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3 Body Problem - Netflix Big Bet on Complex Sci-Fi

Netflix's ambitious venture into adapting The Three-Body Problem a sprawling science fiction narrative with complex characters, numerous time jumps and intellectually stimulating discussions, represents a significant gamble. With an investment of $160 million, showrunners with a, let say ‘controversial’ track record, and the daunting task of bringing to life a book renowned for its adaptational challenges, one must ask: Has Netflix indeed taken a misstep?

What are the Books About ?

Remembrance of Earth’s Past is the series title for the 3 novels that includes, in chronological order: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death's End. Authored by Liu Cixin between 2006 and 2010, these novels have achieved remarkable success, selling over 8 million copies and being translated into 20 languages. A television adaptation has already been produced and released in China, receiving widespread acclaim. The book series has been internationally praised, including commendations from George R.R. Martin himself, who endorsed it for the Hugo Awards in a blog post in 2015, and former U.S. President Barack Obama, who remarked on the books' "immense" scope and found them “… fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty”.

The Three-Body Problem, the trilogy's opening book, sets the stage with the looming threat of an alien invasion by the Trisolaris civilisation, which is in search of a new home due to the instability of their own planetary system with three suns, hence the name Tri-solaris. It touches on themes such as cultural revolution, the nature of the universe, and the ramifications of first contact with an alien civilisation.

The Dark Forest, the second instalment, introduces the Dark Forest Theory. This theory suggests that the universe is akin to a dark forest where each civilisation is a stealthy hunter. Because each civilisation is unaware of the other’s technological advancements, they will naturally opt for the immediate annihilation of the other to ensure continuation of their own. This book explores the psychology of solitude, survival instincts, and the complexities of communicating with, and understanding alien entities.

The concluding book, Death's End, contemplates the eventual destiny of humanity and the universe and although I have yet to finish this volume, it matches the depth and intrigue of the previous books.

What is the 3 Body Problem?

From a physics perspective, the three-body problem involves calculating the movements of three celestial bodies in space, taking into account the gravitational forces they exert on each another. The problem is that these gravitational forces continually change as the bodies move, which results in complex interactions that are not easy to calculate with straightforward mathematical solutions.

In simpler terms, the paths of these three gravitational bodies are chaotic and unpredictable. This presents significant challenges for space exploration and astrophysics, especially when modelling the behaviour of systems with multiple stars, the interactions between planets, and in designing spacecraft trajectories that use gravitational pull.

This problem has confounded scientists since the 17th century, when Isaac Newton established the laws of motion and universal gravitation. While Newton's laws enable precise solutions for the two-body problem, the introduction of a third body makes traditional calculation methods ineffective.

Remember that alien civilisation introduced in the first book? Their planetary system, being bound to three suns, is unstable and unpredictable. This instability is a key reason behind their decision to seek a new home.

The Risks of Adaptation

Once I finished the first book and started the second, I quickly noticed a shift in the scope of the narrative. The first book maintained a more grounded approach, with events happening on Earth across contemporary or historical timelines, with the occasional otherworldly setting of a virtual game. It had a sense of mystery and delved into philosophical inquiries about the universe's nature and humanity's place within it. So, while the supernatural or extraordinary events that occurred were significant, they were rooted on Earth.

Book 1 reminder me of the introspective vibe of acclaimed 'high-brow' sci-fi films such as Arrival or Contact, and at times, it reminded me of The Leftovers—one of my favourite series—where humanity grapples with the aftermath of a mysterious planetary event, struggling with the uncertainty of the same event reoccurring or its origins.

In contrast, the second book expands its vision, turning into classic high-quality science fiction. There’s time jumps, futuristic Earth with different societal norms and an epic space conflict with thousands of warships.

This transition brought to mind TV Series like The Expanse when it comes to space battle dynamics and the life-in-space dilemmas or Westworld for its exploration of free will and questionable reality, and even Foundation for its themes of destiny, manipulation of future events, and the preservation of human knowledge.

