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Netflix decision to adapt Chinese novel ‘The Three-Body Problem’ garners controversy

While the book drew interest from several studios and production companies in China, attempts to turn it into a domestic blockbuster have failed.

Streaming giant Netflix announced September 1 it will adapt The Three-Body Problem trilogy, the acclaimed Chinese sci-fi novel, into an original series with an all-star crew. While the news excited fans around the world, some question how the film will adapt the book, render its Chinese elements, and whether it will be a boost or a bust for the country’s fledgling sci-fi film industry.

The series will be led by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and The Terror: Infamy‘s Alexander Woo. Director Rian Johnson, producer Ram Bergman, and Brad Pitt are also onboard. Liu Cixin, the author of the trilogy, and the book’s translator, Ken Liu, will serve as consulting producers.

The Three-Body Problem series, previously titled Remembrance of Earth’s Past, is an epic work of hard sci-fi with The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels The Dark Forest and Death’s End, spanning from the 1960s when the Cultural Revolution took place in China to the end of the solar system. The book was first serialized in China from 2006 and published in the US in 2014. Liu became the first Asian writer to win a Hugo Award and gained a large following worldwide, with fans including Barack Obama and James Cameron.

“I’m optimistic towards Netflix’s production, but with caution,” said Jiang Zhenyu, a member of China Science Writer Association’s Sci-Fi Committee, who is China’s first Ph.D. specializing in sci-fi literature.

The book, by Liu Cixin, was first serialized in China from 2006 and published in the US in 2014. Now Netflix will adapt it into an original series.  Source: Screenshot from Bilibili.

While Netflix can help the book reach a broader audience, though adapting the book may create some challenges.

Produced by Netflix, the series will mainly target Western viewers. Therefore, it’s very likely that the series based on a story with a strong Chinese historical context can’t meet the high expectations of Chinese book fans. Netizens on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, also worry they will be similarly disappointed by Benioff and Weiss as many fans felt the ending of Game of Thrones was rushed.

Doubts about the adaptability of the work also abound. Since The Three-Body Problem was published, the book drew interest from several studios and production companies. However, a film that was planned to be premiered in 2016 went to cinemas and an adapted play got lukewarm reactions. More are in production. Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili earlier in March released an animated series inspired by the book, named My Three-Body: The Legend of Zhang Beihai (a heroic character in the book) and plans to release a fully-animated adaptation in 2021.

Last year, The Wandering Earth, which was adapted from another of Liu’s stories, became a blockbuster hit, prompting some to call 2019 “the first year of Chinese sci-fi”.

Despite The Wandering Earth’s success, the sci-fi industry in China is still in its early stage of development.

There is a huge gap between US sci-fi movies, and China does not have a complete industrial system like the US,” said Liu in a conversation with Cameron last year. “We also lack high-quality original content currently,” he added.

The China Film Administration and the China Association for Science and Technology recently published a list of ten guidelines specifically targeting the development of Chinese sci-fi films. It covers a wide range of areas that include cultivating industry talent and original screenplays, as the country aims to boost the sci-fi film sector.