Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is Proving Problematic for Chinese Viewers

The show has received a mixed reaction, winning new fans overseas while frustrating Chinese netizens

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5:14 PM HKT, Mon April 1, 2024 1 mins read

In the two weeks since its release, Netflix’s adaptation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, stylized as 3 Body Problem, has divided audiences on both sides of the Pacific. Google Reviews for the show display a predominance of five-star and one-star ratings, suggesting that there’s little middle ground in reactions in the show. Meanwhile, on Douban, the IMDB or Letterbox equivalent for Chinese film and TV buffs, the eight-episode adaptation has received an average rating of 6.7, comparing poorly with the 8.7 received by Tencent’s 36-episode Chinese-language version, which was released last year. Many Chinese viewers took issue with changes to the setting, characters, and plot in the Netflix series, which they perceived to be driven by Western or American ideology.

Chinese netizens have voiced their frustration over the omission of key plot points. As one disappointed netizen commented, “[the show’s] simplification is unbelievable. It’s more like the fusion of Star Trek and Harry Potter.” Fans of the original book were also upset with the change in setting from China to the UK, and the replacement of protagonist Wang Miao with five different characters, the Oxford Five.

Some netizens were more understanding of these and other changes, pointing out that the simplification of complex philosophical and scientific concepts for the sake of a more digestible TV show might invite more people to read the original novel by drawing them in without overwhelming them right way. Also, transforming Wang Miao into the multi-ethnic Oxford Five (one of them still of Chinese background) to foster wider representation is fairly standard procedure for an American TV show in 2024.

However, it seems like the problems with the show go beyond basic issues to be expected with any adaption. Wang Miao’s replacement with the Oxford Five alters the tenor of the story — obstacles that in the book are overcome through intellectual solutions are instead resolved through on-screen romance. Similarly, the portrayal of Ye Wenjie (the disillusioned scientist who summons the “San-Ti” aliens to earth) as speaking in American colloquialisms and profanities jars with her characterization in Liu’s novels.

Furthermore, the series’ special effects are underwhelming considering its 160 million USD production budget. The collapse of Operation Guzheng, a complicated attempt to stop human followers of the San-Ti while retrieving their data, looks obviously computer-generated.


Operation Guzheng’s collapse in Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. Image via Bilibili.

As a Chinese novel adapted into a major Western television series, the success of The Three-Body Problem remains a major accomplishment. However, the discrepancies between the original book and the Netflix show — not to mention why Tencent’s earlier adaptation was not more widely promoted overseas — illustrate the continued gap between Chinese and Western popular culture.

Banner image via Netflix.

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