How Will 3 Body Problem Adapt The Next Two Books?

The Netflix adaptation of Cixin Liu's incredible trilogy of novels has huge challenges ahead...

The following article contains spoilers for future seasons of 3 Body Problem.

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu is an incredible trilogy of books. It’s now also an okay Netflix show. 3 Body Problem, named after the first novel, is hard not to be disappointed by on some level. I desperately don’t want to be the stereotypical, superior person proclaiming how the books are so much better but, in this case, they absolutely are. If you haven’t read them, you should, they tell perhaps the best sci-fi story of the century.

I had heard of the novels but before reading I didn’t even know what type of story it was, I had no idea it was a unique way to portray an alien invasion, and the novel’s series of reveals felt weighty and shocking. Less so in the show. I’m curious how it plays for new fans but it all felt rushed and impatient to me. Key moments weren’t given time to land, and themes and ideas were rushed.

The writers push through the first book in just five episodes, and while I don’t think it’s deserving of the 30-episode adaptation Chinese audiences received, there has to be a middle ground. Big aspects come and go, themes touched on rather than explored. The historical flashbacks to the communist revolution, or even the VR game, feel like they are included because they have to be, not because they have something to say about them.

It’s also a season of television that suffers from an awkward structure, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the books. The trilogy is not so much being adapted by book but rather by time period. The fifth episode delivers an initial crescendo, because it’s the end of book one, and then the next three episodes adapt the beginnings of books two and three. Even though they save the novel’s final chapter for the season’s final scene, there isn’t much of a sense of conclusion. Just lots of set up for future seasons.

The writers clearly intend to adapt the rest of the book series, and this desire may have hurt the first season, with them being too focused on what’s coming rather than telling a good story right now. But the show’s future is uncertain. It’s not yet been renewed and Netflix have an increasingly poor track record for this. The first season also suffers from issues that plague much of the service’s output: it looks every expensive but also very cheap at the same time. The less said about the CGI chimp the better. To do the books right, the show will have to get exponentially more expensive as it continues. The story tackles huge ideas with real scale. It’s not just hanging around a beach house for whole episodes. The coming transition from soft sci-fi to hard sci-fi requires a big commitment.

The books are all about ideas. Scientific, astronomical, and philosophical. The titular ‘three body problem’ is just the first such idea, and the simplest. Choosing the title of the first book as the show’s title will soon feel out of date, the story’s already done with that concept. The characters of the novels exist purely to present these ideas, a viewpoint to experience them. For western readers, this is the biggest drawback of the books. The characterisation is sparse and, often, genuinely poor, although this does improve as the trilogy progresses. The show is different. The ideas are pushed to the side and instead it desperately wants the viewer to be invested in the characters. I was shocked how quickly the show rushed past the creation of the sophons, for example, taking pages of mind-blowing material from the novel and quickly showing it in one quick shrug of a scene.

I’ve seen people say that the show splits the novel’s protagonist into five characters. This isn’t true. Clearly those people have only read the first book. 3 Body Problem simply introduces all the main characters from the trilogy earlier. Characters from the second and third books are included in the adaptation of the first, so new protagonists are being introduced each season. Most of the character translations are clear:

Saul Durand is Luo Ji

Auggie Salazar is Wang Miao

Jin Cheng is Cheng Xin

Will Downing is Yun Tianming

Raj Varma is Zhang Beihai

Ye Wenjie, Da Shi, Mike Evans, and Thomas Wade all keep their names from the books. Introducing Wade much earlier is a good decision, creating conflict between the humans throughout the show rather than just in the final novel. I’m eager to see his involvement in the second book’s Wallfacer story, considering he’s a self-prescribed ‘Great Man’ rather than having it thrust upon him. I also like the character of Jack Rooney from the first season. It’s both a good change from the book and a very silly one. It’s hilarious that the millionaire friend of Yun Tianming from Death’s End, who only features very briefly for the purpose of giving him money to buy a star, is a co-lead for the season’s first half. 

Mike Evans however is kind of a non-entity, fulfilling his role to the minimum extent and then leaving/being cut into pieces. He’s not in the novel a whole lot either but the ETO were wasted in this adaptation. Simplified to a point of irrelevancy. There are no factions or infighting. They are eliminated and then brought back in the finale with the random shooter I thought would be Tatiana in this version of the story. She’s kept around, probably to be a Wallbreaker in season 2. There’s very little to that character, I kept expecting a reveal that never came. Thankfully, we get an early introduction to Sophon, who is currently a digital being acting as an avatar for the San Ti rather than the android she’ll become when we fast-forward through the centuries.

The sophons themselves are confusing, and I’ve read the books. I do like that there are only two but they seem far too overpowered. Suppressing scientific advancement is their key aim, and the most damaging. The visions they create for Wade at the end of the finale pushes them too far for me. They can project images of screaming eyeless people and can mess with electrical systems on planes? I guess the sophons are just moving incredibly fast in Wade’s eye to create these visions, like they do with the countdown, and that’s how they also hide Tatiana on the security cameras? But if they can turn off electronics and threaten to crash a plane, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t do that. Wade’s a dangerous enemy and if they can kill him, they would. The point it that should be beyond their capability or all the rules are broken.

Out of these character translations, Raj as Zhang Beihai is the only I’m somewhat unsure of. He’s certainly in a position where he could continue as that character, who only features in the second book, The Dark Forest. He’s the only real military figure in the show, and they’ve set up that his father was also a military man, like the in the novel. I hope to see his meteorite gun in season 2, that scene is a real highlight of the novels, as well as his ultimate role of taking control of a spaceship and fleeing.

