How Game of Thrones and 3 Body Problem are telling the same story

David Benioff and Dan Weiss wanted to make 3 Body Problem on Netflix because it was nothing like their last show, Game of Thrones. But they share one big theme in common.
3 Body Problem : Game of Thrones.png
3 Body Problem : Game of Thrones.png / 3 Body Problem. Sea Shimooka as Sophon in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023 / Kit Harington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. Courtesy HBO

Created by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, Game of Thrones was an epic fantasy show that ran for eight seasons on HBO, becoming a wildly popular cultural phenomenon in the process. The show had dozens of plotlines and characters, but if there was one overarching question that connected everything, it was this: could the various factions of Westeros set aside their differences in the face of an existential threat represented by the White Walekrs, fearsome ice zombies from the far North? In the end, (some of) the Seven Kingdoms did work together long enough to prevent the eradication of humankind, but got back to tearing each other apart quickly thereafter, with one of the most outwardly heroic characters — Daenerys Targaryen — being responsible for the worst of the damage. All in all, the show had a pretty bleak outlook on the world and our place in it, even if humanity did survive.

More recently, just last month, Benioff and Weiss teamed up with True Blood showrunner Alexander Woo to release 3 Body Problem, a sci-fi series based on the Remembrance of Earth's Past book trilogy by Liu Cixin. On the surface, 3 Body Problem couldn't be more different from Game of Thrones, for obvious reasons; the one is set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe, where the characters are using swords and riding dragons; while the other is set on the planet Earth as we know it today, and characters are working with nano-technology and blasting off into the stars. Indeed, Dan Weiss said during an interview at SXSW that he and Benioff were drawn to 3 Body Problem in part because of how different it felt from Game of Thrones. And the prospect of not having to repeat "13 years in the mud trying not to get stepped on by horses" was appealing too.

That said, Weiss got the same feeling reading Liu Cixin's books as he did when reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books back in the day, a sense of, "I love this genre but I've never seen this genre done this way before." So while the trappings of the stories are very different, the feelings they inspired were "similar." And once you start looking at the overall arcs of Game of Thrones and 3 Body Problem, the similarities run deeper than that.

Game of Thrones, 3 Body Problem, humans and bugs

As I said, the central question of Game of Thrones is whether the squabbling rulers of the Seven Kingdoms can come together in the face of an existential threat. At the end, the show answers, "Yes, but barely." Something very similar is at issue in 3 Body Problem, which is about humanity's first contact with a hostile alien species called the San-Ti. The San-Ti are traveling to Earth from a nearby star system and will arrive in 400 years. Can humanity come together and resist a species so much more technologically advanced than us?

Once again, we see humanity divided against itself. Although most of our main characters are on board with trying to resist the alien threat, some come close to giving in to despair. And not all Earthlings want to resist. There's a cult of people who worship the San-Ti and actually work with them trying to bring down Earth's defenses. The fanatical Tatiana (Marlo Kelly) is the clearest example of this faction. Without getting into spoilers, the second season of 3 Body Problem — should Netflix be wise enough to greenlight one — will dig deeper into this theme as the show adapts the next two books in Liu Cixin's trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death's End.

Speaking about 3 Body Problem on the Happy Sad Confused podcast, Benioff zoomed in on this idea. "The three of us started planning this show...on Zooms while we were locked up in our separate houses...during the pandemic, and watching the world not come together in any meaningful way to combat this threat to the entire species," he said. "And certainly we've seen over the years the failure to come together in a meaningful way over global warming and over international conflict. As you say, it's very hard to be pollyannaish about it."

"[I]t did inform not only the skepticism about that, but also the skepticism about people's faith in science, and how there is a large part of the populace — maybe even the majority of the populace — that just doesn't really have faith in science, and doesn't really believe it when scientists say, 'This is happening, this is real.' The fact that temperatures are warmer now than they were 50 years ago, that's a real thing. A lot of people just don't buy it. So that informed a lot of decisions in terms of the writing. There's a giant eye in the sky! We all see it. It's up there. But a lot of people aren't gonna buy it or they're gonna think it's some kind of conspiracy."

Swap out some of the words, and this could be describing the themes of Game of Thrones. During that show's run, a popular take was that the White Walkers were a metaphor for climate change, and that the unwillingness of the Seven Kingdoms to come together to fight them reflected our own unwillingness to do something about this existential threat. Since then, we've only gotten more examples of how dangerous crises can divide people rather than bring them together. 3 Body Problem allows Benioff and Weiss to update and refine thematic questions they were already asking with Game of Thrones.

Whether it's the White Walkers or the San-Ti, both of these shows are about fearsome alien entities threatening to ground humanity to dust, and the only hope of resistance lies in the potential for people to stop bickering and work towards a common goal. That's the big thematic link I see between the two shows, one that Benioff and Weiss are clearly drawn toward. Will humanity escape by the skin of its teeth in 3 Body Problem like it did on Game of Thrones, or will the ending of this show be more optimistic? More pessimistic? You can read Liu Cixin's finished novel trilogy to find out how it all ends, and I'll keep hoping that Netflix gives 3 Body Problem more seasons so Benioff and Weiss can continue the conversation they started with Game of Thrones.

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