REVIEW: Navillera: A Good Webtoon, A Very Different Drama

featured image for navillera: like a butterfly review, depicting chaerok and dukchul at the barre practicing together

Navillera: Like a Butterfly is a Korean webtoon written by Hun and drawn by Jimmy, published in English by Tapas since March 11, 2021. After the death of a friend, 70-year-old Dukchul Shim decides to pursue ballet, and 23-year old prodigy Chaerok Lee is tasked with teaching him. A TV drama adapting Navillera premiered internationally on Netflix on March 22, 2021. However, apart from the single-sentence synopsis and the names of the two main characters, the adaptation and the webtoon have almost nothing in common.

Navillera: Like a Butterfly

Writing by Hun, art by Jimmy
Tapas Media
March 11, 2021 – present

cover of Navillera: like a butterfly as it appears on Tapas, showing dukchul and chaerok leaping into the air

Navillera: The Webtoon is good. The characters are likeable and easy to understand and the storytelling is clear and direct. I’m always a fan of stories about older characters and their family dynamics. The problems the characters deal with (the relationship between athleticism and one’s body, their relationships with their families and the people around them, the realities of aging) feel realistic and reasonable.

What I especially appreciate about the webtoon is the tight, concise writing. Every moment serves a purpose in the narrative, every character beat builds on the core themes and questions of the story. The story doesn’t overemphasize the technical aspects of ballet dance but rather focuses on the effects Dukchul’s decision has on the people around him.

So it was a surprise when the drama adaptation of this story turned out to be a very different tale.

promo image for the drama depicting the actors playing Chaerok and Dukchul., Song Kang and Park In-Hwan
The lead actors of the drama, Song Kang and Park In-Hwan.

Half of the characters’ names are changed for what appears to be no reason. Dukchul’s granddaughter is now Eun-ho instead of Haejin, the director of the dance company is now Seung-joo Ki instead of Gyoungkuk Mun.

Besides that, the level of melodrama is ratcheted up to eleven. Instead of Chaerok’s dad being merely distant and unsupportive, in the TV adaptation, Chaerok’s father was a soccer coach who went to prison for assaulting a kid on the team, and then Chaerok misses the audition for the national ballet because he went to pick his father up from prison. That’s a lot!

panel from the webtoon showing dukchul's family in their home, expressing care and concern for each other.
In the drama, this scene of the family coming together to celebrate Dukchul’s wife’s discharge from the hospital at their home was replaced with a stiff and formal birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Dukchul’s granddaughter is given more screentime in the drama than in the comic, but her relationship with her grandfather is almost entirely glossed over instead of highlighted. (Which is a shame, since it’s both endearing and essential to the story.) She’s suddenly an intern at the same place Chaerok works part-time and they have a dynamic together now, but she doesn’t spend as much time talking to her grandpa as she does in the webtoon, which is an important relationship to develop in a story about family.

Haejin greeting Dukchul's car while Chaerok is surprised Dukchul's granddaughter also knows the car's name.
The dynamic between Dukchul and his granddaughter is really cute!

Many character backstories, relationships, and dynamics are drastically different from the source material. The drama chops up and rearranges events from the comic and mixes in new situations, like another one of Dukchul’s friends dying with unfulfilled dreams and Dukchul’s daughter being married to an ineffectual politician. All of these adaptational changes muddle what was originally a very clear, straightforward story, padding the runtime without adding substance.

A number of situations that, in the webtoon, are the result of deliberate actions taken by the characters, like Dukchul researching ballet studios in the area and then going to Mr. Mun’s studio and arranging for lessons, are replaced by random chance and convenient coincidences in the drama. These changes and additions don’t really improve the story, which was already solid to begin with.

Fortunately, the visuals in both the webtoon and the drama are both very appealing. I don’t know much about ballet (although I did do it as a kid), but the dance sequences look pretty in both versions. The drama makes use of high-contrast lighting and shadows to make the ballet sequences more striking, while the webtoon uses clean lines and soft colors that give the still images a sense of motion. The artist doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds either, which is always nice to see.Chaerok dancing a ballet sequence in the webtoon, shirtless

I can see people who haven’t read the webtoon enjoying this drama for what it is. The actors are great and the direction is competent. But as someone who read the webtoon first, I found myself confused and disappointed by how much the drama oversimplifies a subtle, nuanced narrative. If the premise of an elderly man learning ballet from a troubled yet talented youth appeals to you, I’d recommend the webtoon.