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What Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ got right; and wrong

Screenshot from 3 Body Problem trailer | Netflix

The first season of Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” was released on March 21. 

Based on the globally acclaimed sci-fi trilogy by Chinese author Cixin Liu, the eight episodes of the Netflix show ends about a third of the way through Liu’s second book, “The Dark Forest.” 

True to the first book, “The Three-Body Problem,” the series begins by oscillating between two stories. The first follows the daughter of a physics professor, a brilliant astrophysicist, during China’s Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to late 70s as her experiences steadily feed a festering disdain for humanity.

The second scenario is set in the modern day and sees physics around the world reach a major roadblock that spells doom for humanity’s technological development. 

Researchers simultaneously report unexplainable results from the world’s supercolliders, claiming “science is broken,” while government officials investigate several seemingly connected cases of top scientists committing suicide around the world, successfully mounting enough suspense and mystery to get to the next episode.

The book’s famously expansive and elusive plot had all the signs of a story impossible to adapt for the screen — but the showrunners of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, sought to co-create another hit show facing similar challenges, joined by Alexander Woo, who produced the series “True Blood.”

Fans of the book series had every reason to expect a show stripped of its many details, keeping the story’s mood intact while skipping out on some of the less major plot points.

For the most part, those expectations panned out. Some of the most serious scenes are enacted play-by-play, with almost verbatim dialogue, and many of the book’s finer world-building details are dropped.

While a page-to-frame analysis of an adaptation isn’t any way to speak to its worth, there are jarring differences that are harder to shrug off. Most severely is the “Oxford 5” friend group, who together share events experienced by only one or two characters in the books, an obvious attempt by the showrunners to add interpersonal drama to the story but one that, at many times, feels unimportant and a little awkward. Most of those moments feel like they would’ve been better spent on other interesting instances from the books.

Liu’s books probe humanity’s collective nature, facing an existential, world-ending threat, through the actions of nations but, more importantly, through the individual actions of a few choice protagonists — one thing the Netflix series got right on the money.

Despite confusing casting choices, each character’s distinct reactions speak to their convictions, each forming the bellwethers of humanity’s truest instincts. 

The series, however, just began to breach the story’s themes of right and wrong, courage and despondency and moral propriety in the face of greater goods that made the books so potent.

But another reason the books received so much praise was their root in real scientific concepts, making fantastic events hit home in ways easily felt by anyone with a working understanding of the universe today. 

Almost immediately, viewers pointed out the lack of believability in the words of the actors portraying the world’s top physicists. 

One user named James put it best in a Google Review: “The world’s best physicists look, talk and act like they’ve just come from the set of Love Island,” they said.

Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” is an overall success and worth the watch. Surprisingly few scenes will have viewers who read the books gritting their teeth, and many scenes, like the computer made from soldiers in the VR game and the solar sail on the probe unfurling, were as visually impressive as Liu described them. 

Viewers who haven’t read the book may have a harder time getting past the first few episodes without expectations of how high the stakes become later on, but the series’ production accelerates the complex plot just enough to cull boredom. 

While the show hasn’t been officially renewed for a second season, according to Business Insider, Woo mentioned at SXSW in March that they were already working on season two.

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Judah Duke, Business Editor
Judah Duke is the Business Editor of the Ticker.
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    Chuck AnziulewiczApr 1, 2024 at 10:55 am

    I read all three of the books, and I think the Netflix sSureeries is pretty good. Sure, the producers took liberties with the source material, but Peter Jackson took liberties with The Lord of the Rings, and that turned out quite handsomely. I just hope Netflix doesn’t balk on a second season, because Season 1 ended with a LOT of unresolved issues.