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How ‘3 Body Problem’ Gets Lost in Translation
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How ‘3 Body Problem’ Gets Lost in Translation

Netflix’s flimsy adaptation offers unintentional lessons about a U.S.-China pop culture clash.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

Here’s a thorny question: When was the last time Chinese pop culture made a splash in the U.S. market? Given how much China dominates our political debate, the answer is strangely elusive. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a surprise box office smash 25 years ago, and Hollywood has shamelessly courted the Chinese market plenty (with all the self-censorship that entails). But examples of the reverse phenomenon—Chinese cultural exports finding a ready audience in the United States—are surprisingly hard to come by. 

The most notable exception may be Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem, the sci-fi phenomenon whose 2014 English translation earned the Hugo Award and an endorsement from President Barack Obama. Now, following a 30-episode adaptation for Chinese television, Liu’s series has received the Netflix treatment from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. And the new version, which retains some of the plot’s Chinese scaffolding but transposes most of the action westward, has provoked a telling combination of praise and censure in both countries.

The opening scene has attracted particular attention. Set in 1966 Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, it harrowingly depicts a young Chinese student watching her father’s denunciation and murder at a mass struggle session. As a result, the young woman’s ensuing trauma kicks off a chain reaction that eventually leads to her welcoming an alien invasion. (It’s a long story.) 

For some Chinese netizens, though, the scene was an American affront, an attempt to tarnish China by fixating on the ugliest part of its history. Other Chinese viewers, bucking the trend, expressed a guarded appreciation for the show’s honest treatment of the Cultural Revolution, which is handled more gingerly in the Chinese TV series. In the United States, meanwhile, some reacted with an overwrought analogy between yesterday’s Red Guards and today’s progressive activists, with one reviewer calling the scene “scarily reminiscent of where Woke is taking us.” Both of these interpretations are at best incomplete, if not outright wrong. Taken together, though, they suggest how the show has struck a nerve in both countries. 

Unfortunately for viewers, the historical controversy is the most interesting thing about the show: 3 Body Problem is an ambitious attempt at blockbuster science fiction, but its most compelling moments are rooted in historical fact. The sections involving the Cultural Revolution are vivid dramatizations of all-too-recent history, but the show’s attempts to Westernize the novel—and to smooth out its stranger wrinkles—only illustrate the creative limitations of big-budget television.    

At least the showrunners didn’t shirk from the challenge. Five years after bringing Game of Thrones to an underwhelming conclusion, Benioff and Weiss here tackle an even more unwieldy piece of fantasy literature with 3 Body Problem. It toggles between virtual-reality setpieces and a real-world detective story, draws on quantum physics and ancient Chinese history, and settles into an alien invasion narrative with echoes of calamities past and present. Juggling all these moving parts would be no mean feat for any writer, even without introducing new elements. 

It’s a shame, then, that Benioff and Weiss have tried to up the human interest by introducing … an ensemble cast of utterly generic Pretty Young Things. Where the novel’s plot unspools through the eyes of one Wang Miao, a talented physicist with a rather ordinary home life, the show gives us a proliferation of ethnically balanced twentysomethings who would be better suited to an American singles sitcom. Collectively, they represent the least convincing group of Oxford physics PhDs ever put on screen. 

There’s someone from every demographic: the beautiful daughter of Mexican immigrants who founds a nanotech start-up, a high-achieving Chinese-Kiwi engineer and her British Indian soldier boyfriend, the gifted-but-lazy African American lab assistant and his shy-but-sincere best friend from England. The problem lies not in the ethnic diversity per se so much as the actors’ utterly unconvincing rapport, and the groan-worthy dialogue they are saddled with. It’s as if the casting decisions were outsourced to Google Gemini, with ChatGPT writing the dialogue. 

Faring better are Benedict Wong as the grizzled blue-collar detective Da Shi and Rosalind Chao as the shrewd Chinese scientist whose traumatic past sets the plot in motion. Not incidentally, these two characters are carried over faithfully from the book. It’s a lesson that Game of Thrones fans learned gradually over eight seasons: Benioff and Weiss are at their best when adhering closely to the creator’s vision. The further they stray, the more the cracks show. 

In the case of 3 Body Problem, the mismatch involves tone as much as substance. Liu Cixin’s novel has a detached and unsentimental attitude that clashes with certain American sci-fi conventions. In contrast to the political idealism of Star Trek, say, or the sentimental humanism of E.T. and Interstellar, 3 Body Problem views human relations as fundamentally tragic and extraterrestrial contact as a source of mass suspicion and terror. Liu’s subject is humanity’s capacity for self-destruction and regeneration, informed by the calamities of Chinese history and the anxieties of nuclear apocalypse and climate change. Such tough-minded material is ill-suited for the sentimental subplots the writers introduce, especially the unrequited love of the teacher Will for his former labmate Jin Cheng, or the “will-they-won’t-they” romantic dynamic of two other leads.     

The show’s set pieces deliver on spectacle, at least. In one virtual reality scene, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan commands hordes of subjects to operate as a mass human computer, with guidance from Isaac Newton and Alan Turing. In another, our scientific protagonists slice a cruise ship apart with a deadly web of nanofibers. But even these spectacles outstay their welcome. Too many scenes are hampered by the kind of rote, wonderless CGI that is all too common in the age of Marvel. It’s enough to make one long for the early seasons of Game of Thrones, which at least were filmed on real locations and carried a genuine frisson of violence and danger.

But even if this 3 Body Problem is a dud, it nevertheless tells us something interesting about the U.S.-China culture clash—albeit with different lessons for each country. 

In China, the insecure response to the opening scene suggests it’s still unable to grapple honestly with its historical tragedies. Government censorship and popular myopia ensure that today’s Chinese filmmakers treat politically sensitive subjects with kid gloves. If such subjects could be addressed openly, though, Chinese cultural exports would likely find more appeal abroad—just as Liu Cixin’s books have. The modern heyday of Chinese film in the West was the 1990s, when films like To Live and The Blue Kite treated Chinese history with nuance and care, attracting international acclaim in the bargain. Nowadays, China’s cultural organs prefer films that are either totally nonpolitical or stridently propagandistic. Non-Chinese audiences are understandably staying away.     

As for Hollywood, the creative failures of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem suggest the perils of lowest-common-denominator thinking. While Benioff and Weiss may have been lured by the books’ highbrow themes, their adaptation betrays a distrust in the audience’s willingness to go along. The show streamlines the book’s science and devotes excessive runtime to empty spectacle. For all its page-turning entertainment value, Liu Cixin’s novel always treated its audience like intelligent adults. Too often, Benioff and Weiss hedge that bet. 

That’s a particular shame after a year when U.S. audiences willingly shelled out for a three-hour biopic about the maker of the atomic bomb. One lesson of the Oppenheimer phenomenon is that some segment of today’s audience is eager for literate entertainment that uses history to thoughtfully understand our present. The best parts of 3 Body Problem suggest the same lesson, too. Truth, after all, is stranger than science fiction.

Sean Keeley is a contributing editor of American Purpose.