How the Game of Thrones showrunners are changing 3 Body Problem for TV

Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff and Dan Weiss got into trouble with fans when they changed things about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. On their new show, the changes start much earlier.

2020 Netflix SAG After Party
2020 Netflix SAG After Party / Michael Kovac/GettyImages

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are back with a new series: 3 Body Problem, an adaptation of Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past novel trilogy. The books, about an alien race that hopes to make Earth their new home, are challenging; there are a lot of characters, they take place over a huge span of time, and they engage directly with complicated areas of science like quantum mechanics and nanotechnology. The books are extremely popular, especially in China, but making them digestible onscreen is a challenge.

Still, Benioff and Weiss are used to challenges. There was a time when George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books were thought to be unfilmable, that worked out alright. For them, the challenge sounds like part of the point. “It was the first thing we’d come across since Thrones where we were actually scared," Benioff told The Hollywood Reporter. "We knew this is going to be hard.”

"[3 Body Problem is] much less about fighting tentacle monsters and much more about how does humanity respond to this great existential threat? And, sadly for us, in the last few years we’ve seen that mankind doesn’t respond particularly well to existential threats. It’s hard to be idealistic and think we’d all come together if we had to. The aliens appeal to certain people who believe they’re superior to us — and, technologically, they are."

In addition to the challenge posed by the story itself, Benioff and Weiss are under additional pressure because of their reputation: not only was Game of Thrones the biggest show of the 2010s, but it might be most famous for its ending, which disappointed many fans to the point of starting an online firestorm. So on the one hand, there's pressure to make something that can match Game of Thrones in terms of popularity and cultural impact, and on the other, there are a lot of people out there who, to put it simply, would like to see Benioff and Weiss fail. “It would be hard for us to feel more pressure than we already do,” Weiss said.

Although it'd be folly to try and boil down the backlash to the end of Game of Thrones to any one reason, many fans felt that the show started to decline in quality the further afield it went from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. Benioff and Weiss will start making changes to Remembrance of Earth's Past much earlier. That's something that author Liu Cixin signaled approval of from the beginning. “The first thing he said was what a big fan ofThrones he was,” said Alexander Woo, who will serve as showrunner on 3 Body Problem alongside Benioff and Weiss. “He then said, ‘I know you’re going to have to make a lot of changes.’ We had Liu’s blessing to adapt the show in the way that we saw fit.”

How is Netflix changing The Three-Body Problem for TV?

So how exactly will 3 Body Problem change the books? Let's start with all the science in this fiction. “A book can give you a little two-page physics lesson, but you can’t do that in a show without grinding the momentum of the show to a halt,” Weiss said. “We had to figure out how to represent things visually.” 

Hong Kong director Derek Tsang, who directed the first two episodes of 3 Body Problem, praised Beniof and Weiss for taking the complicated concepts in the books and rendering them more approachable. “I don’t think people understand how monumental the novel is in our part of the world,” he said. “It’s considered the sci-fi novel that made people aware of what the genre can be. But it’s not an easy read, and I give a lot of credit to David and Dan for making it more accessible. They also wanted to be as authentic as possible, and there’s no way I feel like they were appropriating our culture.”

The notes about authenticity and cultural appropriation bring up another issue: In Cixin's books, most of the characters are Chinese. And there will be plenty of Chinese characters in the show, but if you watch the trailer, you'll see an international cast at work, including Game of Thrones veterans John Bradley and Liam Cunningham.

So this show is taking a story largely set in China (at least in the first book) by a Chinese author featuring Chinese characters and repackaging it for a global audience, which in this case means casting actors of other races and making the show primarily in English. “It’s been our directive to do a global show from the beginning, and the Chinese-ness of the book’s philosophy is preserved in some of the characters," Woo said.

Cunningham, who played Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, thinks the kind of universal story Cixin is telling demands a more universal approach. “The diversity in the story is integral to the story,” he said. “If we’re doing a story about humanity, it should concern all of humanity, you know?” 

It's hard to know how all of this will go over without seeing the final show. Whatever happens, at this point Benioff and Weiss are pretty well armored against criticism, for better or worse. “During the first couple of seasons of Thrones, a lot of people were like, ‘Why didn’t they put in this scene?’ They wanted a literal adaptation of every single page,” Benioff said. “I always wondered, ‘Would people like that if they actually got it?’ Now we have that with this, where there’s one extremely faithful adaptation and then ours, which is less so, and others can judge how they stack up.”

Benioff is referring there to Three-Body, a Chinese adaptation of Cixin's books that premiered in January of last year. It's been pretty successful, and much more faithful than the Netflix show promises to a point, anyway. Ironically, while Three-Body follows a lot more of the exact plot beats of Cixin's story, it had to leave out some of the most important parts, like a depiction of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that took place in the '60s and '70s. In China, censorship laws prevent depictions of this turbulent period of history, although it's hard to picture an adaptation of Remembrance of Earth's Past that doesn't include it, since it's crucial to the story. Netflix is under no such restrictions, and will include these scenes.

So which adaptation will be truer to the source material? It may be a closer, and weirder, call than we think.

3 Body Problem is expected to run for four seasons

It also sounds like Benioff and Weiss have a long-term plan for how to adapt the whole of Cixin's trilogy. “The second book is far better than the first, and the third book just completely blew my mind,” Benioff said. “So I feel if we survive to the second season, we’re going to be in a good place. Things wildly escalate and there’s one scene, if we get to it, we’re golden — like when we got to the Red Wedding onThrones.”

According to THR, producers see this show running for four seasons. If the first book is indeed the weakest of the trilogy, maybe Benioff and Weiss figure they have to rearrange things to entertain people to the point to where they'll stick around for the best stuff. You can make up your own mind when 3 Body Problem drops on Netflix on March 21.

dark. Next. hp. Warner Bros. exec looks ahead to "tricky" casting process for Harry Potter TV show

To stay up to date on everything fantasy, science fiction, and WiC, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Get HBO, Starz, Showtime and MORE for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels