‘3 Body Problem’ Showrunners Break Down Their Process for Adapting the Unadaptable | Book to Screen

In TheWrap’s new video series, the creators unpack the challenges of turning an epic sci-fi trilogy into a TV show

The Netflix sci-fi series “3 Body Problem” presented a number of challenges for its creators, but one of the biggest – and simplest – was merely adapting the complicated books at the root of its source material. Author Liu Cixin’s series of books were a smash hit when they were released between 2006 and 2010, winning awards and earning a spot on President Obama’s coveted reading list, but the trilogy is a dense tome that was very much written to be read, not made in real life.

“There were many things in the original novels that we were excited to adapt, there were many things in the original novels that we were terrified of adapting, and usually those two were the exact same things,” co-creator and co-showrunner D.B. Weiss explained during TheWrap’s inaugural Book to Screen video series, presented by Netflix.

To put the basic plot in simple terms, the story follows a group of scientists and individuals who discover that an alien race is coming to Earth to take over the planet, but they won’t arrive for 450 years. Humanity must then band together to prepare for a war that most of them will never actually see.

Creators Weiss, Benioff and Alexander Woo are no strangers to tough adaptations — Weiss and Benioff steered “Game of Thrones” through the entirety of that show’s run and Woo worked on “True Blood” — and Woo said a major lesson they had all learned previously that they applied to this adaptation was a focus on character.

“We had a steep learning curve, despite the fact that we had adapted novels in the past,” Woo said. “I think the one thing we brought to it that we all have in common is a focus on character, so that when all the crazy stuff starts happening down the road, it’s happening to people you care about.”

One of the biggest changes they made in their adaptation was choosing to adapt all three books of Cixin’s trilogy at the same time and bringing all the disparate characters together.

“The books work beautifully in their own right, but for the TV series to succeed they have to know each other,” Benioff said. “Some of those characters from the first book never appear in Books 2 and 3. Some of the characters from the second book aren’t in the first book, and the main characters in the third book aren’t in Books 1 and 2. We just decided to adapt the entirety of the story as opposed to getting too high bound by the trifurcation of the novels.”

But the adaptation’s challenges weren’t just character-based – the books also present scenes that are difficult to bring to life on screen. One such scene was Judgment Day, in which nanotechnology is used to destroy a ship, slicing hundreds of people into bits with invisible wires.

Weiss explained: “Judgment Day was something we knew we had to get to, and we had do justice to and it would involve a lot of very complicated meetings about what’s real and what’s not real and how do you make it all flow together as one of a horrifying, thrilling sequence?”

“I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything like it,” visual effects producer Steve Kullback said. “The idea of nanotechnology and having a hot wire so precise that you don’t even know it’s working when it’s working. And in order to sell that conceit, our VFX supervisor Stefen Fangmeir felt that the weight of the ship on itself wouldn’t move or adjust in any way until it hit the shore and then the topmost bits would slice off.”

Jonathan Pryce in "3 Body Problem"
Jonathan Pryce in “3 Body Problem” (Netflix)

With Netflix granting “3 Body Problem” two more seasons to complete the adaptation, Benioff, Weiss and Woo are eager to move even deeper into the novels.

“These books had amazing possibilities for an adaptation, the likes of which, when it’s done, we hope no one will have ever seen before,” Weiss said. “But it also had a lot of things that needed to be adapted. The medium we’re working in is about people interacting with other people. So, you really care about the people who are getting dragged into the fifth dimension.”

Derek Tsang, who directed the first two episodes of Season 1, echoed a point many have said which is that the books get better as they go along. “It gets crazier and crazier, and I don’t think the audience has a good idea of what’s coming,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the adaptation gets any easier.

Benioff added, “There are events in the later seasons that I’m most intimidated about adapting because there are certain story points when you’re reading it with an eye towards adapting it for television, you’re thinking, ‘How are we going to make this work on screen?’ The things that you’re most afraid about are also the ones that are most exciting because it gets your adrenaline pumping.”

“3 Body Problem” is streaming on Netflix.

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