‘3 Body Problem’: How the Netflix Drama Differs from the Original Book

[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” and Cixin Liu’s “Three-Body Problem,” the book on which it is based.]

Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” is based on a wildly popular book series by Cixin Liu — but how close does it come to the source material? Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have experience adapting dense novels with “Game of Thrones” — but they’ve also been in the position of having to branch away from the original text and disappointing audiences as a result. “3 Body Problem,” which they co-created and executive produce with Alexander Woo, could face the same issues.

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The sci-fi drama begins with a woman named Ye Wenjie, whose father is killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Wenjie ends up working at a mysterious military base which she eventually learns is trying to make extraterrestrial contact, and her work there ripples into the present, when a group of scientists connect the base’s work to mysterious deaths in their community.

In IndieWire’s review of the show, Ben Travers noted the challenge that these creators face, bringing “detailed explanations of interstellar travel and multi-dimensional theory” to the screen in a way that viewers have to find compelling. That effort, he wrote, is “at times disorienting in its use of inconsistent CGI to convey the story’s momentousness and aggravating in its approach to character development and existential quandaries.”

So how does “3 Body Problem” line up with Cixin Liu’s first novel in the series? Let’s break down the major changes.

The Newbies

By now you may have learned that Jack (John Bradley), Auggie (Eiza González), Jin (Jess Hong), Saul (Jovan Adepo), Raj (Saamer Usmani), and Will (Alex Sharp) are all new characters in the world of “3 Body” — but what you may not know is that they’re all kind of the same character. The present-day protagonist in Liu’s novel is Wang Miao, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who knows the older Wenjie (played by Rosalind Chao in the series). Both book and series recount the death of Wenjie’s daughter, but Wang is her former associate (who more than likely had feelings for her), while the new characters are her pupils (and one conspicuously hot navy officer boyfriend). In the book, Wang is the nanotechnologist, the one who sees a mysterious countdown, the one who visits Wenjie, the one who becomes engrossed in the Three-Body gameplay. He and he alone is recruited by Da Shi (Benedict Wong) and eventually roped into strategic response to the incoming invasion. So if it feels a little too contrived or convenient that this entire friend group (and Raj!) get recruited to save the planet in “3 Body Problem,” that’s why.

“Silent Spring”

“3 Body Problem” most closely follows its source material in telling Wenjie’s story at the Red Coast Base, but one key detail sets up her actions and didn’t make it into the series. In Episode 1, Wenjie receives “Silent Spring” and reads aloud, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” She ostensibly finds resonance in this sentence, which comes up multiple times throughout the series, but the sentiment could be used to both undermine and bolster her disdain for humanity; humans don’t exist alone, but as a communal species — but they also aren’t alone in the universe, and must behave accordingly.

In Liu’s novel, Wenjie reads and rereads the book, and fixates on this passage:

“It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”

Wenjie’s early exposure to this idea, as well as her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, significantly inform the decision she makes in establishing contact with extraterrestrial life.

The Murders

When the Red Coast Commissar finds out about Wenjie’s contact with aliens (though not details of her message to them), and she decides to kill him in order to kill the trail. When her husband and colleague (and the father of her child) follows the Commissar out on a ruse errand, she doesn’t hesitate to kill them both. This entire chilling subplot — which, like the chosen snippet of “Silent Spring,” says a lot about Wenjie’s character — did not make it into the show.

A young woman sitting at a viewfinder and twisting to look back over her shoulder suspiciously; still from '3 Body Problem'
Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in ‘3 Body Problem’ED MILLER/NETFLIX

Whoever Is Out There

“3 Body Problem” is not the show to watch or the book to read if you want detailed visuals about alien lifeforms — but it does give the audience enough information about this distant civilization to inspire both excitement and fear. On both page and screen, the “3 Body Problem” game is full of hints; the aliens exist on a planet close to three suns, and its population is born and reborn based on the suns’ movements, building civilization anew each time. In multiple Chinese dialects, these people are known as san-ti ren, or trisolar people; shortened to San-Ti in the series and translated to Trisolarans in Ken Liu’s translation of the book.

And though the book also doesn’t describe the physical look of Trisolarans or their planet, there are additional details disclosed throughout the investigation into Wenjie’s organization. Trisolarans measure time in Trisolaran hours and not any other unit, because of the instability of units like days and years with their multiple suns.


In the English translation, Wenjie and her growing group of comrades are known as the Earth Trisolaris Organization, or ETO — but they’re far from united. Factions bubble up within the group despite Wenjie’s intentions; the Adventists, the Redemptionists, and the Survivalists. Adventists want the destruction of humanity and Trisolaran superiority; Redemptionists treat Trisolarans like gods and are the most like religious followers; and Survivalists are willing to throw others under the bus to save themselves and their descendants when the San-Ti arrive.


As dense as some of the scientific explanations in “3 Body Problem” are, the details about Trisolaran sophons take up an entire chapter. Without the minutiae, omniscient multidimensional protons do seem a little convenient, but they are part of Liu’s text. Sophons are the reason the universe flickered, the reason for the countdown and the eye in the sky, and the technological mystery behind how Mike Evans (Jonathan Pryce) can communicate with the San-Ti in real time. Everything is sophons!

Judgment Day

The ship-slicing sequence mostly follows the book (right down to the unfortunate first casualty: a hose), but it felt worth noting that there aren’t innocent people children on board in that version.

“3 Body Problem” is now streaming on Netflix.

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