Want More ‘3 Body Problem’? Watch Prime Video’s Chinese Adaptation

Netflix's adaptation of Liu Cixin's novel The Three-Body Problem, stylized as 3 Body Problem, brings the centuries-spanning sci-fi trilogy to life via one of the world's largest streaming platforms. However, existing fans of Liu's work hadn't been bereft until now. In January 2023, Chinese television beat Netflix to the punch with the first full-scale adaptation of Liu's bestselling (and Hugo Award-winning) novel. As ambitious as its source material, the simply but aptly titled Three-Body replicates The Three-Body Problem's plot with devoted fidelity. Likewise, series writer Tian Liangliang knows where to expand Liu's work for maximum thematic effect.

Widen an already dense and complex story, you say? Indeed. The streamer model of 8-10 episodes per season often ruins modern shows' potential. Three-Body's 30 episodes — which constitutes a short C-Drama — give Liu’s tale time to breathe and develop, and for its viewers to think. That's appropriate for the slow-burn, cerebral suspense novel, if not essential to capturing its insidiously existential core. As a result, Three-Body shines bright, bold, and brilliant in ways both complementary and divergent from 3 Body Problem. Whether you're an old hand with Liu's trilogy or newly intrigued by Netflix's take, there’s no better option for experiencing the book's scope than Three-Body — in no small part because it's a Chinese drama, and therefore preserves a fundamental perspective Americans can't fully replicate.

Official poster for the Chinese drama Three-Body

Three-Body (2023)

Focuses on humans dealing with the incoming invasion of a highly-advanced alien civilization called Three-Body.

Release Date

January 15, 2023

Main Genre

Sci-Fi

Seasons

1

Distributor

CCTV

Main Characters

Wang Miao, Shi Qiang, Ye Wenjie

Production Company

Tencent Video

Story By

Liu Cixin

Number of Episodes

30

Streaming Service(s)

Prime Video

How Is ‘Three-Body’ Different From ‘3-Body Problem’?

Like the book it adapts, Three-Body unfolds in 2007, interspersed with flashbacks to the 1960s and '70s. Detective Shi Qiang (Yu Hewei) — the basis for Benedict Wong's Clarence Shi in 3-Body Problem — investigates the death of Yang Dong (He Dujuan), a physicist who took her life. Meanwhile, Wang Miao (Zhang Luyi), a specialist in cutting-edge nanotechnology (and the inspiration for Eiza González's Auggie Salazar) tries to understand the reason Yang Dong, a woman he admired from afar, took her life. Because Yang Dong is one of many elite scientists who recently died by suicide, Shi Qiang and Wang Miao's paths intersect. Their overlapping questions lead Wang Miao to a sinister fringe group called the Frontiers of Science and a perplexing virtual reality game named Three-Body. The more threads Shi Qiang and Wang Miao follow, the more information unravels about a wide-ranging conspiracy, an intergalactic threat, and the thorny truth about Yang Dong's seemingly kindly mother, Ye Wenjie (Chen Jin and Wang Ziwen). Plus, there's the problem of Wang Miao hallucinating an ominous countdown, and how the galaxy inexplicably "winked" at him on command.

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On a macro level, Three-Body's answers don't deviate from 3 Body Problem. That VR game? A recruiting tool designed by the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO) to generate empathy for an alien race called the Trisolarans. Their invasion fleet is already on their way to conquer Earth. The ETO welcomes the Trisolarans, even worshiping them as their saviors. They've paved the way for Trisolaran domination by ensuring that Earth's top scientists take their lives either from despair or confusion induced by hallucinations similar to Wang Miao's countdown.

As for Ye Wenjie's involvement, she established first contact with the Trisolarans in the 1970s while working at a top secret SETI facility. Ye Wenjie viewed humanity as a lost cause after her father's death during the Cultural Revolution and all the other indignities heaped upon her by cruel human hearts. She invited the Trisolarans to Earth (then promptly fainted; understandable). In 2007, she leads the ETO from the shadows. With these similarities, what makes Three-Body's 30 episodes worth the required time? The joy lies in the journey: seeing Liu Cixin's philosophical proto-dystopia unwind in its entirety.

‘Three-Body’ Enhances the Book’s Themes

Want More '3 Body Problem'? Watch Prime Video's Chinese Adaptation

Admittedly, Three-Body encounters problems common to some C-Dramas. Scenes stretch to their dragging point to pad out the run time. The brutal acts committed during the Cultural Revolution are minimized in comparison to the novel and 3 Body Problem, specifically the Red Guards' pivotal murder of Ye Wenjie's father. None of this robs Three-Body of its enthralling dignity. Many of the scenarios invented by adapter Tian Liangliang strengthen the narrative by way of amplification. In the book, Yang Dong passes away "offscreen." Here, she's lent human complexity instead of being just a MacGuffin. The same principle goes for Wang Miao's wife and daughter, who aren't props for the male protagonist but living beings who illustrate Wang Miao's reciprocal tenderness. Mu Xing (Yang Rong), a reporter exclusive to Three-Body, fleshes out the novel's male-heavy cast.

