The Chinese sci-fi phenomenon known as The Three-Body Problem has so far defeated numerous attempts to turn the universe-spanning story into a big-screen blockbuster or a streaming hit. Some in China have even gone so far as to call such endeavors “cursed.”
Which is why the book’s Chinese fans praised Netflix’s courage when it announced this week it would give it a go, roping in the showrunners of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Alex Woo, another HBO veteran, to bring it to life. But whether the US production will be able to do justice to the sprawling tale—especially against the backdrop of US-China tensions—is a question that’s already worrying fans in China, where it sold more than a million copies.
Over three books, author Liu Cixin tells the story of the ultimate betrayal of humanity by a group of people who invite an alien invasion of Earth. The eponymous first book in the series was published in China in 2008, while an English translation appeared in 2014 from Tor Books and resonated with readers globally, including former US president Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It went on to win sci-fi writing’s most prestigious prize, the Hugo Award.
The trilogy’s success is due to its ambitious sweep—plot threads involve people from world history, global scientists working together to prevent the invasion, and fears over the environment that would be familiar anywhere—coupled with a plot whose momentum comes squarely from China’s past. The Cultural Revolution provides a character-defining moment for a key protagonist, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie, who sees her professor father beaten to death by teenage Red Guards in the 1960s. This leaves her so disillusioned she later initiates contact with extra-terrestrials hoping their arrival will redeem a planet that needs moral awakening.
Some on Chinese social media are already speculating that a US production will use the plot’s Chinese elements to “sabotage” China. The decade of the Cultural Revolution, meant to purify China’s communism, saw hundreds of thousands persecuted and killed for perceived ideological infractions—and left lasting trauma.
“Given the sensitivity of the book’s setting, I am worried China will be attacked thoroughly based on American values,” said another.
It’s certainly possible the production could draw on the tensions between US and China, and their battles over technology, to depict the central struggle between Earth and the more advanced planet of Trisolaris.
“As the rivalry between China and the US intensifies, the Western producer will definitely find ways to insert their beliefs in the series… Adding elements like gay people, ethnic minorities, freedom and democracy as well as American-style heroism,“said another user (link in Chinese) on Chinese social media Weibo, commenting on the adaptation.
An alternate worry is almost the opposite—the US adaptation could dispense with or downplay Chinese elements in favor of concerns closer to home for a US audience. What if, some fans wonder, the producers insert Black Lives Matter as a plot point into the story? For example, the scientist who invites the alien invasion because of her disillusionment with humanity could be cast as a Black woman who has lost her father to police brutality, rather than the Cultural Revolution. Or sociology professor Luo Ji, one of the four male protagonists who shoulder the task of saving humanity, could be cast as a white academic instead.
In some cases, the discussion over casting and plot changes devolved into mockery over US “political correctness”—references to Black Lives Matter on Chinese social media can often be pejorative for a combination of reasons. Racism or a superficial knowledge of US racial history is at play, coupled with an online narrative that describes US social justice movements as political extremism, comparable to, well, the Cultural Revolution.
For those who’ve read the books in the original Chinese, and imagined the scenes in their head, the reality that the Netflix production will be in English is another disappointment. Many will inevitably compare that with The Wandering Earth, a Chinese movie based on another story by Liu, in which China is the leading force in rescuing the human race from an unstable Sun that could soon engulf the Earth, while the US is irrelevant. The patriotic element of that movie, increasingly key to doing well at the Chinese box office, helped it to rake in around $650 million last year.
Yet the trilogy’s fans should take heart from the fact author Liu Cixin and translator Ken Liu will be consultants on the series so the trilogy’s spirit does not get lost in translation. In fact, noted translator Liu in an interview with Wired, the book’s English translation is in some ways closer to the writer’s vision than it could have been in China—that version begins with the Cultural Revolution, which is what the author had originally wanted to do, before burying those scenes deeper in the book to avoid controversy in China.
And for one contingent—Chinese women fed up of entertainment’s sexist tropes—drastic changes from the Chinese original could only make The Three-Body Problem better. “Female characters in his novels are either too vulnerable or trouble makers, as a woman, I really find it hard to like the [works],” wrote a user on Weibo. “Borrowing a sentence from someone else on The Three-Body Problem’s content: ‘Women create troubles, while men save the world.'”
The English translation of the books tackled some of this. Among the more than 1,000 edits to the second book in the series, The Dark Forest, the translators removed a description of the UN secretary general as a “beautiful woman,” and several references female characters as “angelic.” Many women say they didn’t go far enough.
“If the film version of the novel does not get rid of its sexist content, I really won’t able to watch it,” warned another female Weibo user.