“There’s always trepidation that comes with adapting a large-scale project,” D.B. Weiss, co-showrunner of “Game of Thrones,” told TheWrap when asked about adapting “3 Body Problem” in a post-“Thrones” finale world. “If there’s not, you’re doing something wrong.”

Weiss, his “Thrones” cohort David Benioff and Alexander Woo are certainly right to feel some anxiety around their new drama for Netflix, which premieres on Thursday. Much like the “Game of Thrones” source material, Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novels fall into a category of books that are so ambitious and complex they seem nearly impossible to bring to screen. Only this time, replace dragons and incestual families with physics lectures and tack on a reported $20 million per episode price tag.

But there is one overwhelming narrative lurking over “3 Body Problem,” which hit Netflix on Thursday, that “Game of Thrones” never faced: the power of Weiss and Benioff’s reputation. The showrunner duo steered the fantasy epic series to critical acclaim and wide appeal, but also oversaw a final season marred by controversy.

“The expectation is very high. If you created the most successful series in the world, to then, ‘OK, what’s next guys?’” Stefen Fangmeier, who worked as the VFX supervisor on both “3 Body Problem” and “Game of Thrones,” told TheWrap. “We certainly were aware of that.”

So what happens when a seemingly impossible-to-adapt book is paired with a creative duo that needs a win and a streamer hungry for its next big-budget sci-fi play? Welcome to the universe of “3 Body Problem.”

3 Body Problem
Jess Hong as Jin Cheng (Netflix)

Netflix needs “3 Body Problem” to be a multi-season hit

Back in 2019, Benioff and Weiss inked an exclusive deal with Netflix that was reportedly worth $200 million. And now is a great time for Netflix to launch a mega-genre hit from the showrunners best known for the format.

“They’ve gotten religious on this that it’s the quality of the content, not the volume,” Alicia Reese, vice president of equity research for Wedbush Securities, told TheWrap. “That combination of highly valuable original IP, along with really strong, licensed content, is what really keeps people on that platform and keeps people from churning out.”

As “Game of Thrones” and “Stranger Things” have proven, when big genre shows hit, they move the viewership needle in a major way. Criticized though it was, the series finale of “Game of Thrones” was the most-watched episode in the history of HBO, bringing in 13.6 million live viewers the night it aired in 2019. Similarly, four genre titles can be found on Netflix’s list of its all-time most watched English-language TV titles: “Wednesday” (252.1 million views), “Stranger Things 4” (140.7 million views), “Stranger Things 3” (94.8 million views) and “The Witcher” Season 1 (83 million views). 

Despite these impressive numbers, the streamer’s tentpole genre shows are in a precarious place and Netflix is itching for another water cooler hit. “Stranger Things” is expected to come to an end in 2025, and though Season 1 of “The Witcher” was well-watched, subsequent seasons and spin-offs of the fantasy video game adaptation haven’t been as successful.

There have been recent additions that look promising for Netflix. “Wednesday” was clearly a hit with viewers and is moving forward with a second season. The highly ambitious and relatively family friendly adaptations of “One Piece” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” have also been successful for the streamer, both earning additional seasons — “Avatar” even received a coveted two-season pickup. And there’s always “Squid Game.” The South Korean mega-hit is expected to return for its highly anticipated second season sometime in 2024. 

But subsequent seasons for these new freshman series have yet to be tested.

“3 Body Problem” — which Weiss, Benioff and Woo hope will run three or four seasons to complete the story — may be one of its best bets in the hopper, and while Netflix has the luxury of multiple irons in the fire, this is a key moment for Benioff and Weiss.

3 Body Problem
Benedict Wong as Da Shi (Netflix)

The “Game of Thrones” duo feels the heat

In 2015, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss weren’t just the showrunners of “Game of Thrones.” They were the winners of it. That year the HBO drama broke a Guinness World Record for the highest number of Emmy Awards wins for a single season and series, taking home 12 of its 24 nominations for Season 5, which ended on the cliffhanger of Jon Snow’s death. It seemed as though Benioff and Weiss were able to do anything they wanted in Hollywood and fans would follow. 

