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The Pros and Cons of Netflix’s Plan to Adapt the ‘Three-Body Problem’ Series

‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are set to turn Liu Cixin’s hit science-fiction novel into a TV show. Is this a smart move or a disaster in the making?

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My jaw actually dropped, like something out of a cheesy cartoon, when I read this news Tuesday morning: Netflix is adapting Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem book trilogy as a series, led by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. What sounds like television Mad Libs—pick a streaming service! Now a piece of intellectual property to adapt! Now controversial creators!—is apparently real, and while Netflix has not yet announced a time frame for the new show, it’s safe to say the result could be either as spectacular as the first four seasons of Game of Thrones or as dreadful as, well, the last season of Game of Thrones.

With such a range of potential outcomes, let’s explore the pros and cons of this project. No spoilers ahead on the books for those of you who haven’t read the series yet—though you might want to schedule a “hold” at your local library soon.

Pro: This series is awesome

I mean that in the literal sense: This series inspires awe. Netflix executive Peter Friedlander wrote in his blog post announcing the project that the books “changed what science fiction meant to me forever”—and I agree with Friedlander.

Broadly speaking, this trilogy—formally named the Remembrance of Earth’s Past, though often called the Three-Body Problem series after the title of the first book—is a work of hard science fiction, centered on Earth’s first contact with an alien civilization. It spans immense tracts of time and space, and the first book, as George R.R. Martin put it in his blog post about the tale years ago, contains “a unique blend of scientific and philosophical speculation, politics and history, conspiracy theory and cosmology, where kings and emperors from both western and Chinese history mingle in a dreamlike game world, while cops and physicists deal with global conspiracies, murders, and alien invasions in the real world.”

Since reading the series for the first time last year, I have frequently reflected on moments or morals that the books share, and they both changed how I think about humanity’s place in the universe and increased my appetite for science fiction writ large. Just as Thrones inspired a whole wave of new inventive fantasy shows, a Three-Body Problem show, if done well, could do the same for science fiction. The first novel won the 2015 Hugo Award for best science-fiction or fantasy novel—Liu was the first Asian winner—and has already helped inspire a wave of Chinese science fiction. (Liu’s novella The Wandering Earth was also adapted as a movie of the same name, which quickly became a hit.)

The story is entertaining enough by itself; Barack Obama read the series in the White House and praised it as “wildly imaginative.” And it’s a story designed for bingeing, with the first book in particular centered on a mystery that could compel viewers to click from one episode to the next without stopping—perfect for the Netflix model.

Con: This series might be unfilmable?

Liu doesn’t skimp on the science in his science fiction. Here, for instance, is an exchange near the end of the first book in the series:

The science consul said, “Project Sophon, to put it simply, aims to transform a proton into a superintelligent computer.”

“This is a science fantasy that most of us have heard about,” the agricultural consul said. “But can it be realized? I know that physicists can already manipulate nine of the eleven dimensions of the micro-scale world, but we still can’t imagine how they could stick a pair of tiny tweezers into a proton to build large-scale integrated circuits.”

“Of course that’s impossible. The etching of micro integrated circuits can only occur at the macro scale, and only on a macroscopic two-dimensional plane. Thus, we must unfold a proton into two dimensions.”

And then the characters set about trying to unfold a proton into two dimensions, to be able to build a super-small and superintelligent supercomputer.

To be fair, the end of the first book contains, in my opinion, the most confusing sci-fi elements in the whole series, so I’m cherry-picking a bit to make this point. But with a hard sci-fi system, the story still relies on plenty of complex principles, from subatomic interactions to orbital mechanics, so it’s no surprise that previous efforts to adapt the story stalled. Benioff and Weiss will surely have to write large amounts of exposition, and even that might not be enough to bridge the gap to more casual audiences.

Science isn’t the only potentially challenging adaptive element, either. A crucial component of the second book is that the main character cannot talk about his thoughts or plans because the enemy might be spying on him at all times. It’s easy to express his internal deliberations on the page, much harder to do so on the screen.

Of course, A Song of Ice and Fire was supposed to be unfilmable, too, and that adaptation ended up working just fine with Benioff and Weiss at the helm.

