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tv ‘Flat and Shallow’: Netflix’s 3 Body Problem Divides Viewers in China

Eight-episode series based on Liu Cixin novels triggers accusations of ‘Americanisation’ of a Chinese story

Reaction in China to Netflix’s 3 Body Problem has been mixed but widespread. ,Photograph: Ed Miller/Netflix

Netflix’s big-budget adaptation of Three-Body Problem, a series of novels by the Chinese author Liu Cixin, has divided opinion on Chinese social media.

The eight-episode series, 3 Body Problem, was released in full on Netflix on Thursday. It is based on the first book in Liu’s trilogy, an ambitious sci-fi series spanning civilisation from the 1960s to the end of humanity.

The TV series was co-created for Netflix by the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, and the True Blood writer Alexander Woo, working with the director Derek Tsang.

Reaction in China has been mixed but widespread, even though Netflix is not accessible behind the country’s firewall. By Friday morning, a 3 Body Problem hashtag on the microblogging platform Weibo had been read 2.23bn times and discussed 1.424m times.

Some have objected to Netflix’s taking of a largely Chinese story and moving a lot of the action to the UK, with an international cast. Others criticised the gender swap of the main character (although GQ reported the idea had been suggested by Liu to the showrunners).

The series creators have defended the casting. Netflix described 3 Body Problem as “purposefully global in nature”, spanning continents, cultures and timelines.

“We wanted people from all over the world,” Benioff said. “We tried to make this a very diverse, international cast to represent the idea that this isn’t just one country’s struggle – it’s a global struggle to survive.”

Some of the criticism has been embedded in geopolitical animosity towards the US, attracting nationalistic backlash and accusations of Americanisation of the story.

“Flat and shallow, the difficult concept of science fiction is roughly transformed into a simple visual spectacle,” said one commenter on Weibo, accusing the creators of “orientalising” the Chinese background story and making a Hollywood story of western heroism instead.

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Many Chinese viewers are likening it to a 2023 Chinese adaptation, produced by the Chinese tech company Tencent. Those who favour the latter have described Netflix’s work as “General Tso’s chicken” – a Chinese dish served in the US and rarely seen in China – compared to Tencent’s “banquet”.

Tencent’s series was released to US streaming audiences last month and is considered to be a more faithful adaptation of the books, albeit at a lengthy 30 episodes.

There were also social media discussions of the fact that Netflix has more creative and political freedom. “The biggest advantage Netflix’s version of Three-Body Problem has over the domestic version is no censorship, no taboos,” wrote one viewer.

The Netflix series opens with a scene of brutality: a Communist party struggle session during the Cultural Revolution targeting the father of the main character. The Tencent version depicts that time but is more muted.

The director of the Netflix series told Radio Free Asia it was becoming increasingly difficult to portray the period of the Cultural Revolution in China.

“But it is an important part of history and, if we are honest about it, we can all learn from it,” Tsang said. “It is very important to show everyone how ridiculous that period was.”

The books also treat the topic differently. The English translation of the first novel opens with the struggle session, while the Chinese version buries that scene in the middle, a decision Liu and his publishers reportedly made to make the book less politically sensitive in China.

Some viewers are happy to see the story shared with a broader audience. A Chinese film review site, Mtszimu, said the adaptation was “not only a new interpretation of Liu Cixin’s original work but also an important contribution to global science-fiction literature”.

One Weibo commenter said: “Everyone has a version of this interpretation in their own imagination. My personal attitude is more encouraging, after all, Three-Body Problem is the IP that we created. Now it goes to the world. I hope that this hit will have a greater echo and resonance.”

Chi Hui Lin contributed to this report

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