The Three-Body Problem: Tencent vs. Netflix? Fight! Fight! Fight!

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin's epic Science Fiction novel is in a unique person of having two different TV adaptations in the works, a Chinese version produced by Tencent and a Western version produced by Netflix. We were the first outlet to run a piece highlighting the trailer for the Tencent version – and with English subtitles – outside of Asia.

It took a few days for the US media, especially the Hollywood trades, to pick up on the release of Tencent's trailer for The Three-Body Problem. Variety is the first to not just link to the trailer but just had to stir up a "Let's us and them FIGHT!" article. This is sort of interesting but also disingenuous considering the current anti-China sentiment in America being pushed by the media. This really is just a fight between Chinese Science Fiction fans and American Science Fiction fans, and the Chinese fans outnumber the American fans by probably a few tens of millions. Most American viewers won't even know or care that the Chinese version exists if they're interested in watching it at all.

The Three-Body Problem: Tencent Releases First Trailer of TV Series
"The Three-Body Problem" key graphic courtesy of Tencent

"'Three-Body' is a story full of Chinese elements told by we Chinese from our Chinese perspective and ways of thinking …to express Chinese people's values, worldview and view of the universe. These things are very hard for foreigners to express — only we are able to do it," one popular comment said in response to Tencent's Weibo post about the trailer. Chinese fans were not impressed that out of 12 cast announcements for the Netflix version, only 30% were actors of Asian descent. Who were the non-Asian actors going to play in the show? Are the major roles going to be changed into Americans in the Netflix version? Is it even going to be set in China at all?


The real issue here is authenticity. The Three-Body Problem is a massive Science Fiction epic that is specifically Chinese. It has a Chinese point of view. The Cultural Revolution is a crucial part of the story – that dark chapter in Chinese history that traumatized entire generations, whose scars are still felt today, which is why It's a crucial part of the story's opening. The astrophysicist whose loss and trauma from the Cultural Revolution is what kicks off the entire story. She sends the signal into space, responding to the alien signal from the Trisolarians that results in their decision to invade Earth and those repercussions drive the story for decades, long after she's dead.

Some Chinese commentators on social media have doubts over whether that opening section of the book will depict the Cultural Revolution in all its horrors as it's a black spot in Communist Chinese history. "With the background of the Cultural Revolution, the mainland doesn't dare shoot it and foreign countries can't shoot it well," one Weibo poster wrote.

"Netflix has its strengths, and locally produced works have their own advantages," another commenter wrote. "The audiences for each are different."

That is true. The Netflix version of The Three-Body Problem will be for Americans who don't want to have to read subtitles.

So there's a concern about how authentically Chinese a Chinese story will be depicted. There's no doubt the Tencent version, a Chinese production written, directed, and acted by Chinese people, will at least feel like an insider's point of view. The Netflix version of The Three-Body Problem will be produced and run by the guys who made the universally-hated final season of Game of Thrones and sold a horrendously wrongheaded "What if the Confederates won the Civil War and Slavery is still a thing today?" show to HBO, which seems to have been mercifully, quietly dropped. The only answer to that pitch is "It would be horrible!" Why would anyone who's not a white supremacist want to watch an entire TV show about how horrible that would be? Everyone already knows that. Does anyone really think these white guys are going to pull off a good version of The Three-Body Problem?

The Tencent version of The Three-Body Problem is currently in postproduction and will probably premiere in 2022. The Netflix version will begin production sometime this year. The Chinese version will have virtually no impact on how many people watch the Netflix version because Netflix isn't available in China. It'll be interesting to watch both versions and see how they compare, if we have the time.

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About Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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