Considering Raj/Zhang was introduced earlier in the show than the books, he may survive longer for season 3. I could see his ship, Natural Selection, being the victor of the ‘dark forest battle’ instead of Blue Space in order to allow a character we know to tell the Death’s End story of the fourth dimensional space being discovered rather than having to introduce a new character. Maybe he could survive to the very end, also taking the role of Guan Yifan, living in the mini universe with Jin. Guan Yifan always seemed like a strange choice to take on such a large role in the trilogy’s final few chapters.  

The season did a decent job of having Saul be a background character until he was suddenly thrust into a leading role in the finale, setting the stage for The Dark Forest. Although he was presented as a very TV version of an aloof depressed man, with all the cliches of taking drugs and sleeping around. There is the interesting reveal that there is one less Wallfacer in the show than in the book, a choice that shows the writers have already decided how they will adapt this story, including what to eliminate. Saul was only told a bad joke by Ye Wenjie in their graveside conversation in the show, rather than the beginnings of the dark forest hypothesis, but I imagine this is just an additional layer of obfuscation and there is a hidden meaning within that will lead him on that same path. I hope so anyway, because the idea coming from Ye is important as her final act of redemption for her past decisions.

Auggie may have been Wang Miao in the first season but I imagine moving forward she’ll be more of a composite character. For season 2, she can take on the role of Zhuang Yan, the lover of Saul/Luo Ji. That character is perhaps the worst part of the book, perhaps trilogy, being some literal dreamt-up male fantasy, and using Auggie would be an improvement. Her decision to hibernate to force Saul to work would be good drama. Or, and I don’t really believe this, she could take on Ding Yi’s role, but Eiza González is the least believable scientist since Christmas Jones. If she is Ding Yi then it would give the show a meaningful death to kick off the droplet attack, the big set piece for season 2. Or, more likely, she is Zhuang Yan for season 2 and then survives to take the role of 艾AA for the events of Death’s End, running a company like she refused to at the end of the first season.

Da Shi is perhaps the character highlight of the novels and now the show too; even giving him the first name Clarence can’t change that. I imagine a second season will follow his role in The Dark Forest closely. The show has already set up his son’s escapist venture and his role as head of security for Saul. He’ll also prove useful as an audience surrogate, a sounding board for big concepts to be explained simply enough for him, and us, to understand. I imagine he’ll hibernate into the future with Saul, although he doesn’t have a medical reason for it. He could be diagnosed with cancer in season 2 but he wasn’t exposed to radiation in the first like he is in the book. I’m eager to see his fate past that point. He retires at the end of book two and isn’t featured in Death’s End. Perhaps he’ll be killed off instead but I imagine he’ll return for a third season, perhaps to oppose Wade when his boss starts murdering people.

It’s not so much character fates in question but rather the structure of the plot across the next two (or three) seasons. I imagine the opening episodes of the second season, maybe half the season, will be set in the present day. The schemes of the other two Wallfacers could be revealed, Saul could come up with the dark forest hypothesis and send his spell into space, the fleet could begin construction, and hibernation could be fully developed (I like that this was begun in the first season, unlike the books where the pivotal technology just exists already). Then the second half could take place 200 years in the future, with all the underground cities with giant tree buildings, droplet interceptions, ship battles, and dark forest deterrence readers of the books could hope for.

Maybe I’m naïve but I want the end of book 2 to be the end of season 2. The threat of sending the coordinates of Trisolaris, and therefore Earth, is a huge development. The fate of two worlds hang on the push of a button. It needs to be treated as the significant event it is and that’s where the season should end. Deterrence can’t be founded and the gravitational wave antenna created in one episode and then immediately used in the next. The show should come back in season 3 with decades having passed, to continue the story with the Swordholder transition.

But, I admit, that keeps an awful lot of story back for a third season. If it is a book a season, outside of the first season’s last few episodes, then that’s too much for eight episodes. Should they make a head start? End the second season with the second Trisolaran/San Ti fleet launching, humanity losing, forced into Australia, and then season 3 begins with Gravity sending the signal? I hope not. The ending of The Dark Forest is just too important to be rushed through. Instead, I’m hoping that season 3 is either longer or the third book is split into two seasons, with the show ending with season four.

But the show introducing characters earlier into the story than the books does raise a big question: what will Jin be doing next season? She’s a co-lead of the show but her story doesn’t really begin again until the end of the ‘Deterrence Era’. Maybe she takes on the role of the missing Wallfacer, just without the title, being the show’s version of Bill Hynes. Or perhaps Wade will be the one behind the mind control/suggestibility device and she’ll be against it. Or her study into light speed travel could begin early.

I really don’t know what Jin will be doing in season 2, but I doubt she’ll hibernate through the whole thing. She has her relationship with Raj but there’s very little chemistry there. It barely felt like they were a couple in the first season. Even though she probably won’t sit the season out, I imagine Will won’t appear. We don’t need to adapt Redemption of Time, it’s unnecessary. All the set up with him is done, the first season had plenty of him reading fairy tales and dreaming of origami boats. Now we need to sit with the loss ready for the big reveal in season 3 that he’s alive and with the San Ti.

The need to give Jin something to do next season is the biggest argument I can think of for why the writers would want to push through The Dark Forest and start adapting the bulk of Death’s End sooner rather than later. I want to feel the difference in the eras, to see society change, and not condense events. As much as I’m a fan of Jovan Adepo, an actor from one of my favourite shows, The Leftovers, I’d like to see a different, much older actor portray Saul in season 3 with the character having been the Swordholder for decades before Jin is reawakened. We need to feel the passage of time and the centuries, and, ultimately, billions of years this story is told across. But I think the coming seasons of 3 Body Problem, if indeed they do come, might pain book readers with the practicalities, and impracticalities, of television production and adaptation.

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