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Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ is very different from the book — here’s why that makes it a great adaptation

 Jess Hong, John Bradley in 3 Body Problem.
Jess Hong, John Bradley in 3 Body Problem.

Book adaptations for the small screen can be tricky. Fans often praise series that stick as close to the source material as possible, and shows like “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Sandman” how taking a very faithful approach can be done well.

However, some of the most successful adaptations in recent years have been ones that transform the work substantially, staying true to the spirit rather than the letter of the novel. “Good Omens,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “Watchman” are all great examples of shows that introduce new storylines and characters while playing within the sandbox of an established world.

Netflix's newest series “3 Body Problem” falls somewhere in between these two extremes, managing to hit the major plot points of the novel that inspired it, while making substantial changes to the characters and settings of the book series.

Liu Cixin’s mega-popular, award-winning “Remembrances of Earth” trilogy of novels was thought by many to be un-adaptable, due to its hard science fiction concepts and frequent timeline shifts. However, thanks to some smart structural and character changes, Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” shows how good adaptations can stay true to the source material while also creating a bold new vision at the same time.

Changing the character structure

Book readers might be initially shocked by the first episode of “3 Body Problem,” which introduces characters Jin, Saul, Jack, Auggie, and Will, a group of friends collectively known as the Oxford Five. None of these characters are present in the “Three Body Problem” book, but several of them serve as a stand-in for that book’s protagonist, Professor Wang Miao, an applied physicist who unravels the conspiracy behind the Trisolaran threat.

By breaking Miao’s character into several different people, there is more chance for dialogue and exposition, which makes the series a bit easier to follow. The wildly different timelines and settings can seem a little overwhelming, even for the most meticulous book reader and trying to cram all of that into one character (who doesn’t appear after the first book) would have made the TV series a lot harder to follow in the future, if it continues beyond its inaugural season.

Other book characters from later in the series, including Cheng Xin and Yun Tianming are also repurposed into existing characters introduced in the series’ first season, which should hopefully make future series easier to adapt as well since audiences will have familiar characters to follow from beginning to end.

Bringing important events forward

And speaking of future seasons, another smart change from the book series that helps “3-Body Problem” is bringing future events from the sequel novels in the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy forward into season 1.

While they get new names, several characters that we meet in season 1 of the TV show take over roles and events from the sequel books, helping to flesh out the timeline and make a clear path forward, should further novels be adapted, without the need for additional flashbacks or timeline changes. “3 Body Problem already has a very intricate plot, and introducing these characters earlier can help streamline the story in future seasons, making the separate timelines easier to follow.

Making hard scientific concepts approachable

3 Body Problem. Sea Shimooka as Sophon in episode 103 of
3 Body Problem. Sea Shimooka as Sophon in episode 103 of

One of the reasons why Liu Cixin’s “Remembrance of Earth” trilogy is so beloved among sci-fi fans is because it doesn’t shy away from complex, real world scientific concepts like celestial mechanics, theoretical physics and chaos theory.

Though the book does a good job of giving readers the basics so they can understand the plot, the TV show gives further explanations of these complex concepts on screen, complete with visualizations, making these difficult concepts feel much more accessible for a general audience.

"3 Body Problem" may not be exactly like the book that inspired it, and while purists might miss Professor Wang Miao, the show's structural and character tweaks serve the narrative well. By making complex science digestible and streamlining the story for future seasons, Netflix's "3 Body Problem" proves that bold adaptation can be a powerful tool for bringing beloved sci-fi epics to the small screen.

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