With the third book ‘feeling’ much more like Foundation, you can see how each book is unique when it comes to fitting into a specific genre. Yes, it is a sci-fi series, but what type of sci-fi?

The series' tone and atmosphere are crucial in setting expectations for the audience. For example, imagine the first season of Three Body Problem might channel the existential depth of Westworld, indicating a series deep in existential themes, centred around a clandestine society of scientists congregating inside a virtual game that is more than it seems. By the end of the first season, viewers are likely hooked and anticipating more of the same from the second season.

However, if the second season will be heavily based on the second book, it will shift the tone dramatically and likely resemble Foundation, with a 200-year time jump, new characters, a drastically changed world, and complex new dilemmas, the reaction might be mixed. Some viewers might be put off, while others could be intrigued, meaning that the ratings will be unpredictable (kind of like the 3 body problem). From Netflix's perspective, this would be a very risky - and more importantly, very expensive - approach.

The Netflix Approach

Adapting the intricate plot points and narratives of the books poses significant challenges for Netflix, but the company needs to make bold decisions. Netflix doesn’t have a 'signature' series—a show with the monumental impact of Game of Thrones or The Sopranos. So the streaming giant is investing heavily in The Three-Body Problem, sparing no expense on this project. Following a year marked by events that have favourably impacted the company cash flow (such as writers/actors strikes and a crackdown on password sharing), Netflix has allocated $160 million for the production of the first season of The Three-Body Problem. Given that in the later seasons of Game of Thrones when the show was already very popular, the budget per episode was between $10 and $15 million, Netflix's investment represents a big gamble, but it indicates the company's commitment to making The Three Body Problem a smashing success.

The Showrunners

The cast and direction for the project are impressive, including familiar faces from Game of Thrones alongside new actors that are poised to become recognisable.

However, when it comes to adapting a work as complex and revered as The Three-Body Problem, the attention automatically moves to the showrunners. Leading the adaptation are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators behind Game of Thrones, along with Alexander Woo, who has production credits on True Blood.

Alexander Woo is noted for his untarnished career achievements. On the other hand, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have carved a niche for themselves by creating one of the most influential TV series in modern history, standing shoulder to shoulder with giants like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

Despite the controversy surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, it's important to acknowledge that first seven seasons delivered an unforgettable mix of emotions, tension, and memorable moments such as the Red Wedding, the Battle of the Bastards, the Battle of Blackwater Bay and Hodor.

How Big of a Risk?

The trailer alone immediately shows that the money is well spent, with polished visuals, outstanding special effects, and well-chosen actors.

What caught my attention is the evident divergence from the original material in this first season. The list of characters for the first season includes individuals from both the first and third books, indicating that the showrunners have embraced creative liberties when crafting the storylines. In addition, certain characters from the novels are absent in the adaptation, while others are entirely new creations. The setting appears to have shifted to Europe, diverging from the books' Chinese backdrop, and I recognised scenes from the trailer that seem to originate from the second book. This approach, however, is not necessarily bad. We've seen a similar strategy successfully employed in Game of Thrones, where deviations from the source material kept book fans engaged even as the show's narrative surpassed the books. If these changes make the story more accessible and engaging for both book lovers and new viewers alike, then it is a win for all parties involved.

Final Thoughts

Netflix's foray into adapting The Three-Body Problem is a bold move that underscores the streaming giant's ambition to carve out a unique space in the sci-fi genre for TV. The adaptation's departure from the source material, as seen in the trailers, indicates a willingness to take creative risks to make the story more engaging and accessible to a global audience. Whether this strategy will pay off remains to be seen, but it certainly sets the stage for a potentially groundbreaking series that could redefine the standards of science fiction adaptations. The success of The Three-Body Problem could very well determine if Netflix secures its much-desired 'signature' series, making it a pivotal moment in the company's history and a testament to the ever-evolving landscape of television storytelling.

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