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3-Body Problem - Which Adaptation is Better?

As someone who appreciates good film adaptation and complex sci-fi, I found the Netflix series to be excellent, but that is because I was never expecting it to be better than the books. That is impossible.

So in this post we will look at the Netflix series compared to the Tencent series and assess which one provides better entertainment value while still reflecting the essence of the source material. And by essence I mean not just a tale of alien invasion but a deep exploration of the human condition, the nature of the universe, and the ethical and existential dilemmas faced by civilisations at a cosmic scale.

The Numbers

It is important to understand the financial dynamics behind the production of both series. These figures play a pivotal role in shaping the adaptation strategy. A fundamental truth in filmmaking is that budget constraints directly influence the visual presentation of a series. This is especially important in science fiction, where as much as 40% of the budget might be allocated to CGI. On the other hand, a generous budget, while enabling a lavish use of CGI, can also be risky. It can lead to an over-reliance on visual effects at the expense of story and character development, thereby undermining the narrative's impact.

Looking at the numbers, it is clear that the 2 series are very different approach. The level of investment by the production companies offers insight into their confidence and expectations for the project. Furthermore, another noticeable difference: 22.5 hours runtime over 30 episodes for the Tencent version versus 8 hours across 8 episodes for the Netflix version. That is a significant gap, especially considering the first book is 450 pages long and packed with complex concepts that aren't easy to understand. This difference gives the creators of the Tencent adaptation a bit of relief due to the simple fact that they have a larger canvas to adapt the book compared to 8 hours for the Netflix show.

What is a Film Adaptation?

Here’s a definition I have found that seems appropriate (a more in-depth analysis of this concept here):

“A film adaptation is the transfer of a work or story, in whole or in part, to a film or tv show.” — Remake Television.

Key words there are in part.

A film adaptation doesn’t have to strictly follow the book, mainly due to practical reasons. If you think about it, a book doesn’t have a director constrained by a budget; instead, the director is the reader’s imagination, with a budget that is essentially limitless. When talking about books with my friends, I often ask the question, “How did you envision this character? Describe him to me”. I'm always surprised at how different their interpretation of the character is from mine. Similarly, when reading the book, I often find myself altering the setting or the time of a scene. For instance, if I feel a car chase would be more visually appealing during the daytime in my imagination, then so be it! Nothing stops me from making that change. That is the magic of reading: it frees your imagination.

In terms of adapting as much of the story as possible, the Tencent version is much better than the Netflix version, which is amazing to see given that parts of the book also have a slower pace. This version takes its time introducing the main characters: scientist and key player Wang Miao, police officer Shi Qiang, rogue scientist Ye Wenjie, the enigmatic Shen Yufei, the ruthless Pan Han, among others. I enjoyed the fact that - due to the slower pace - the earlier episodes allows the viewer to follow along with the scientists pondering the existential dillemas they face when recent experimental results don’t make any sense. Moreover, there’s plenty of time to explore the personal challenges of the characters, particularly scientists Wang Miao and Ye Wenjie, offering insights into their past that allows for better understanding of their decisions in the present.

In contrast, the Netflix approach is more abrupt but doesn’t feel rushed. Viewers unfamiliar with the books can still understand the characters and the narrative thanks to the really good writing. The first episode doesn’t need to start at the beginning of the book; instead, it kicks off at a crucial moment when scientists worldwide start dying or committing suicide, seemingly due to a countdown burned into their retinas that never goes away. Not having preconceived notions about the books may actually be a blessing-in-disguise, as it eliminates expectations about where the story should start and how it should progress. The show's writing also shows experience in adapting the books. For example, rather than introducing each character individually, the first episode effectively compiles them into 'the Oxford 5,' a group of friends who studied various science disciplines at Oxford. The pilot episode is crucial—it is the first and only chance for the show to capture the audience's attention and to establish the story and its setting.

While the Netflix depiction of the story has more gravitas and feels like an international crisis, the Tencent version has a more personal feel, with the location remaining in one country and little sign of being an international crisis, at least in the beginning. For its first 8 episodes, this show is a murder mystery set in a scientific backdrop, offering plenty ideas and clues as to who may be behind the scientists deaths. Aliens are not mentioned until episode 8, and only in a joke between characters.

Adapting the Characters

It's no secret that the Netflix series has taken liberties with the characters. This means that some characters from the book are either combined into one or are distributed across two characters. In the book, scientist Wang and police officer Shi team up to investigate the scientist suicides and enter the virtual game world of Three-Body. This remains the same in the Tencent version of the series, but in the Netflix version, we see the scientist character as Jin and her former colleague and entrepreneur as Jack, who investigate the game. Jack is a completely new character who inherits some traits from the police officer and is the humour relief of the series. Additionally, some characters from book 2 are introduced in the first episode, such as Wade. Moreover, certain characters in this series assume the roles of other characters from the books, for example, Saul being a Wallfacer. I find this approach fascinating, as taking specific traits and roles from different characters in the books and combining them into one has a few advantages:

  • It keeps the number of characters small, making it easier for the audience to remember and follow.

