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‘3 Body Problem’ showrunners look ahead to Seasons 2 and 3

Three men dressed casually lean against a cement-block wall for a portrait.
“If it’s a global crisis then it would be good to represent everyone on the planet coming together, or not coming together, to confront the situation,” suggests Alexander Woo, right, of changing the nationality of some characters from the source novel. Woo created “3 Body Problem” with fellow showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
(Erica Hernandez / For The Times)
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After signing a $200-million deal with Netflix, “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss could have made just about any series they wanted. What they wanted was author Cixin Liu’s 2008 sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Translated into more than 20 languages and with 9 million copies sold, it’s the most widely read Chinese book in modern Chinese history. The first of its kind to win sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Award, it counts among its fans Barack Obama, George R.R. Martin and filmmaker Rian Johnson (“Knives Out”).

“The books attracted lots of attention over time,” notes Weiss, who, along with Benioff and “True Blood” producer Alexander Woo, is a “3 Body Problem” showrunner. “When Dave and I went to Netflix, they were already in talks with an A-list film director [Johnson]. It just so happened he was somebody we’d been friends with for many years. He had his own film franchise he created out of thin air and was happy to hand [“3 Body Problem”] off to us and gave us excellent input throughout.”

In the story, hostile aliens are on their way but won’t arrive for another 400 years. A rash of suicides among top scientists spurs a London detective (Benedict Wong) to investigate a clan of researchers at Cambridge University. A mysterious video game driven by technology beyond human capability becomes central to the mystery, until it’s not.

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The first book of Cixin Liu’s science fiction trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” gets a Netflix adaptation premiering Thursday.

March 20, 2024

With a blinking universe, an eye in the sky and an oil tanker sliced like deli meat, the eight-part series varies from the novel in significant ways. The action has been moved from China to London, the gender of a character has been switched, and a racially diverse cast portrays what were previously all Chinese characters.

Netflix is not available in China, but some viewers there access it through private networks. Many on Chinese social media say the diverse cast is a symptom of political correctness and that other changes have the West racing to solve a problem triggered in China. State media said the series promotes “American cultural hegemony” under the guise of diversity. All seem to overlook the fact that Netflix owns only the English-language rights to the material. To remain strictly faithful to it would have meant a Chinese cast speaking in English.

“If it’s a global crisis, then it would be good to represent everyone on the planet coming together, or not coming together, to confront the situation,” suggests Woo. “That’s what led to the idea of globalizing the cast. And when we spoke to the author, he was already steps ahead of us. He figured we would do that and gave us his blessing.”

Another change was opening the series with a 1966 struggle session during the infamous Cultural Revolution, a bleak period in Chinese history in which intellectuals and “anti-revolutionaries” were subjected to public humiliation and abuse, sometimes ending in death. Originally it was the book’s first chapter, but heeding advice from his publisher, the author moved it to soften its impact with censors.

A concerned-looking woman points up at the sky in "3 Body Problem."
Jess Hong stars in “3 Body Problem.”
(Netflix)

To get the details of the scene right, the showrunners studied what type of propaganda posters would hang in the background and the size and shade of Mao’s Little Red Book, which the mob waves in unison. “It was lots of reviewing old photographs and speaking to people who were alive at the time,” says Benioff. “Television is a team sport. A lot of time was spent in long, boring meetings, hours and hours of conversation with all the different department heads.”

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One head they didn’t meet with was the boss of Yoozoo Group, the Chinese firm that owns the rights to “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” the “Three-Body” trilogy. Lin Qi, a brash gaming entrepreneur, was hospitalized in December 2020 for mercury poisoning and a neurotoxin similar to the kind found in puffer fish. He died on Christmas Day. Police arrested Xu Yao, a former chief executive of an affiliate of Yoozoo called the Three-Body Universe, dedicated to developing film and TV adaptations of the novel. Xu reportedly received a death sentence.

According to Benioff, Rian Johnson had drinks with the killer and his victim. Weiss confirmed that he sent a photo of them together in France. “A person we did work with extensively was poisoned, but he survived. I think it was mercury poison,” Woo said, adding that it took the victim more than a year to recover.

A bigger impact on the show wasn’t the skulduggery surrounding it but the pandemic. “These books were written in a more optimistic time of international relations, before the COVID pandemic when our species really was confronted by a danger that affects all of us. And we didn’t come together in any significant way,” Benioff glumly notes. “It was a pretty shoddy showing. The most optimistic view of humanity would say that was a C-minus effort from us.”

While acknowledging science’s impressive ability to quickly produce a vaccine, he feels the government failed. “A lot of people just disputed the science. Period. That was interesting to us. Seeing the global reaction to events, skepticism to science and how that’s grown in the past few years, was eye-opening. And it definitely informed the writing of the show.”

The three announced late last month that there will be a second — and third — season of the series, which they began prepping in the spring. “The ending of the [book] series is a very beautiful and hopeful ending that I never saw coming,” Benioff says. “And that was sort of miraculous the way he pulled all of it together into this beautiful final image. I’m so hopeful we get there, because to me it’s one of the great endings to one of the super ambitious and great sagas ever.”

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