That freedom was tested in the summer of 2017 with “Confederate.” Set in an alternative history where the American Civil War ended in a stalemate and slavery was legal, the drama was supposed to be Benioff and Weiss’ next big HBO project after “Thrones.” Instead, it was essentially criticized out of existence; after years of behind-the-scenes development, HBO confirmed the project was canceled in January of 2020.

Then there was Season 8 of “Thrones.” Throughout its nearly decade-long run, the show consistently earned a Certified Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes — often hitting the mid 90s. The divisive final season currently stands at 55% on the platform. 

John Bradley attends the Los Angeles debut of Netflix's "3 Body Problem"

As intense as the backlash to the “Game of Thrones” ending may have been, it didn’t stop Hollywood from continuing to bet on Benioff and Weiss. In 2018, the duo were tapped by Disney to write and produce a new series of “Star Wars” films after the end of their HBO mega-hit. A year later they left “Star Wars” over creative differences (their project was scrapped entirely), and jumped from WarnerMedia to a $200 million exclusive deal at Netflix. Benioff previously told The Wall Street Journal they chose to leave Warner due to the “dysfunction” at the company around the time of its AT&T acquisition. “Finding the smoothest ride in the ocean was key,” he said.

To date, the Netflix deal has led to one series released nearly three years ago — the Sandra Oh-led dramedy about academia, “The Chair,” which Netflix canceled in 2023 after one season — and “3 Body Problem.” For Weiss and Benioff, Netflix’s latest big-budget drama isn’t just a buzzy title with prestigious source material. Like it or not, it’s become a question of whether these major creators can strike gold once again.

3 Body Problem
Eiza González as Auggie Salazar, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Saamer Usmani as Raj Varma, Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing (Netflix)

Writing (and rewriting) “3 Body Problem” for the modern age

“3 Body Problem” tells the story of scientists confronting a potential alien invasion that won’t happen for 400 years. The show spans multiple time periods, augmented realities and space — with some “Thrones”-level violence thrown in for good measure — to chronicle the reach (and limits) of humanity.

There’s a level of prestige floating around Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” that adds to the pressure for its creators and the streamer. Cixin’s first book in the series, translated by Ken Liu, became the first Asian novel ever to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel and was heralded by Barack Obama.

“This is the one novel that really changed a lot of people’s minds in terms of how science fiction can be serious literature,” director Derek Tsang, who worked on the first two episodes of the series, told TheWrap. “It’s really the one novel that put Chinese science fiction on the map.”

Before Benioff and Weiss even accepted Netflix’s multi-million dollar deal, Peter Friedlander, the vice president of scripted series for the company, recommended the duo read Cixin’s “Remembrances of Earth’s Past” trilogy (“3 Body Problem” is the first installment). It was also Friedlander who introduced the pair to Woo, who previously worked on “True Blood” and the critically-acclaimed second season of “The Terror.”

It’s not difficult to see why a Netflix executive would be interested in this particular story. “3 Body Problem” starts decades in the past with Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who watches the brutal murder of her father during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, an event that forever changes her. When she’s given a choice to contact an alien race and potentially doom humanity, she makes that choice without hesitation. Now in the modern day, a group of scientists are forced to confront humanity’s greatest threat as their science is hindered by otherworldly forces they cannot begin to understand. 

It’s a story with a scope that’s arguably grander than “Game of Thrones.” Pair that with its multiple pages explaining complex physics theory and characters that largely live in their own heads and you have exactly the kind of book that seems impossible to adapt for TV or film. 

D.B. Weiss and David Benioff

“The anxieties that come with [adapting ‘3 Body Problem’] are very different from the ones that came with [‘Thrones’]. Other than the fact that they’re both the kinds of books that get nominated for Hugo Awards, they really have very little else in common with each other,” Weiss said. “The main challenge we faced was how to ground this in people that we care about, how to give us human lenses through which to see and feel the story.” 

To address that concern, the trio expanded the main characters for their adaptation. The “Remembrances of Earth’s Past” trilogy jumps between several characters who rarely interact with each other. Weiss, Benioff and Woo remedied this by taking inspiration from 1983’s “The Big Chill” and creating the Oxford Five, a catchy name for a group of scientific genius BFFs and main characters in Season 1: Jess Hong’s Jin Cheng, Jovan Adepo’s Saul Durand, Eliza González’s Auggie Salazar, John Bradley’s Jack Rooney and Alex Sharp’s Will Downing.

