‘Three-Body’ Review: A Chinese Series Beats Netflix to the Screen

A 30-episode adaptation of the celebrated science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem” is premiering simultaneously in China and on the American streamer Rakuten Viki.

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By Mike Hale

This review contains spoilers for the novel “The Three-Body Problem” and the television series “Three-Body.” There’s no way around it.

The highly acclaimed trilogy of Chinese science-fiction novels collectively known as “Three-Body,” in which Earth is threatened with invasion by technologically superior aliens, is generally understood to reflect historical Chinese anxieties about Western domination. Which makes it a little amusing that, 17 years after the story was first serialized, the books are about to get more attention than ever because of a big-budget American adaptation, due later this year on Netflix. Comments about appropriation and cultural sensitivity will start to pour in minutes after the episodes are posted.

In the meantime, little attention is being paid in the United States to an ambitious Chinese series, “Three-Body,” that has beaten Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” to the screen. No trade barriers or worries about state secrets here: The 30 episodes of “Three-Body” are premiering on Rakuten Viki in the United States, with subtitles in English (among many other languages), on the same day they appear in China, where they are reportedly setting viewing records for Tencent’s WeTV streaming service. Outside of the sci-fi fan base, however, they don’t appear to be causing a ripple in America. (The 21st episode arrived on Friday; early episodes can be watched free with ads.)

The books’ author, Liu Cixin, has endorsed the Netflix series (he’s a consulting producer), though the show’s largely non-Chinese cast indicates that it tinkers significantly with his story. He doesn’t appear to have been involved with the Chinese series, but one of its hallmarks — the subject of many approving viewer comments on Rakuten Viki — is its faithfulness, in broad outline, to the trilogy’s first novel, “The Three-Body Problem,” on which it is based.

A lot of Liu’s dialogue seems to have been moved straight from book to screen (though questions of translation, in both media, make it hard to be sure). Through 20 episodes, most of the major plot points arrive at about the same places they did in the book. For Liu’s hard-core fans, that may be all that matters. For a general audience, the show’s similarities to the book may be more problematic.

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