The Inverse Interview

How Game of Thrones’ Showrunners Made Netflix’s “Unadaptable” Sci-Fi Epic

The cast and creators of 3 Body Problem open up about translating Cixin Liu’s beloved novels to the screen.

Sea Shimooka as Sophon in '3 Body Problem.'
The Inverse Interview

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are beset with a “deep-seated masochism,” or so they tell Inverse. The co-creators of Game of Thrones already faced all the trials and tribulations of adapting a beloved, dense genre novel previously considered “unadaptable,” but they found themselves facing the same challenge once again with Netflix’s 3 Body Problem.

An ambitious sci-fi epic based on Cixin Liu’s award-winning Chinese novels, 3 Body Problem depicts Earth’s first encounter with an advanced alien species, who seem to be targeting humanity’s best scientists via a strange VR video game. The books redefined the hard science fiction game in 2008, and again in 2014 when the first of the trilogy was translated into English. But the story is often abstract and science-heavy — even the title is a reference to a physics problem, and the basic setup of the story involves extraterrestrial computers from higher dimensions manipulating Earth science with physics-defying, inter-dimensional protons. This would all make it a major challenge for anyone trying to adapt the trilogy into a TV show — even for the team behind Game of Thrones.

“I don’t know how we’re going to shoot things. So that’s scary.”

“I feel like they’re unadaptable in different ways,” Benioff says. “With Thrones, it was just the sheer scope of it. But I could still imagine a dragon, even if I’ve never seen a dragon. With [3 Body Problem] you’re getting into multiple dimensions, and it gets so mind-f*cky that I don’t know how we’re going to shoot things. So that’s scary.”

And yet, despite the fear, and the obvious challenge, 3 Body Problem makes its way to Netflix this week. But how did the creators and cast pull it off? It’s all about taking something huge and bringing it down to earth.

Mild spoilers ahead for 3 Body Problem Season 1.

New characters, old souls

The gang’s all here, but where did these characters come from?


For fans of the novels, the first and most obvious difference between The Three-Body Problem and Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is the characters. In the present-day sections of the show, we meet old college buddies Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), Jack Rooney (John Bradley), Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), Will Downing (Alex Sharp), and Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo). You won’t find these characters in Cixin Liu’s trilogy of novels, but in terms of plot and character arcs, each of them represents book characters — just not quite the way you might think. In the show, this gang of college friends, dubbed “The Oxford Five,” adapts a few POV characters from the various books.

Basically, the POV character from the first book, a somewhat bland nanotech researcher, Wang Miao, has been split up into three characters in the show: Auggie, Jack, and Jin. Meanwhile, Saul is a stand-in for Luo Ji, a major character from the second book, The Dark Forest. And, by the end of the show, Will takes on the story of Yun Tianming from the third and final book, Death’s End. Interestingly, in the final half of the series, Jin’s role becomes nearly identical to Cheng Xin from that same novel.

This might seem confusing, or even frustrating, for fans of the books, but co-showrunner Alexander Woo tells Inverse that it was a necessary change.

“You need to have three-dimensional characters that you go on the journey with from the very beginning,” Woo says. “But the novels are structured in a way more like a speculative history. You have some characters just appear and then they go off the board, and then new characters pop up and then they go off the board. Often people don't intersect at all.”

“You need to have three-dimensional characters that you go on the journey with from the very beginning.”

The 3 Body Problem showrunners wanted the audience to “really care about our characters.” So they created a dynamic between the main characters from all three novels, transforming them into a close-knit group of friends from Oxford reunited by this grand scientific conspiracy.

“They need to know each other, care about each other, and have relationships with one another,” Woo says, “or have a past with one another, or have opinions about one another.”

This idea of connectedness between the core characters inspired the creative team to “pull some of the major characters from books two and three into Season 1.” Woo also notes that in terms of future planning, this just makes sense down the line. “It would also be very odd when you're a couple of seasons in and hey, here's the new lead of your show.”

(It definitely helps that, unlike with Game of Thrones, the team behind 3 Body Problem knows exactly how the story ends and can strategically plan ahead by introducing key characters earlier on in the story.)

A sci-fi detective for a sci-fi mystery

Da Shi and Thomas Wade are out to save the world... kind of.


Although modern-day characters from the books got new names and identities for the series, the creators did want to retain the all-important detective Da Shi, played in the new series by Benedict Wong.

“We all love Da Shi, and wanted to keep the character,” Benioff says. “From the very beginning, all three of us knew we wanted Benedict Wong to play this guy.”

