The Year of ‘Three Body Problem’ TV

Several adaptations of the modern Chinese sci-fi classic have arrived

A full 17 years after its initial publication, Three Body Problem mania has swept China and soon, probably, the world, with animated, television, and upcoming film adaptations of the story being hot topics in that country’s popular culture landscape, with sequel books suggesting plenty more grist for the mill in the years to come. The introspective sci-fi story deals with Professor Wang Miao, an applied physicist working in nano-materials who starts seeing subtle things that defy scientific logic and reality. The trouble with believing in science as an immutable understanding of the universe is that life and knowledge seem meaningless if those rules turn out to be fake. That’s why so many scientists in Three Body Problem seem to be killing themselves, having faced similar revelations.

The most significant and popular adaptation so far is the recently finished Tencent version, Three-Body, available in full for all 30 episodes on Rakuten Viki, and still being rolled out slowly for free on Tencent’s YouTube channel. The Netflix version due out this year will likely inevitably eclipse it, simply because no English mainstream media has really acknowledged that Three-Body exists at all. Whatever Netflix does, Tencent has staked out its position as an extremely faithful adaptation, for better or worse. There’s a reason it’s so long.

Mostly that’s because of Chinese TV production standards than anything else. Unlike in other countries, television dramas in China typically roll out without specific episode runs. Similar to how people shoot most documentary television, the priority is to get a large amount of footage, using editing to single out the best, most relevant material. Because Three-Body has been such a hotly anticipated project for so long, though, they approved it for an unusually long 30-episode run. So the script, which included nearly everything from the book under the assumption that some of it would be cut…wasn’t cut. This makes for an extremely complete adaptation, even if the monotony on-screen plays out quite differently than it does on page.

This also calls to mind a fairly striking irony. While Liu Cixin first serialized Three Body Problem between 2006 and 2008, and these are also the years where he sets the story, publishers didn’t translate the books into English until 2014. Then the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy probably led to Three Body Problem getting far more attention than it likely would have received otherwise. Ironically, though, Three Body Problem is exactly the kind of hard science fiction the Hugo Awards detractors were complaining don’t get enough attention in contemporary science fiction, with excessively pedantic scientific explanations and theoretical physics forming the core of the story’s prose.

A detailed recap of the Cultural Revolution early on in Three Body Problem helped disguise any of these tendencies, though that, too, was more pedantic background, and not even that necessary to the story. For a sense of perspective, while Three-Body gives us glimpses of life under the Cultural Revolution, it’s only in the sixth episode that the show depicts any such events directly for an extended period of time, and even then it leaves their relevance to the present day glibly abstract. Despite seeming to be a distinctly Chinese element, the 60s and 70s were tumultuous most places such that when given opportunity scientists from many countries might have…

Ah, right, I shouldn’t spoil that. In a masterful move of adaptational tone shift, Tencent’s Three-Body avoids explaining any of this stuff in too much detail. If Three Body Problem is hard sci-fi in the vein of Larry Niven, Three-Body is more like an Andrei Tarvosky film. Instead of getting hung up on the exact science, it focuses on the existential dread of the situation. What if physics weren’t real, but only a false logic constructed by an alien entity for reasons unknown? Zhang Luyi’s turn as Wang Miao, the rude, antisocial applied physicist of the book is here less as a vehicle for talking about science and more about reacting with a sense of constant visceral horror that the universe has no real rules within our comprehension, and that we might as well just be turkeys waiting for the slaughter naively proclaiming the arbitrary actions of advanced beings as immutable universal laws.

The allegory of physics as a kind of fake religion is fascinating. The very blunt way Three-Body depicts scientists as committing suicide just because of the idea that every rule they think they know is artificial…well, it’s emotionally brutal. Wang Miao isn’t exactly likable even in his best moments, but Zhang Luyi really communicates just how crushed he is that his applied knowledge may well be gibberish, despite the seeming importance of his research into an incredibly sharp nano material that has somehow made him a target for whatever force, be it alien, human, or physical, that’s behind all the suicides.

Three-Body is primarily about trying to maintain a certain mood than really being that invested in its own plot, which is worthwhile not just for helping to distinguish it from the book, but also from other adaptations. I’m not speaking of the Netflix version (more on that in a moment), but the animated adaptation that came out last December on Bilibili. Anyone thinking that Chinese people reflexively love anything having to do with Three Body Problem is fairly effectively and preemptively proven wrong by that version’s critical failure, garnering only a 4.0 average on Douban compared to the 8.5 of the ongoing live action version, which Tencent claims to be its most popular television drama of all time.

Could this be the big breakout international hit for Chinese television? Well, probably not. Three Body Problem even winning a Hugo in the first place was a bit of a fluke that probably wouldn’t have happened at all if not for the Puppies controversy, and the lack of interest in English language discourse for a Chinese interpretation of a Chinese story belies that fact. Unfortunately, China can’t produce anything that the West doesn’t immediately accuse of being propaganda somehow, and Three-Body is no different. There’s an excellent chance that if you even try to search for it on YouTube, the algorithm will try to herd you to protest videos about how Three Body Problem reflects the inherent latent xenophobia in Chinese culture. Which is a funny idea to think of, since the main pop culture aliens comparable to those of Three Body Problem exist in The Expanse. They’re dangerous, beyond our comprehension, and mostly unexplained until or unless they’re directly relevant.

All of this is foundational to the idea of good political science fiction–this is distinct from ideological science fiction, in that political science fiction deals with wildly varying  materialist reactions to the unknown, while ideological science fiction posits that we can solve all such situations  with the same basic philosophical approach. The distinction is a subtle one that I have little faith Netflix will understand in their own adaptation, which will almost certainly gain far more media attention than the original Chinese version.

None of this is to suggest that you will necessarily like the Tencent version of Three-Body. The pacing is glacial, with full episodes sometimes just consisting of a few meetings. This too, is quite appropriate to the genre of science fiction with an emphasis on science. Much of that is just careful thought and reflection on the implications of what few nuggets of new information arise in each new episode. Three-Body is mental exercise like that, less concerned with its own cleverness as it is viscerally gasping in horror at the prospect that nothing has ever made sense, and subsequently grasping at whatever logic or emotional response is necessary to try and push through and solve that problem anyway.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

One thought on “The Year of ‘Three Body Problem’ TV

  • February 21, 2023 at 10:26 pm

    Insightful review both from an artistic and geopolitical perspective. Nice job! Asking a lot of the average reader to process all that without popping a head valve – sort of like the Three Body Problem itself.


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