Chinese sci-fi fans divided over Netflix's '3 Body Problem'

By AFP   April 7, 2024 | 02:28 am PT
Chinese sci-fi fans divided over Netflix's '3 Body Problem'
Part of a poster of Netflix's series "3 Body Problem."
Netflix's blockbuster "3 Body Problem", an adaptation of the crown jewel of Chinese sci-fi, has sparked passionate debate and divided opinions among fans in the country.

The streaming service isn't officially operational in China, but that hasn't stopped devotees accessing the show, likely via VPN services or illegal streaming sites.

Hashtags relating to the show have over two billion views on the X-like social media platform Weibo.

Among the tens of thousands of commentaries left on a reviewing platform, reactions ranged from disappointment at plot and character changes, to nationalistic outrage, to optimism the show's profile would boost representation of Chinese literature and film.

The series is based on the three-part "Remembrance of Earth's Past" by Liu Cixin, a domestic superstar who readers sometimes jokingly call "God", and his trilogy "the bible of Chinese sci-fi".

"The original works have a huge influence. Many fans of the books know all the details of the characters in the books by heart, so they have a hard time accepting changes," Li Dongdong, founder of Chinese sci-fi film community Geek Movie, told AFP.

Previous Chinese-produced adaptations have taken this obsessive attention to detail into account -- Liu told a conference recently he had suggested making a small visual change to a recurring plot device, only to be told: "You can't change it beyond recognition!"

For many, the Netflix adaptation has very much done that.

Spearheaded by the team behind megahit series Game of Thrones," it transfers most of the action to the United Kingdom and changes the nationalities and genders of some of the key characters.

One Chinese reviewer likened the series to "a plate of General Tso's chicken", a Westernized Chinese dish that can be used as a metaphor for inauthenticity and cultural misunderstanding.

'Big miss?'

Disagreement with the showrunners' creative choices is not confined to China.

The series was the most watched on Netflix by its second week, but reviews have been mixed, with Rolling Stone calling it "one great big miss".

Some of the Chinese criticism though is tinged by politics, against a backdrop of tense US-China relations.

Many commenters questioned the motive behind the decision to keep the villain Chinese while the heroes are mostly played by Westerners.

"Other things aside, the casting once again shows that Americans are (political) ideologues," read one of the most popular reviews.

Others have taken issue with the show's portrayal of Chinese history.

The show starts in the 1960s, with an ugly scene in which a physicist is killed by a mob for refusing to disown key scientific theories.

Its use as the opening scene led some online nationalists to accuse Netflix of making the entire show purely to portray China in a bad light.

"It's making a whole tray of dumplings merely for tasting a bit of vinegar," one Weibo user wrote.

For 3 Body devotees, though, the scene is key to understanding the motivations of the series' antagonist.

"The storyline of the 1960s alone deserves a 5-star review," said another commenter.

'Huge encouragement'

Other fans have warmed to the faster and simpler plot, which they say makes the work more accessible and appealing to the general public.

"Netflix's adaptation makes me really understand the charm of this sci-fi work for the first time," 31-year-old Beijing sci-fi fan Harry Zhou told AFP, admitting that he had tried and failed to finish the original books several times.

The show's popularity has also brought global attention to Liu's work and Chinese sci-fi in general.

"I am sure that more people will reread the original story after watching this," famed Japanese game creator Hideo Kojima posted on X.

"People in other countries can now see that Chinese writers are capable of writing great sci-fi works. This will boost the presence of Chinese sci-fi," Zhou said.

Netflix's involvement is seen as a vote of confidence in the genre.

"Chinese sci-fi is getting recognition with real money investment... it's a huge encouragement for the Chinese sci-fi creator community," said Geek Movie's Li.

"It's a small step for (Liu Cixin), but it's a big step for Chinese sci-fi creation."

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