Netflix’s '3 Body Problem' Adapts the Unadaptable


Scientists keep taking their own lives, and no one knows why. That’s the central mystery at the start of 3 Body Problem, the new Netflix series based on a trilogy of sci-fi novels by Chinese author Cixin Liu. But it soon unfolds into something far grander: There’s a mysterious VR video game, flashbacks to revolutionary China, shady billionaires, and strange cults.

But really, it’s all about physics. Liu’s novels are beloved in China and have a smaller but similarly dedicated following among English-language readers, but they are hard science fiction—heavy on concept, light on character. More than once in the series, someone resorts to wheeling out a chalkboard to make their point, and there are scenes in the books that seem impossible to film: multidimensional structures collapsing in on themselves, a computer made up of millions of soldiers, nano-wires cutting through steel, diamond, flesh.

For showrunners David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo, adapting The Three-Body Problem for the screen presented a unique challenge. Woo was a writer on HBO’s True Blood, but Benioff and Weiss are best known for Game of Thrones. An adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, Thrones became a once-in-a-decade television phenomenon, but didn’t quite stick the landing—in some corners of the internet the names Benioff and Weiss are on a level with Joffrey Baratheon.

Three people sitting on a table in a moody beige room

(L to R) 3 Body Problem executive producers and writers D. B. Weiss, Alexander Woo, and David Benioff.Courtesy of Austin Hargrave/Netflix

So there may be some trepidation for those weighing whether to watch their new show. But 3 Body Problem has all the ingredients that made those early seasons of Game of Thrones so compelling: jaw-dropping set pieces, a web of interpersonal conflict, and an existential threat slowly marching toward the gates.

WIRED spoke to Benioff, Weiss, and Woo about the challenge of adapting a series previously thought to be unadaptable.

Amit Katwala: You’ve talked about how you read the novels simultaneously and decided this was the thing you wanted to work on next. What really attracted you to Three-Body Problem as something to adapt?

David Benioff: We might have three different answers. For me, there were so many scenes in the books that I read and thought, “I really want to see this.” Throughout the whole trilogy there are so many scenes that are thrilling to read, but also as a TV writer and producer deeply intimidating, because you’re thinking, how are we going to show multiple dimensions on screen? How is that going to work? I literally can’t visualize some of the things that are described in the book. The only other time I’ve had that experience is with George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

D. B. Weiss: Something that you’re going to devote this much of your life to, it has to haunt you. It has to be something that when you put it down and walk away it just keeps lurking in your mind. I read these books and I’d be thinking about them while I was going for a walk, I’d be thinking about them when I was taking my kids to school. I never stopped thinking about them.



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