“The novel form and the television form are fundamentally different, so doing an adaptation is not as easy as just cutting and pasting from one to the other,” Woo told TheWrap. “Having [these characters] intersect in our adaptation, that felt like a necessary and advantageous way for viewers to engage with the show because they care about the people at the heart of it. No matter what kind of whiz bang stuff we have, you care about it a lot more if you’re engaged with the characters.”

3 Body Problem
Yang Hewen as Bai Mulin, Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie (Netflix)

This expansion went hand-in-hand with the other major challenge this adaptation faced: Netflix’s rights. Because Netflix had the rights to Ken Liu’s English language translation of the China-set “3 Body Problem,” the creators were faced with a thorny issue. “It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense if you were doing everything in the People’s Republic of China and everyone is speaking English,” Woo explained.

The trio turned this logistical limitation into an opportunity. Whereas most of the “Remembrances of Earth’s Past” books are set in China with Chinese characters, Benioff, Weiss and Woo embraced Netflix’s expanding international reach to make their series more of a global story, which spans from London and New York City to rural China and Spain. 

Despite these varied locales, the trio ultimately decided to set and film their series predominantly in England. That locale made sense for the intellectual Oxford Five, while giving Weiss and Benioff a chance to “bring the band back together” from a production standpoint as “Thrones” was predominantly filmed in the U.K.

“This is a story about a global threat,” Woo said. “If it’s all the world on one side, let’s represent all the world. That allowed us to open up our show, set it in a place where English was the primary language that was spoken but have it be a melting pot.”

Though the series includes characters and actors from all over the world, the team took care to retain the characters that felt “at their heart very, very Chinese,” Woo said. 

This is the one novel that really changed a lot of people’s minds in terms of how science fiction can be serious literature.

director Derek Tsang

Benedict Wong, who plays the hardened and cynical investigator Da Shi, noted that the adaptation still contains a “spine of Asian characters,” though they appear more globalized in the series. Ye Wenjie is still Chinese in the series and spends most of her life in China, but Wong’s character grew up in Manchester, just like the actor who plays him.

“I thought [Da Shi] sounds quite like me. They copied my Wikipedia page and sent it to me,” Wong joked. “But Cixin has given his blessing to Dan, David and Alex to make their version of ‘3 Body’ and to make this a global story.”

There was also the scientific density of the source material to consider. The production team offered what Tsang called a “physics 101 class” that most people who worked on the series attended, and the team consulted with astrophysicist Matt Kinsey, who won the 2017 R. W. Hart Prize for Excellence in Independent Research and Development. Kinsey even made himself available on WhatsApp to Jess Hong, who portrays Jin Cheng, the character with the most physics lectures.

For VFX supervisor Fangmeier, known for his work on “Thrones” and Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air,” the series was both a “great creative challenge” and could feel like “hitting your head against the wall.”

“Some of the most visually challenging stuff was actually the most scientific stuff,” Fangmeier said. “What does it look like inside a particle accelerator as atoms are colliding? Or what does it look like when something unfolds from 10 dimensions down to two?”

There was another major factor that altered the course of the Netflix adaptation: COVID-19. Weiss, Benioff and Woo only met in person once before the pandemic caused the world to go into lockdown. When the world was faced with a global threat to humanity, the general public did not respond with the same sense of unity Cixin’s books portray.

“You look at the pandemic as something that maybe will bring the world together … Instead, it seemed like it split us even more than ever,” Benioff told TheWrap. “So, if aliens announced their presence — and even if it seemed like there’s no way someone could fake this giant eye in the sky, there’s no way all these things that are happening — a lot of people are not going to believe.”

Living through the pandemic paved the way for a more cynical take on the story while still keeping Cixin’s central story intact.

“Historically, in the last few years, we’ve seen that maybe we’re not so good at that,” Woo said. “But in this particular case, maybe an alien invasion can bring us all together.”

Maybe in the process, it can also deliver Netflix’s next big hit.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

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