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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.

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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In something like Game of Thrones you embody the characters as a reader, whereas the text you’re working from here is much more concept-driven. The characters are kind of empty, in the manner of Isaac Asimov or some of that idea-heavy sci-fi of the 1950s. How did you go about filling in those gaps?

Weiss: It’s funny that you mention Asimov, because when I was reading the book it was very clear that Cixin Liu had grown up on that Golden Age pulp science fiction. Some of those authors, people like Robert Heinlein, were very character-driven in their ways. Others like Asimov were more cerebral. And I think Cixin Liu, by his own admission, falls into that second category. There are great characters in the books that have a lot of potential, but they don’t interact with any of the other characters, which is something we needed to address.

How did you do that?

Weiss: There are characters that plot-wise do really interesting things, but in terms of their history and relationship to the other characters we almost needed to fill them with a new backstory. We needed to create a different person and put them in the “plot skin.” It’s a lot of the fun of the adaptation, but from the beginning we knew that was going to be at least 50 percent of the heavy lifting we had to do.

The full trilogy spans thousands of years—do you know how things are going to end?

Benioff: We definitely have the ending in mind. We don’t have a lot of the middle in mind yet.

The books go into a lot of detail about particle accelerators and computer programming and astronomy. How did you balance staying true to the science with keeping things entertaining?

Alexander Woo: Well none of us are physicists, which I think actually made us great guinea pigs for what could be understandable. In the novels, some of it can get quite abstruse. An advantage of the novel form is that you can read it at your own pace, you can slow down, you can go back, you can look things up on the internet. Ideally, in a television show you won’t have to do that: The whole show just flows in front of you, and the idea is presented in a way that you can digest whether you’re a physicist or not.

As non-physicists, what was your solution to that?

Woo: We had two science consultants on our show—a particle physicist and a rocket scientist—and they gave us and the cast and crew a crash course explaining various different concepts within the show. We gained as much from the information they gave us as the way they presented it. So we spent a lot of time on that and not making people feel like they were doing homework.

Weiss: The hope is that somebody who is knowledgeable about this stuff will look at those visual science Easter eggs and know what they’re looking at. Somebody who is not knowledgeable about it will look at it and recognize that something complex is going on, and it’s something new and beautiful, and know enough to carry them forward in the story. It was a constant dance we were doing between the explanation and momentum.

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These books are popular, but maybe not quite at the level that A Song of Ice and Fire was when you started turning it into Game of Thrones. Did you feel you had more freedom to diverge from the books and how much you could change things?

Benioff: I think they are that popular in mainland China, but not in the West. Everyone I’ve met who is from over there has read them, though, or they’re like, “Everyone in my family has read them.”

George’s books were on the bestseller list even before the adaptation, but even so, you have to do what you think is right for the series. Oftentimes that means deviating from the text. I can’t remember ever consciously thinking, “Well we can’t do that because fans are going to get annoyed.” You do it anyway if you think that’s what’s right for the show. I think the simplest answer is probably no. Maybe we’ll get less hate mail than we did with the other one, but it’s the same basic creative process.

I guess you know the ending this time around which helps …

Benioff: [Laughs] Yeah …

Weiss: There aren’t really that many series out there—I suppose for the people adapting Harry Potter they were up against a very real situation of: If we decide that Harry should do this instead of what he does in the books there’s going to be an army of knife-wielding 12-year-olds coming to your door. If a billion people have read your books you’re in a different situation. But almost anything shy of that I think you run into the situation David was describing, just by the nature of television and sizes of audiences you need to do what’s best for it as a show.

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