Pro: Space rules, and this series does space well

If the sea is dope, then space—a vaster and lesser-explored version of the sea—is doubly dope. We at The Ringer adore space movies and space TV shows like The Expanse, and Three-Body fits right into that genre.

Yet when the trilogy ventures to space—I won’t say who, or when, or why, for fear of spoilers—it does not follow traditional tropes of the genre. There are no hyperspace jumps or faster-than-light ships, like in Star Wars; travel is slow and lonely and mentally strenuous. In other words, even in space, it keeps the focus on humanity and how new environments and extreme sociopolitical changes affect the people who live with them. Thrones was at its best when it used its fantasy world to comment on the characters who lived there. Three-Body could do the same.

Con: The series is more about ideas than characters

But unlike Thrones, which thrived with a deep bench of memorable characters, Three-Body is more concerned with developing theory than individual characters. “I did not begin writing for love of literature,” Liu said last year. “I did so for love of science.”

I talked to a coworker and fellow fan of the books about the Netflix announcement, and he admitted he couldn’t remember the name of the first book’s putative protagonist. Indeed, that character is more of a blank slate to hear ideas from others than a character in his own right.

In a science-fiction story, that kind of audience avatar is necessary; viewers will need someone to learn all the material so the audience can learn too. And I suspect that some of the first book’s characters—a savvy female scientist; a humorous male cop—can develop further on the screen, allowing for more personal connection. But there’s only so far the writers can tilt the story toward character before they lose sight of the broader themes in the balance.

Pro: Benioff and Weiss are writers and executive producers

The final, disastrous season or two of Thrones should not sully the accomplishment of the rest of the run. Benioff and Weiss successfully adapted a gripping, imaginative book series into a cultural phenomenon that enchanted critics and casual viewers alike; give them another gripping, imaginative book series and they might as well reach for the same result.

Thrones was excellent when, as Tyrion once said, it simplified to great conversations in elegant rooms, and it was excellent when zooming out to the spectacle of a dragon battle or castle siege. Three-Body has gripping conversations—though not too many, so Benioff and Weiss can add their own, as they did with Littlefinger and Varys in early seasons. And Three-Body has its share of spectacle, most notably a unique spaceship confrontation that I’m already excited to see on screen. (Rian Johnson is an executive producer as well, and I am even more excited to see this particular confrontation knowing Johnson’s capabilities from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.)

Crucially, the Three-Body books are all written, unlike with Thrones. The HBO show’s problems were not entirely attributable to the lack of a clear map to the finish line—our staff ranked Season 6’s “The Winds of Winter” and Season 5’s “Hardhome” as the two best Thrones episodes, and they both went off-page from the books—but there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that Benioff and Weiss don’t need to invent any story. Liu already did all that work for them.

Con: Benioff and Weiss are writers and executive producers

Benioff and Weiss haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in recent years, from whiffing on the Thrones conclusion to losing a planned Star Wars project. Of greater immediate concern is that Three-Body relies on Chinese culture and history, primarily the Cultural Revolution, where the first book begins. Almost every important character is Chinese. (This 2019 New Yorker profile of Liu provides excellent insight into this aspect of the story, though be warned that it contains some spoilers.) That’s a potential problem for two white showrunners who don’t have the best track record with race, either in Thrones or outside the Westerosi world. Remember the short-lived and ill-conceived Confederate?

At least Benioff and Weiss won’t be charged with the adaptation all by themselves. Alexander Woo, best known for his work on True Blood and The Terror, is a Chinese American writer and producer, and he joins Benioff and Weiss as leaders of this adaptation project. Liu Cixin is a consulting producer, as is Ken Liu (no relation), who wrote the English translation of the first and third books in the trilogy. “Having Cixin and Ken involved will help ensure that the spirit of the books remains intact,” the Netflix blog post said.

Fans of the books can only hope as much, and Netflix too. Studios have been searching unsuccessfully for the next Game of Thrones, but if the Three-Body show translates the spirit of the books, as well as the sheer wonder and jaw-dropping revelations about the universe, the sci-fi version from the same showrunners just might fulfill that role.