3 Body Problem’s creators learned all the wrong lessons from Game of Thrones

Adaptations aren’t easy, and few people in Hollywood know that better than David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The writing and showrunning duo ran the gamut on HBO’s Game of Thrones, starting off with five seasons of a better and more faithful translation to the screen than anyone could have imagined, before the series slowly went off the rails when they ran out of material. The pair’s new show, 3 Body Problem, proves that they learned a lot from their failures on Game of Thrones — but its struggles also prove that no two adaptations are alike.

Everything about the approach Benioff and Weiss, along with co-creator Alexander Woo, took on 3 Body Problem seems like a direct response to their issues in the back half of their previous show. While Game of Thrones had a number of problems in its later seasons, including a fundamental lack of time and space to tell its story, the biggest was likely that it lacked some of the most important characters from George R.R. Martin’s books. Namely: young Griff.

As the fan lore now goes, Benioff and Weiss didn’t want to include Griff in the series because he didn’t get introduced until A Dance of Dragons, the fifth book in the series. This would have meant that, to include him in the show, he likely would have hopped in around seasons 4 or 5, and the showrunners didn’t want to introduce a new key character that late in the game. According to fan speculation, though, Griff is likely an important enough character that his inclusion is necessary to make the books’ story feel complete, making his exclusions feel like one of the biggest issues with the show’s last few seasons. While none of this is technically confirmed, especially not the part about Griff’s importance to the conclusion of Martin’s book series, it isn’t particularly hard to believe.

Seemingly to avoid a situation like this again, Benioff and Weiss took a very different approach to adapting Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past series. Each of the three books in the series follows a different character, none of whom really know each other. To avoid introducing important characters that late, Netflix’s 3 Body Problem series makes a radical shift, making the main characters friends and introducing all of them in the first episode.

Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar on a beach in a still from 3 Body Problem Image: Netflix

Jin (Jess Hong) and Jack (John Bradley) looking at Sophon (Sea Shimooka) and The Follower (Eve Ridley) look at something in the sky Image: Netflix

This is a bold choice that feels particularly brilliant early on. Adding dynamics, friendship, and history to the extremely plot-focused first book gives the story a degree of humanity and empathy that it’s otherwise missing. It adds gravity and grandeur to what should be a massive, world-spanning story, but one that can feel oddly contained and limited in Liu’s first book. The fear of a change like this might be that it gives the series too large a cast, too big a world, but who better to handle that, at least on paper, than the two guys behind Game of Thrones, one of the biggest and most complicated ensemble shows ever made?

But what Benioff and Weiss did so well in Thrones was translate characters that are complicated and nuanced on the page without dumbing them down too much. Adapting Martin’s work was largely about culling the mountain of dialogue, information, and intrigue in Martin’s books. Liu’s work is very different. Liu is far more concerned with the scientific part of his story than anything else. Remembrance of Earth’s Past is an imaginative series full of complicated and fascinating ideas, but its characters are far more utilitarian than those in A Song of Ice and Fire. Liu only rarely gives us insight into their non-plot-relevant thoughts, and even more seldom gives us hints at their deeper personalities beyond what we need to know. And, perhaps even more importantly for our purposes, each of those characters only needs to be around for a single book.

So by bringing each of these characters in earlier than the source material does, Benioff, Weiss, and Woo are forced to give them more life and interiority than the meager offerings in Liu’s books. But more than that, the show also has to give them something to do in the moments where their plots aren’t relevant to the story. They are all important for one reason or another eventually, but they aren’t all important at the same time. 3 Body Problem never quite manages to do either of those things.

Alex Sharp as Will Downing holding a paper boat Image: Netflix

Rather than creating a cast of compelling characters who it feels like we’re following through the slow-burn apocalypse while they try to find a way to save the world, 3 Body Problem instead feels like two separate shows grafted together, one about scientists trying to stave off an alien invasion and another about a grad school cohort with lingering relationship drama. It’s possible to imagine a version of the show that elegantly gives time for characters’ feelings and thoughts and lets those influence the series’ complex plots, but 3 Body Problem never feels like it confidently melds those two sides.

Instead, it’s science fiction with a cheap-TV glaze on top. It’s boring, distracting, and, worst of all, kills the show’s momentum in its genuinely exciting moments. It’s hard to care about Raj and Auggie’s squabbles over the morality of killing people when the alternative is complete eradication, or spending three episodes on Jin’s love triangle when we only spent one on a massive boat getting cut into little pieces.

None of this is to say that 3 Body Problem is a complete failure. In fact, for its first five episodes it’s largely a very smart adaptation of Cixin Liu’s first book. Then the show starts trying to build stronger bridges between all three books, and it falls apart. What makes this all so fascinating, though, is that 3 Body Problem misfires in exactly the opposite way that Thrones did. Where Thrones’ issue was a failure to build a logical, satisfying ending out of a sweeping cast of complex characters, 3 Body’s is a failure to build characters out of a logical story that, like the San-Ti, can’t be stopped from barrelling ahead.

All of this makes it clear that Benioff and Weiss have learned their lessons from Game of Thrones; they just learned them too well. Or perhaps they were just the wrong lessons for 3 Body Problem as a story. Either way, it all leaves the duo in a fascinating spot as adapters of stories go. With two massive, unwieldy, and successful shows under their belts, it’s clear that they’re peerless conceptualizers, tremendously gifted at boiling complex works down, finding their essence, and translating that onto the screen. What they aren’t so good at is giving those adaptations what they’re missing on the page, whether that’s characters in the case of 3 Body Problem or an ending for Game of Thrones. Benioff and Weiss are more than capable of bringing unfilmable book series to the screen; it’s when they start using their own voice that they get into trouble.

3 Body Problem is now streaming on Netflix.