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3 Body Problem’s Biggest Departures

Da Shi, a fan favorite from the novel, makes the leap from page to screen in the form of Benedict Wong.Photo: Netflix

Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award–winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem is full of huge ideas: 11-dimensional proton supercomputers! A giant eye in the sky! Nano-fibers that can slice people into meat ribbons! Beijing-born Liu is a computer engineer and it shows: Readers are just as likely to encounter dense passages on particle physics as they are existential meditations on the nature of humanity. The Three-Body Problem is a brain-bending piece of literature, and it understandably gained a cult following in the West after it was published to huge acclaim in his native China. It’s also been widely regarded as “unadaptable,” though it hasn’t stopped Chinese streamer Tencent from trying with its 2023 series Three-Body.

The biggest swing to date, however, comes from Netflix and former Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. With each episode clocking in at an estimated $20 million, it’s Benioff and Weiss’s first project as showrunners since that controversial final season five years ago. In 2020, Emmy-nominated producer and writer Alexander Woo — a former True Blood writer who also co-created The Terror’s second entry, Infamy — came on as a third showrunner. Reportedly one of Netflix’s most expensive shows ever, 3 Body Problem arrives on Netflix facing expectations that are, to put it mildly, high. Just how do you film a famously unfilmable book full of obscure science and budget-busting set pieces? How do you create a crowd-pleasing spectacle that both appeals to Netflix viewers and pleases fans of the books?

After getting Liu’s blessing for their proposed changes, Benioff, Weiss, and Woo have adapted the novel, the first of a trilogy known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past, with judicious amounts of cutting and some truly inspired blending of all three books. Let’s talk through some of the most significant changes.

Spoilers follow for all of 3 Body Problem and the Remembrance of Earth’s Past book series.

The aliens have a different name, and Sophon is seen much earlier

Photo: Netflix

In the English translation of the books, the alien civilization headed for Earth are called Trisolarans, thanks to the three-sun system they inhabit. 3 Body Problem calls them the San-Ti, which means “three-body” in Mandarin and also happens to be the original name of Liu’s novel. Sophons, their all-seeing supercomputer weapon of choice against mankind, are also introduced much earlier in the Netflix adaptation in the form of a katana-wielding woman (Sea Shimooka) who will be familiar to fans of Liu’s third novel, Death’s End, where she’s introduced as Sophon, a robot emissary of the Trisolarans. In 3 Body Problem, she first appears as the narrator of the VR game that Ye Wenjie (played in flashbacks by Zine Tseng and in the present day by Rosalind Chao) gives to Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) after her daughter Vera’s suicide.

The body count is Game of Thrones–level high

Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

For a book series about the impending death of humanity, Liu’s series doesn’t include tons of gore. Yes, spaceships blow up and panicked crowds crush each other to death, but Liu isn’t terribly interested in blood and guts as an author. In 3 Body Problem, viewers see the unflinchingly brutal ****** of Ye Wenjie’s father, a ****** crime scene featuring the eyeless corpse of a scientist, and Vera (Vedette Lim) dramatically hurl herself from the top of a particle accelerator. And that’s all in the first episode. Just wait till you get to the fifth episode, where a ship full of San-Ti sympathizers (including kids!) is sliced apart in painstaking detail.

The main characters have changed

Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

Most characters in Remembrance of Earth’s Past are Chinese, with the action mainly set in China. The first book begins with Ye Wenjie watching Red Guards beat her academic father to death, before being condemned to work at a top-secret military base. Unfortunately for humanity, Ye’s disenchantment with the human race prompts her to beam a message inviting an alien civilization to Earth. But apart from Ye Wenjie’s chapters, readers mostly see the story through the eyes of **** Miao, a male nanotechnology researcher who teams up with police detective Da Shi to unravel the mystery of the Trisolarans.

While Ye’s story remains mostly unchanged, Benioff, Weiss, and Woo have switched the rest of the locations from Beijing to London and Oxford. They’ve also gender-flipped the character of **** Miao, who is now named Auggie Salazar and is played by Mexican actress Eiza Gonzá***. It’s Auggie who first sees the ominous countdown flashing in her eyes, and she’s the one who is warned by the San-Ti to stop working on nanotechnology research.

Auggie is part of a group of young scientists who met at college called the Oxford Five. At first glance, it may appear that 3 Body Problem’s showrunners have invented entirely new characters to internationalize the cast: There’s genius Kiwi physicist Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), stoner American research assistant Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), British high-school teacher Will Downing (Alex Sharp) and millionaire Jack Rooney (John Bradley), who abandoned scientific study to build a snack empire after graduation. As the series progresses, however, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Oxford Five are based on characters from the second and third books of the trilogy.