“From the very beginning, all three of us knew we wanted Benedict Wong to play this guy.”

Sometimes referred to as “Clarence,” in the show, Wong’s take on Da Shi will remind 3 Body purists of the surly detective with a heart of gold from the book. However, in this version, Da Shi is from Manchester, not China.

“Benedict said is the only second time in the many years of his acting career that he can keep his British accent,” director Derek Tsang tells Inverse. “I think that was a consensus, that we all felt each actor had to just keep their own accents.”

For Benedict Wong, building the character of Da Shi meant reaching into his own British roots. “I just had to grab that essence and take it with me,” Wong says. “Find that black leather jacket, the kind of no-nonsense, and the brashness. It’s all very much in keeping with someone who’s from Manchester. Someone who will tell you how it is.”

The journey of Ye Wenjie

Rosalind Chao plays Ye Wenjie in the present day, though Zine Tseng plays here in the 1960s segments of the series.


Outside of Da Shi, the journey of 3 Body’s most important character, Ye Wenjie, is largely faithful to the way her story plays out in the book. After her physicist father is killed by Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the young Ye Wenjie eventually finds herself at Red Coast Base, a secret installation that sends signals out into space. When she manages to intercept a message from distant extraterrestrials, Ye Wenjie invites the aliens to invade Earth and fix our problems for us. To bring this dynamic to life, two actors play the part of Ye Wenjie: Zine Tseng in the past, and Rosalind Chao in the present.

“It’s emotional and rational at the same time.”

The two women didn’t meet in person until the last day of filming, but Chao says her performance of the older Ye Wenjie was directly impacted by Zine Tseng’s take. “I had been sent footage of Zine’s that she had shot in the first episode,” Chao says. “So I had a window into her power as a character, as an actress, I was bowled over.”

Zine Tseng had to dig deep into history to bring the younger Ye Wenjie to life.


This influence worked the other way, too. As Tseng reveals, “Ros took over with power and confidence, I think it was amazing.” Tseng also extensively researched the original novel, as well as the history of China in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

“I did research for the historical background and the physics that I have to come across in the story,” she says. “I definitely wanted to dig into the environment because I wanted to know my reason and my presence in that time. It’s emotional and rational at the same time. I am not a very physics person, so I had to study hard.”

For longtime fans of science fiction, Rosalind Chao should be a familiar face; she played Keiko O’Brien on both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, Chao sees a lot of overlap in these two epic sci-fi universes.

“Oh, I expect the Star Trek fans to come to watch this show,” Chao says. “To me, it would be freakish for them not to because this is completely up their alley. But there's so much else [in 3 Body] that’s purely for the sci-fi fan. Star Trek, I guess isn't purely for the sci-fi fan either, but I would be very disappointed in all those Star Trek fans that don't watch this.”

Tiny protons, massive story

Vera Ye contemplates her mother’s actions and the fate of the human race.


In the first novel, aliens send tiny protons to Earth, which contain spying super-computers called Sophons that can unfold on different and gigantic dimensional planes. This is the perfect microcosm for the 3 Body Netflix series, a deeply complex series of hard science fiction novels, folded up into a tight, eight-episode first season. The story that begins in these episodes may end up spanning millions of years, but the series is easily the most down-to-earth alien invasion show that’s ever been made. Like the Sophons, showrunners Benioff, Weiss, and Woo took the grand scope of the books and somehow, against all odds, not only completed adapting the first novel in one season but also touched on major plot points for the second and third books, too.

“The heart of any great TV show is the characters.”

“The solution to that overall problem is incremental, it's intelligence-based,” says Liam Cunningham, who plays the no-nonsense strategist Thomas Wade. Relative to the mysteries of the San-Ti and how to beat them, Wade takes things as they come: “It’s all about what they glean from what’s been presented in front of them.”

This “in the moment” thinking is a good way to understand the vastness of 3 Body Problem. If future seasons are made, we’ll find some of these characters well beyond the 21st century, in deep space, and in some cases, in entirely different dimensions. But thanks to the foundations laid in Season 1, the minds behind 3 Body Problem are confident that audiences will be able to follow Cixin Liu’s epic story through ever-trippy twists and turns.

“The heart of any great TV show is the characters,” Woo says. “That's what propels you from one episode to the next and one season to the next, and next thing you know, these are friends you've had for 10 years.”

3 Body Problem hits Netflix on March 21, 2024.

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