Worlds apart
By Peng Jiawei  ·  2024-04-23  ·   Source: NO.17 APRIL 25, 2024

Behind the scenes with Jess Hong, who plays Jin Cheng in 3 Body Problem, a Netflix series released on March 21 (NETFLIX)

As if in the grip of an unknown force, screens around the world simultaneously began to display one single bold-lettered message on March 25, "YOU ARE BUGS."

The message had cropped up on social media feeds, popped out in the middle of YouTube videos and found its way onto train station schedule boards in Rome and Milan, billboards in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, the dome-shaped Sphere entertainment venue in Las Vegas and the gigantic electronic billboard in London's Piccadilly Circus.

The global takeover allegedly led some to believe a cyberattack was in progress. In reality, it was part of an advertisement campaign for the newly released first season of a Netflix series, 3 Body Problem.

Adapted from Chinese novelist Liu Cixin's sci-fi trilogy The Three-Body Problem, the eight-episode Netflix drama tells the story of how a string of mysteries—blinking stars, suicides among scientists worldwide and countdowns emblazoned across one's field of vision—escalate to a looming invasion by an extraterrestrial civilization called santi, or "three body."

The invading aliens are named santi because they live on a chaotic planet that forever bounces between the orbits of a trio of suns, the unpredictable movements of which have rendered survival impossible.

Following its debut on March 21, the series has become a bonafide global phenomenon. According to Netflix, during the weeks of March 25 and April 1, 3 Body Problem topped the platform's most-watched list with an astounding 23.9 million views and also made its way into the Top 10 list in 92 countries and regions.

Plot reshuffle

For showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are best known for co-creating the Game of Thrones series, adapting The Three-Body Problem presents a unique challenge.

To begin with, Liu's novel has amassed a large following among global sci-fi fans, which can be both a blessing and a curse for film and television adaptations.

First serialized in Science Fiction World, a Chinese sci-fi monthly, and translated for English readers by Chinese-American novelist Ken Liu in 2014, the trilogy won the prestigious Hugo Award in 2015 and has since become a major gateway for global readers into the world of Chinese sci-fi.

"This is the one novel that really changed a lot of people's minds in terms of how sci-fi can be serious literature," Derek Tsang, a Hong Kong director who directed the series' first two episodes and also the Oscar-nominated film Better Days, told The Wrap, a website that covers the entertainment industry. "It's really the one novel that put Chinese sci-fi on the map."

Apart from its cult status in the sci-fi circle, the novel has been widely considered unadaptable because of its brain-rattling time jumps spanning an 18-million-year timeline, dense explorations of scientific theories and scenes that just seem impossible to visualize, such as nano-wires cutting through steel and flesh and a computer made of millions of soldiers.

To make 3 Body Problem more palatable for mainstream Western audiences, Benioff and Weiss shifted much of the action to London and installed an international cast.

"The main challenge we faced was how to ground this in people that we care about, how to give us human lenses through which to see and feel the story," Weiss said, noting that the books' nonlinear narrative often jumps between characters who rarely interact with each other.

To address this, Weiss and Benioff took inspiration from 1983's The Big Chill to reconfigure characters scattered throughout Liu's trilogy into a clique of five Oxford grads, who drive much of the narrative.

"No matter what kind of whiz bang stuff we have, you care about it a lot more if you're engaged with the characters," Weiss said.

Adaptation vs. appropriation

These creative decisions, however, have elicited mixed reactions on Chinese social media, which is deeply divided over the degree to which Netflix has quite pulled off its opening gambit.

Many online reviews have been comparing the Hollywood version to an earlier adaptation released on Chinese streaming site Tencent Video in early 2023.

For a majority of Chinese santi fans, the Netflix version is overly condensed, whereas the 30-episode Tencent Video series offers a much more faithful adaptation.

"Netflix has turned an expansive epic into a short pulp fiction," a comment on Chinese review site Douban read.

"Personally, I find the simplification perplexing, as American audiences are actually quite accustomed to convoluted storylines, psychologically complex characters and fancy scientific theories in the generic setting of sci-fi TV shows," Li Wanlin, an associate professor of English who specializes, among other things, in cross-cultural adaptation at Peking University, told Beijing Review. "In that sense, I think Netflix falls short of its own standards."

Much of the criticism centers on cultural appropriation, specifically on Netflix's decision to globalize the story by swapping Chinese characters for a Scooby-Doo gang of Western geniuses. The series has consequently acquired the nickname, General Tso's chicken, a dish that is wildly popular in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. but has never existed in China.

Other Chinese viewers, however, commended Netflix for leveraging its massive financial power and sheer influence over the global entertainment industry to promote the Three-Body brand. The series' budget reportedly amounts to $20 million per episode, the highest in the history of Netflix.

"Just as General Tso's chicken has kindled widespread passion for Chinese food among the Americans, the Netflix series has the potential to interest more people in reading the original novel," Harmon Jin, a 25-year-old film student and a die-hard fan of Liu Cixin's novels, told Beijing Review.

Book sales were already on a steep rise. Following the release of the Netflix show, Liu's trilogy rocketed to No.1 on Amazon together with Silent Spring, a book that was repeatedly mentioned in the series.

Others argued that there was no point in comparing Netflix's adaptation to Tencent Video's, as Liu's epic lends itself to a narrative scope that extends far beyond one country, one cultural perspective or one mode of interpretation.

"One of the reasons I like the novel by Liu Cixin is his ability to create a narrative that spans centuries and seems indifferent to the uniqueness of any particular country, or even Earth itself," Sammy EQ Macpherson, a U.K. sci-fi fan, told Beijing Review. "He describes 'the crisis faced by humankind' in a universal context, which I find very compelling."

In a recent interview with British newspaper The Guardian, Liu Cixin also highlighted the novel's all-inclusive nature. "I don't think that the success of The Three Body Problem in the West is due to its Chinese origin, but rather the fact that they are sci-fi novels that treat human beings as a whole," he said.

Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem placed alongside George R.R.Martin's A Game of Thrones and Frank Herbert's Dune in the sci-fi bestseller section of a bookstore in Oxford, the UK, on March 14 (HARMON JIN)

A never-ending story

The controversies surrounding Netflix's 3 Body Problem reflect a central paradox facing the export of Chinese cultural content: fidelity versus accessibility.

"One of the most important and difficult aspects in the adaptation of Chinese cultural products is the communication of culturally specific content to global audiences in a way that facilitates understanding and appreciation," Li said. "At the same time, it is something that makes transcultural adaptation a meaningful undertaking from a cultural perspective."

Chinese cultural content will continue its foray into the global market, and one day, after many trials, it will find a middle ground between the gravitational pulls of cultural specificities and universal appeals, according to observers.

"Netflix's 3 Body Problem breaks a new path for future adaptations, since it is adapted from a Chinese story that particularly lends itself to transcultural adaptation with its transnational concerns," Li said. 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Hoy   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency
China Daily   |   CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860