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Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’: expenscheap

Moira McMillan
Moira McMillan is a seasoned business lawyer with a passion for teaching. Her main areas of expertise are Intellectual Property and Alternative Dispute Resolution. She hopes to soon complete her PhD in the matter of online platform liability. Recently, she has also developed an interest in Sci-fi and cultural legal studies.
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Netflix’s The 3 Body Problem is the audiovisual series adaptation of Cixin Liu’s novel The Three-Body Problem, released in English in 2014, and the first one of the trilogy Remembrance Of the Earth’s Past that also includes the novel’s sequels The Dark Forest (2015) and Death’s End (2016). With a budget of over $160 Million (Screenrant), the series is allegedly a record expenditure.

Same as the English version of the novel, the series takes off from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The plot of the Chinese version is the same, but it is narrated in the form of flashbacks, as Ken Liu (translator) explained to the New York Times and Wired. In this introduction, the character of Ye Wenjie loses all hope and trust in humanity, which ignites the plot of the trilogy. According to Ly Yuan (New York Times), comments in China criticized the series’ portrayal of the Cultural Revolution as demonizing and unflattering. The series begins remarkably close to the English version of the novel, so it must be the audiovisual portrayal and not the narrative that raised this criticism. Flashbacks that were tolerable in non-continuous segments become overwhelming when presented as a continuous, full-body narrative experienced through both visual and auditory means. Additionally, a high-budget audiovisual series reaches a broader audience compared to a novel (regardless of its success). The novel has sold 8 million copies worldwide (including in China), and Netflix’s series garnered 23.3 million views in its first two weeks, as reported by Deadline.

The series excludes distant futures or alternate timelines. The ‘Van Neumann Abacus’ and the ‘Final Judgment’ scenes (episodes 3 and 5, respectively) are good examples of expenditure becoming a great display for show business. Stunning and close to the novel as it gets, the visuals in these scenes will likely surprise those who have not read the book and will not disappoint those who have.

After eight episodes, the series wraps up in a fictional near future when the alien Trisolaran invasion is announced, the Crisis Era begins, and humanity fights back in several ways, including the ‘Stars Our Destination’ and ‘Staircase Program’ (as in Death’s End). The ‘Wallfacer Project’ (as in The Dark Forest) is introduced in the last episode of the series. The review by Lucy Mangan (The Guardian) provides details of the plot of the series, while Palmer Haasch (Businessinsider) and Zing Tsjeng (Vulture) report on changes in the series with respect to the novel(s). Some of these changes are more annoying than others. Why Da Shi’s name is  Clarence? Or, how about Yang Dong, now Vera, being Mike Evans’ daughter? and killing herself in a fancy tank? How may these changes be beneficial to the plot? But, beyond these ‘small’ annoyances, the series kills whole layers of meaning. In particular, one of the many great things the novel has is that it elaborates on Trisolaran point of view and their presence on Earth which is always technologically mediated. Trisolarans are not just bad aliens fighting humanity because they are mean, ambitious, or any other undisclosed reason. Trisolarans fight for their survival by all means, the same as humans do. This levels the field between Trisolarans and humans in the novel and raises meaningful questions that are fully developed (yet not always answered) in the sequels. Following this line of thinking, the novel also allows humanity to take a closer look at itself once Ye Wenjie first contemplates humanity as bugs. Then, Trisolarans display ‘you are bugs’ for 2 seconds to a reduced number of humans. Humanity learns something significant about its place before Trisolarans and into the wide universe. In the series (episode 5) Trisolarans threaten humanity by displaying ‘you are bugs’ on screens worldwide. Where the novel goes deep, inner, and epistemic, the series is very public, loud, and cheap. Further, it does not help that the series’ Trisolarans made their own adaptation of Sauron’s eye in the sky. It is poorly original and out of character; Trisolarans in the novel would never do that.

Another significant loss is the tone of the novel. Among other things the trilogy is about the temporary, delusional, nature of any perceived order and security and how chaos will eventually impose itself; also about the chaotic nature of order and the order that reigns in chaos. That has many implications including in the field of political organizations and the coexistence of different civilizations (this theme is core to The Dark Forest). The biggest shortcoming of the series is reducing the storyline to a bunch of friends fighting bad aliens. In the novel, friendship is rare, and aliens are not evil, just fighting for survival as every other creature in the universe would.

I concur on the series being ’flat and shallow’ as Helen Davidson (The Guardian) entitles her piece, quoting a commenter on Weibo. However, I do not think such unbearable flatness is because the series was created by -or for- Westerners. There are good, insightful, expensive, visually stunning series in the West. ‘Westworld’ comes to mind. Maybe, in this case, big investment sought cheap themes in search of bigger audiences. In my opinion, the millions of copies sold and the countless hours watched prove that audiences worldwide are not just ready but also eager to embrace complexity. As Cixin Liu once recalled (TOR), huge success and massive readers came with the third book of the trilogy, the complex, obscure, and formidable Death’s End.

It is not without a hint of irony that Netflix calls for the globality of the series to defend the casting (also at The Guardian). The casting is not the worst aspect of the series and could have functioned if the series had kept the novel’s theme(s), tone, and complexity. As it happens with exceptional work, it transcends where or in which language it was first written. Most humans, regardless of their country of origin or first language, will recognize Ye Wenkie’s hopelessness in humankind, the same as Hamlet’s dread with a skull in hand; or Don Quixote’s delusional fighting windmills for giants. Globality is the universal reach of these powerful emotions made art through the mastery of great authors.

The trilogy is universal. In fiction, it transcends what is alien and human; in real life, it transcends East and West. Inversely, the series gets stuck in between human civilizations. On May 15th Variety reported the series will have an undisclosed number of additional chapters in a way that is not a second season. Apparently, in these undisclosed number of additional chapters the creators intend to ‘…get to tell this story through to its epic conclusion.’ I wholeheartedly agree the trilogy’s conclusion is epic. However, the series does not do justice to the first novel through eight episodes, and I would not say I am hopeful that in some additional episodes, it can do justice to the magnificent The Dark Forest and Death’s End. Not even with a significant cut in chapters (which is painful to think of). We can just wait and see. In the meantime, I sincerely hope the series will encourage people to read the trilogy. 

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