From its opening scene and title cards, Pachinko invokes the concept of intergenerational familial bonds, with a woman we will learn is Sunja’s mother outside Busan, Korea in 1915 begging for a curse to be lifted from her bloodline. She talks about her own mother, how difficult her life was, and how eager her father was to offer her up for marriage. Then we see her great-grandson, Solomon, in a suit in the United States in 1989, the living proof of her labor, and that of so many more family members we will meet over the course of the series.
Like its source material, the New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist by Min Jin Lee, Pachinko takes the long view when it comes to life, love, and family, connecting one generation to the next, like links in a chain or rungs in a ladder, hoping to create something better not only for themselves, but also for their children, their children’s children, and the generations far beyond that whom they will never get to meet.
Unlike the book, Apple TV+’s lush yet intimately observed Pachinko adaptation changes the story’s timeline from a linear chronology, interweaving Solomon’s 1989-era story with Sunja’s journey from the 1930s on. The layering of the timelines reinforces the theme of familial sacrifice for future generations, while also serving as a hook to entice modern viewers, especially those who may be less familiar with this particular slice of Korean and Japanese history. It’s not an entirely novel choice for a book-to-screen adaptation, but creator Soo Hugh and her team have perhaps made the best and most deliberate use of it, reinforcing the story’s themes and capturing the spirit of the book with their editorial choices.
As the show cuts back and forth between grandmother and grandson, reinforcing the theme of familial sacrifice for future generations, a basis for the East Asian notion of filial piety is clear. We see precisely what Sunja and other relatives have both sacrificed and endured in order for Solomon to get where he is, making his disdain for the pachinko parlor and other aspects of their life sting all the more. It gives us beautiful moments like Sunja as a young woman preparing kimchi outside Busan, Korea in the 1910s intercut with Sunja doing the same thing in her old age in Osaka, Japan in 1989. Or more stirring moments, like young Sunja realizing she is pregnant at the same time as older Sunja realizes her beloved sister-in-law Kyung-hee is dead, juxtaposing a life leaving the world with a life entering it.
It’s the kind of choice that would be a bit of a mess to read but is gorgeous in a visual medium, and it hooks viewers in right from the start. Flipping back and forth through time like this can be more difficult when it comes to the written word, and usually works best in books when it’s done chapter by chapter since those beautiful moments of visual juxtaposition can be too jarring to set up in writing.
This timeline change preserves the spirit of the book while making the most of the television format—and even holding back a few surprises for season 2, now that Apple TV+ has renewed the show. Sunja references her other son, but we only see him as a child, toward the end of the season. Lee Min-ho’s gangster-like Koh Hanso hangs over the season like a dark, unwelcome specter. It isn’t until the final episodes that we learn about his backstory, and that his gangsterism is more than just a rumor. The eventual fate of Isak, Sunja’s husband, his hyung. Yoseb, and the way Sunja spent the majority of her life with her beloved sister-in-law Kyung-hee remains to be seen, as well as how her son/Solomon’s father Mosazu found himself in the pachinko business in the first place. As powerful as the first season has been, the bulk of the book’s plot, including some of the richest side characters, remains still to come, thanks to this chronology.
The timeline change may have also been a pragmatic decision, giving modern viewers an easier hook into a story that spends several hundred pages in both the 1910s and 1930s in its written form. For a US audience with little to no knowledge of Korea and Japanese history during that time period, spending all of the first season on the text’s first or even first two sections would have been a tall order. Instead, the show plays into nostalgia for the 1980s and the audience’s greater familiarity with that time period. Solomon also has a nominal connection to the United States, though Season 1 doesn’t spend its time there.
Pachinko isn’t the only book-to-screen adaptation to play with its timeline in this way. The Magicians showrunners kept Julia around after she failed the Fillory entrance exam in season 1, rather than benching her as the books did. They brought some of her plot from the second book in the Lev Grossman series into their first season, while also adding a character and expanding the world of hedge witches to give her more to do and to expand the world of the show. It gave viewers a chance to see what the world was like outside the walls of the tony magic school and ensured that viewers had time to get to know her as a character, in order for her to play a larger role in Season 2.
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation drew on not only Leigh Bardugo’s book of the same name but also the spin-off Six of Crows in its first season, allowing it to include some of the show’s most engaging characters, Kaz, Jesper, and Inej into the first season, even if it didn’t always work flawlessly. Aside from the obvious fact that when in doubt, one should always include a heist, this decision gave Shadow and Bone’s first season more storylines to balance, making for the kind of engaging viewing experience that television audiences currently expect in order to keep their interest.
Ultimately, the book is written beautifully, in the best way for that format, while the timeline change is an astute decision that helps preserves the spirit of the book while making the most of the limited series format. Looking ahead to Season 2, now that Apple TV+ has renewed the show for another season, Pachinko has many more gifts yet to yield.
Delia Harrington is a freelance writer, activist, and feminist nerd, focusing on the intersection of politics, pop culture, and gender. You can find them on Twitter @DeliaMary.