupied homeland to Japan. But in Japan, things get worse for Sunja. Her husband is arrested for spreading Christianity, World War II happens, and then the Korea War begins.

After the war, there's little hope for Sunja to ever return home to Korea. Meanwhile, Korean Japanese find opportunities to run pachinko parlors, but Japanese people look down on these arcades as havens for gambling and criminal activity.

One of Sunja's sons thrives in the business, but another just wants respect and to belong in the Japanese culture he calls home.

Throughout the story, the characters deal with racism and stereotypes.

Where Did the Idea for Pachinko Come From?

Korean-American Author Min Jin Lee stated in past interviews that the idea for the fictionalized story came from learning about the real hardships the Korean Japanese community faced for decades in Japan. In some places, this community is still facing discrimination.

The best-selling novel opens with the line "History has failed us, but no matter," meaning that history doesn't tell the story of many ordinary people. But despite there not being much information in the history books, Lee wanted to know the personal stories of these ordinary, second-class citizens in Japan.

She remembered hearing a story from an American missionary back in the late eighties that stuck with her all these years. The missionary worked with the Korean Japanese in Japan, specifically one Korean family. He had learned of a 13-year-old boy who killed himself. He was born in Japan, as were his parents, but his family was originally from Korea. His parents said other kids had written terrible things in his yearbook, telling him to go back home, and die.

Lee returned to Korea to interview people who survived through this period of time. Thus, "Pachinko" was born.

About "Pachinko" the Television Adaptation

Wondering where you can watch the highly-anticipated drama series "Pachinko?" The first three episodes of the eight-episode series of "Pachinko" air on Apple TV+ on March 25, with weekly installments after through April.

Apple TV+ describes the series as "a sweeping saga that chronicles the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family across four generations as they leave their homeland in an indomitable quest to survive and thrive." 

The renowned cast includes stars such as Soji Arai as Mozasu, Jin Ha as Solomon, Inji Jeong as Yangjin, Lee Min-ho as Hansu, Kaho Minami as Etsuko, Steve Sanghyun Noh as Isak, Anna Sawai as Naomi, Junwoo Han as Yoseb, Jung Eun-chae as Young Kyunghee, and Jimmi Simpson as Tom Andrews.

The drama series is told in three languages: English, Japanese, and Korean. 

Justin Chon and Kogonada directed the series, and both serve in an executive producer role. Richard Middleton, Kannjiro Sakura, Lindsey Springer, Theresa Kang-Lowe, and Michael Ellenberg also have executive producer credits. Dani Gorin, David Kim, Sebastian Lee, and Jessica Levin co-executive produced, and Lynne Bespflug, Yuka Kato, Jordan Murcia, and Brian Sherwin all serve as producers on the project. 

The series was filmed in the countries of Canada and Japan. 

Who Will Play Sunja in Pachinko?

Three different actors will play the star role of Sunja. Min-ha Kim will play Sunja as a teenager, Jeon Yu-na will play Sunja as a child, and Oscar-winning actress Youn Yuh-jung will play older Sunja.

Watch the official trailer below.

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