  • It ensures the continuity of the series, whereby the roles of some new characters in the books are incorporated into current characters. This should, at least in theory, ensure the characters have a reason to return in season 2 and beyond.

  • From a production standpoint, having a smaller number of actors makes scheduling for the next season easier.

In contrast, the Tencent version maintains the same character format as the books. This safer approach ensures the simp licity of the cast and provides a more enjoyable experience for those who haven't read the books. As mentioned earlier, this version allows for more time with the characters, we spend time watching scientist Wang and police officer Shi evolve from a professional relationship to best friends which keeps the series fresh and ads cheerful moments when things are not going well for the two of them.

Ye Wenjie's character is more comprehensively depicted in the Tencent version, covering her entire arc from a young, ambitious scientist to a traumatised adult betrayed by all sides: her family, her friends, her country, and even her career. Her scenes in later episodes, pure human drama, benefit greatly from the slower pace. The Netflix adaptation also dedicates ample time to this character and even constrained by time, it still manages to fully develop the character with the same impact as in the books.

In both adaptations, there is ample opportunity to root for the characters, which is a hallmark of any good series. I don’t think Netflix's approach is a cause for concern. Remember, this is an adaptation, which allows for various levels of creative freedom for the showrunners.

Adapting the Main Plot Points

1. The Countdown

In the books, the section where scientist Wang begins to continuously see a countdown in front of his eyes is genuinely terrifying. We spend a lot of time exploring how this impacts his mental state. The Tencent adaptation introduces this element over an entire episode, and the issue continues throughout the series as the character adapts to living with it. This is a great decision, it is something that is terrible just thinking of it, imagine being in the shoes of the character.

In the Netflix series, the countdown is just drama and that’s about it. It appears to be the reason scientists are committing suicide, a mystery that is resolved by the end of the first episode. The countdown shows a less number of days without explaining the consequences of letting it run out. This simplification is unfortunate, as the plot point has enough depth to sustain at least three episodes exploring its medical, mental, and practical implications.

2. The Virtual Game

The virtual game is an important part of the book and in Netflix adaptation it is introduced in the very first episode, although for only a minute. The Tencent adaptation shows the virtual game in episode 7 which is a bit late considering its so important to the story.

Across the Netflix series, we only see key moments from the book that happen inside the game and they are used to advance the narrative. It also uses these sequences to clarify the mathematical dilemmas and ads a bit of heart by having Jin, the main character, connect with a little girl in the game who is a fictional character. I’m sure the little girl will turn up later in the series to stir things up. Very well played by Netflix.

In regards to how the game looks like, the Netflix series is a clear winner here. The sequences inside the game are visually stunning, you can see where that massive budget went. In contrast, the Tencent version is less polished, I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice by the creators or a because we are used to seeing high-quality CGI. The timeline in the books is around 2008, so maybe the creators try to recreate the way video games looked like back then.

3. The First Contact

The books make it clear that Ye Wenjie's decision to respond to the alien signal— at the same time sending humanity's future into uncertainty—is well-founded. We learn about Ye's history, from her father's death during the Cultural Revolution due to his beliefs, to the numerous betrayals she faces from her family, friends, and even her career at the Red Coast military base. These experiences fuel her disillusionment with humanity and her decision to seek extraterrestrial help appears justified given humanity's environmental destruction.

Both TV series do a stellar job showing this. While the Netflix adaptation emphasizes the environmental theme more strongly, both versions highlight Ye's betrayal-induced anguish as the catalyst for her decision. The visuals of 1970s Mongolia, including cinematography, costumes, and VFX, are top-notch in both adaptations. Considering the historic sequences are plenty in the book, it is encouraging to see that they get similar treatment in the both adaptations.

4. The Sophons

The simplest explanation I could find of what a Sophon is can be summarised as follows, and I will leave a link in the description:

The creation of the Sophon involves 'unfolding' a proton's extra dimensions, turning it into a sheet the width of a planet. Circuits are etched onto the sheet using the strong interaction force before the sheet is folded back into a proton (now a quantum computer). Due to its nature as a subatomic particle, it can be accelerated to light-speed and arrive in the Solar System ahead of time, with the purpose of sabotaging Earth's technological development -

Although this explanation is not as comprehensive as the one in the book, it does a good job explaining the Sophon's objective: to halt human technological advancement, thereby giving the intergalactic alien space fleet a chance to reach Earth in 400 years.

The unveiling of the Sophons, along with their creation and deployment on Earth, is impressively showcased at the end of episode 5 in the Netflix version. The combination of editing, build-up, acting, and VFX makes it as impactful as some of the most memorable scenes in television history, such as the explosion of the sept in season 6 of Game of Thrones or the 'Made in America' sequence at the end of The Sopranos. Understandably, these scenes are more profound due to their placement later in the series, which gives them additional depth because the audience understands the significance of those moments. But, imagine the potential for future scenes in the next seasons where significantly important moments happen, which are a lot in book 2 and 3.