Jin is a stand-in for Cheng Xin from the final novel Death’s End, and much of the first season follows the Staircase Project, her attempt to build a nuclear bomb-powered spy probe to launch at the San-Ti’s invading fleet. In Death’s End, Cheng’s former schoolmate Yun Tianming falls ill with cancer and uses an unexpected windfall to buy a star in a far-off galaxy for Cheng, whom he’s long carried a torch for. In 3 Body Problem, Will inherits the money from Jack and buys the title deed for Jin’s star. And, just like Yun, the cancer-stricken Will later volunteers his brain for Jin’s spy probe as one last act of unrequited love for her — despite knowing that the San-Ti may resurrect him for their own dark purposes.

Earth’s planetary defense looks a little different

Photo: Netflix

Liu devotes a lot of time to unpacking the petty squabbles and government egos that hamper our ability to respond effectively to an alien invasion. In 3 Body Problem, this has been relatively streamlined: Earth’s defense largely ends up in the hands of Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham), who, just like his parallel in Death’s End, leads the shadowy intelligence agency. Viewers are first introduced to Wade as the man leading the investigation into the mysterious deaths of scientists like Vera Ye. Wade is also the boss of Clarence “Da Shi,” played by Benedict Wong. Da Shi — a fan favorite from the books — is no longer a Chinese police detective but a British-Chinese former MI5 agent who is part of Wade’s covert organization.

The Earth-Trisolaris Organisation civil war doesn’t exist

Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

Liu’s book also details the internecine conflict in the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO), a group working to undermine society and prepare the way for the Trisolaran invasion. Mike Evans leads a splinter cell called the Adventists — extremists who believe that humanity deserves to be destroyed — while another faction called the Redemptionists worship the Trisolarans as a superior civilization. A third faction, the Survivors, intend to sell out humanity to ensure their own survival. In 3 Body Problem, the ETO is simplified into a more straightforward religious cult, with Evans acting as a San-Ti emissary and zealots like Tatiana Haas (Marlo Kelly) carrying out the group’s bidding. It’s also a cult that includes children, which makes Wade slicing apart their ship with the help of Auggie’s nanotechnology more than a little morally dubious.

The VR game has multiplayer mode

Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

In Liu’s book, readers follow **** Miao as he tries to ***** a maddeningly frustrating VR game that is key to understanding what the aliens want from Earth. Benioff, Weiss, and Woo have tweaked the parameters of the game so that two people can play together, which allows Jin and Jack to progress much more quickly and score an invite to a secretive ETO summit. While Jin accepts, Jack rejects the invitation and calls it a scam, which results in his gruesome ****** at Tatiana’s hands.

The alien POV is missing

Photo: Netflix

There are a handful of chapters in The Three-Body Problem told from the Trisolaran point of view — including that of an unnamed alien at a listening post set up to detect signs of intelligent life in the universe. When he receives Ye Wenjie’s message from the Red Coast military base, he warns her that his world will seek to conquer hers — a threat that she ignores by sending an open invitation to the Trisolarans. Liu then proceeds to document the fallout of Ye’s invitation on the Trisolaran ruling class, including their decision to launch their fleet at Earth and create the sophons. It’s a bold switch of perspective that helps readers get deeper into the Trisolaran state of mind, but 3 Body Problem omits it from the first season — which is maybe for the best. If you thought bringing ice dragons and White Walkers to life on screen was hard, just try figuring out aliens whose physical appearance is never (not once!) properly described in the source material.

The Wallfacer has a different backstory

Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix

By the end of the season, readers will recognise that Saul is based on Luo Ji, the protagonist of Liu’s second book The Dark Forest. While Saul doesn’t occupy quite as much screen time as Jin in the adaptation, it’s clear that Benioff, Weiss, and Woo are setting him up to be a key character if Netflix signs up for more episodes.

In the season finale, the San-Ti attempt to assassinate Saul shortly before he is given the position of Wallfacer, a controversial United Nations project that gives unlimited resources to three people tasked with thinking up a plan to defeat the San-Ti. As the sophons are able to intercept all Earth communications, the Wallfacers must work on their defense plans in total secrecy — except Saul, like the ******* Luo, has no idea why he was selected for the role, or why the alien invaders consider him such a threat.

The only clue Saul has to go on is what Ye Wenjie tells him shortly before she dies: a confusing and not very funny joke about Einstein going to Heaven. In The Dark Forest, Ye’s hint to Luo is just as obscure, albeit in a different way: She tells him that he should investigate a mysterious new field called “cosmic sociology.” What does Einstein have to do with defeating aliens? We’ll have to wait for a second season to find out.

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