Don't fret, though: fan favorites Wang Miao and Shi Qiang aren't ignored. In fact, they thrive. Although a stellar ideas man, Liu Cixin's characters often fall flat. They're tools to facilitate narrative propulsion and explain high-concept scientific theories. In Three-Body, new scenes — meditative and silly — elevate Wang Miao and Shi Qiang into vivid characters. Reluctantly pairing the abrasive but charming detective with a reserved intellectual and tracing their odd-couple growth grounds the series with a beating heart. 3 Body Problem supplements this dynamic with new relationships between its reinterpreted characters, but none have arcs to rival Three-Body.

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Ye Wenjie Is ‘Three-Body’s Breakout Star

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Appropriately, the true winner of Three-Body's slower pacing is Ye Wenjie. The series teases out her complexity and brilliantly realizes it with great care and greater empathy. 3 Body Problem doesn't shy away from the tragedy and abuse Ye Wenjie experiences, but it condenses her emotional journey by necessity. Three-Body painstakingly shows how Ye Wenjie arrived at a point where she would doom humanity by choice. Directors Yang Lei and Vincent Yang craft a stifling mood that grows more oppressive with time. At the tree farm, Ye Wenjie is surrounded by constant reminders about the movement that claimed her father's life: chanting soldiers and anthems blaring over loudspeakers. Traumatized by her father's death, she keeps her head down. When she trusts someone, the risk results in inevitable betrayal.

Her subsequent resistance takes whatever form it can. Despite visibly freezing to death in a prison cell (ice in her hair, barely lifting her shaking arm), she stands firm against lies and propaganda. She jumps at shadows at the Red Coast base because authority figures will always exploit their power for personal gain. As the child of a revolutionary and as a woman, Ye Wenjie exists at the bottom. There's no shortage of men always ready to remind her of that, of how easily their boots could crush her.

By the time Three-Body reveals Ye Wenjie's ties to the Trisolarans, her character portrait is nearly complete. We've sat with her ups and downs, watched her grapple with first contact, and feel burdened by the weight of a decision that's vengeful but focused. Her motives are understandable because her oppression is unending. Actress Wang Ziwen has little dialogue but doesn't need words; she voices Ye Wenjie's boundless misery through her posture (defensive) and eyes (cornered prey turned spiteful survivor).

‘Three-Body’ Digs Into the Book’s Meatier Themes

Three-Body's 30 episodes grant it a rare luxury: exploring key themes Netflix's 8-episode count had to minimize or eliminate. Here, the ETO's brainwashing of the impressionable is insidiously disturbing, yet no more harrowing than the once-optimistic individuals driven to violence as a means to overthrow corrupt systems. Within the ETO exists two conflicting and quasi-religious factions: the Adventists, who champion complete Trisolaran domination, and the Redemptionists, who believe the Trisolarans' influence can redeem humanity. Human crimes include systematic oppression, abuse of power, the wealth gap, and environmental damage thoughtlessly wrought upon a naturally beautiful planet — or, worse, with uncaring, destructive intent. Ye Wenjie's astrophysics work at the Red Coast base isn't for the joy of discovery; it's a race for supremacy against opposing world powers. If extraterrestrials exist, whoever contacts them first has the advantage. How ironic, then, that said advantage falls to the dismissed Ye Wenjie.

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To properly facilitate said themes, Three-Body's mood is philosophical to the point of dream-like. An inescapable menace bleeds into every corner, which then triggers an overwhelming existential despair in characters and audiences alike. Humanity's defeat is inevitable against an advanced society and an indifferent universe whose vastness we're incapable of comprehending. "Any brilliant idea will fall apart eventually," Ye Wenjie's father declares before his death. "The gravity of reality is just too strong.” 3 Body Problem's slick pacing might be captivating, but without enough room to explore the immense layers at play, Liu Cixin's point gets lost in the shuffle that is spectacle.

With ‘Three-Body,’ Patience Pays Off

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Speaking of spectacle: sure, Three-Body's budget doesn't match Netflix. An imaginatively evocative eye-full, it rivals 3 Body Problem nonetheless. Instead of aiming for deceptive immersion, Three-Body's VR scenes look as artificial as a video game from the late 2000s. It's purposefully unsettling and gives Three-Body's VFX set pieces wiggle room (which range from dimly-lit ancient castles to sun-drowned desolate worlds). Likewise, animated snippets cleverly render a recurring metaphor: a turkey farm's turkeys (humanity) are unaware of a higher power, even as the farmer (the Trisolarans) led them to their slaughter. In "real-life" terms, the infamous Judgment Day sequence is a showstopper worthy of any suspense thriller.

Three-Body might require a commitment, but the investment pays off in spades. This version conveys every delicious drop of the terrifying concept, explains the theorems with relative ease, and lets every character evolve from prototype to person. Netflix remixes Liu Cixin's critically lauded work with inventive aplomb. If you crave the full story as written, look no further than Three-Body.

Three-Body is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

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