Also, the terrifying song that plays during the revealing of the Sophons in Episode 5 is called San-Ti and is from the 3-Body Problem Soundtrack available to listen on Apple Music or Spotify.

In the Tencent adaptation, Sophons are introduced at the very end of the series and are much more thoroughly explained. But at the same time, the series takes a big leap in presenting the aliens themselves through the virtual game and explain at length how the Sophons were created. It is brave to take this approach as in the books there is a full chapter dedicated to the creation of Sophons and their deployment, without much description of how the aliens look like or how their world looks like. I would love to see this approach in the Netflix version too, considering access to higher budget.

Adapting the Underlying Theme

One of the central themes of the first book is the alien civilisation’s greater appreciation for a planet with a stable environment, in contrast to their own chaotic one. As humans, we lack a real understanding of what a planetary-level cataclysm is, unlike the aliens, who have endured such events repeatedly. Despite evidence that humanity is damaging the environment, as a species, we are not making sufficient efforts to reverse this trend.

While the books do not heavily focus on this theme, both the Netflix and Tencent series explore it, particularly the Netflix version, which includes repeated visual and verbal cues highlighting humanity's failure to take responsibility for the planet's wellbeing. This theme is also touched upon in the Tencent version, in the latter part of the series, through a montage of archival footage showing environmental disasters from around the world.

I don’t mind this theme being discussed, it is both current and important. The concept of being responsible for future generations and doing something about it now is urgent in today’s world, so I am pleased to see this discussed in such a highly anticipated show.

Missed Opportunities

The Netflix series omits several elements, but its most significant missed opportunity is the misalignment with the books' tone. What I missed the most in the Netflix adaptation were the philosophical discussions about humanity's role and purpose in the universe, which are central to the books' popularity. Questions such as "Why are we here?" and "What is our place in the universe?" or "Why is there silence in the infinitely vast universe?" and "Are we a species not worth answering?" as well as "Can humanity responsibly handle the power that comes with knowledge?" and "Are we resilient enough to face existential threats?" are bypassed. The series' pacing doesn't allow for such reflective conversations. The closest it comes to this is a discussion between Evans and the aliens about the human tendency to lie.

In contrast, the Tencent version preserves these philosophical moments, particularly in the scientists' gatherings. The 'shooter-turkey' theory is discussed across several episodes which is one great example of depth of the topics discussed in the books.

As mentioned earlier, the books introduces us to the alien civilisation too. We spend chapters on the San Ti planet, understanding the aliens' decision-making process and their motivations for heading to Earth. It's refreshing to see that, despite the aliens' advanced status, humanity is rapidly catching up and will surpass their technology within four centuries.

The Tencent series has taken the leap to visualise this alien environment, but Netflix did not. I think that was one of the missed opportunities and hope to see that in season 2.

My Predictions for Season 2 of Netflix Series

Given the significant commitment and the caliber of talent in the Netflix production I think it’s reasonable to anticipate a second season, if not more. There’s no official announcement, but I won’t be surprised if it happens soon.

Should Netflix sign off a second season, based on the structure of the narrative and execution of the first season, I would expect the following to be plausible:

  • The second season will focus more on the second book, "The Dark Forest." Considered by a lot of readers as the best of the series, this book contains plenty of sci-fi elements and the potential for visually stunning scenes, along with intriguing philosophical concepts, which could actually cover a third season too

  • Aesthetically, the Earth-bound scenes might draw comparisons to "Westworld," space sequences might echo "The Expanse," and the Great Ravine scenes could resemble the desolate scenery of "The Road."

  • The 3 Body virtual game could serve as a portal to the alien world, especially considering Jin's connection with the girl in the game. This bond might drive Jin to obsessively seek solutions to the 3 Body Problem within the game's universe. Concurrently, Wade might see this as an opportunity to use Jin as an informant inside the alien world

  • Ye Wenjie could reemerge as a Wallbreaker. While it's presumed she has been killed, no concrete evidence has been provided.

  • Jin and Saul may be the architects of the Dark Forest Deterrence program

  • With Saul identified as one of the primary Wallfacers, Auggie's return is expected to carry more significance.

  • Clarence is likely to take on a more pivotal role, not just as Saul's bodyguard but potentially as his spiritual advisor

  • Tatiana might ascend to a leadership position, focusing on undermining any human research efforts beyond the reach of the Sophons and pursuing the Wallfacers.

  • Wade will go through a phase of severe paranoia because the Sophons will constantly make him doubt his reality

Final Thoughts

While not entirely faithful to the tone of the books, creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have done a great job in their adaptation. By being a bit different, the series actually encourages viewers to read the books themselves, a strategy I fully support: read the books first, then watch the adaptations.

Here’s what the creators had to say about their love for the books:

So I think both series are equally strong in their approach, but for those that have not read the books and are looking for a more digestible version, I think the Netflix is the one to go. For those that have read the books or are looking for more in-depth discussions into mathematical and physics concepts, wrapped in a murder mystery with soul, then the Tencent version is the one for you.


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