Three Versions of The Three Body Problems, Thoughts from A Native Mandarin Speaker

on (updated 29 days ago)
| 8 min read

Warning: Minor spoilers on the characters, but no spoilers on the story.

As a casual Sci-Fi enjoyer who mostly enjoys them through movies and TV shows, I’ve only occasionally read Sci-Fi novels. But I loved Andy Weir’s The Martian (loved the movie first, then went back to reading the novel) and Project Hail Mary. Therefore, since discovering Netflix’s 3 Body Problem not too long ago, I realised I had to start from the origin, and follow the thread from there, especially since I am a native Mandarin speaker.

The original novel, 三体, would translate to simply Three Body. However, the English translation of the book was published as The Three-Body Problem, and the Netflix adaptation 3 Body Problem.

Within the span of two months, I consumed, in order:

  • The original Chinese trilogy, which includes Three Body, Three Body II: The Dark Forest and Three Body III: Death’s End, in audio book format, totalling a whopping 85+ hours.
  • The Chinese TV series adaptation produced by Tencent Video, which consists of 30 episodes covering the first book, totalling 20 hours. You can watch the full series here on Youtube by one of the official publishers.
  • The Netflix TV series adaptation, which consists of 8 episodes covering the first book and parts of the second book, totalling 8 hours.

For the Chinese TV series, there is also a 26-episode Director’s Cut version, which apparently has better pacing by removing some original sub-plots and tightening the overall story flow. I actually didn’t mind the slower pace and the original sub-plots so I stuck with the original 30-episode version.

I’m going to rate all three versions, but as a benchmark, I’d give The Martian (both the novel and the movie) a 10/10, and Project Hail Mary also a 10/10. This is from the perspective of someone who grew up in China then spent more than 20 (and counting) years living in and breathing the Western culture.

TL;DR: Ratings Summary

Version Overall Story Main Characters or Cast Minor Characters or Cast Cinematography Music / Soundtrack VFX Audio and SFX
Novel 9 9 10 9 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Tencent 9 9 10 6 10 9 7 5
Netflix 7 7 8 7 7 7 6 7

Story

Version Rating Commentary
Novel 9 A very captivating story and with a world building that’s mostly grounded to reality.
Tencent 9 A condensed version that is faithful to the original novel (1st book), with some added minor characters and sub-plots. The story-telling focuses more on character building to push the story forward, just like in the novel.
Netflix 7 A “re-engineered” story with a much smaller, mishmashed ensemble, much faster pace and less convincing world building. It is the fast food version - not necessarily inferior, but much less nuanced and is produced for mass consumption by the Western audience. Remember, it speeds through the entire book 1 and part of book 2 in merely 8 hours, compared to the 20 hours of the Tencent adaptation for only book 1.

Main Characters or Cast

Version Rating Commentary
Novel 10 The believable and multi-faceted characters is definitely a highlight of the series, especially from the lead characters of each book.
Tencent 10 Superb acting from the main cast. Shi Qiang is a highlight, the portray of this version of Shi Qiang adds more humour and lightens much of the heaviness of the story beats. Wang Miao has a calm mannerism and deep and soothing voice. Both the young and old Ye Wenjie are portrayed with consistency, and nuances that beyond words.
Netflix 8 The acting is decent for what the show is. Due to the fast pace nature, there is only so much that can be done by the otherwise fine cast. The characters themselves however, take a major hit. Many characters from the novel are combined. Worryingly, Ye Wenjie has been portrayed as simply bitter, missing the nuances entirely as a result of the many hours of character building in the novel and the Tencent adaptation.

Minor Characters or Cast

Version Rating Commentary
Novel 9 Like the main characters, each minor character comes with a believable background and motivation, and helps with the story and world building.
Tencent 6 Unfortunately, this is a weak point of the Chinse adaptation. Whilst the characters themselves are fine, the cast unfortunately is a big hit and miss, with a few of them definitely miscast. Wei Cheng in particular, has been reduced to a one-dimensional maths nerd with a heavy Shandong accent unnecessarily. Pan Han’s portray is also wooden and uninspired. To top it off, a super minor character with only a minute or two of screen time has an extremely bizarre, over-the-top acting style that nearly ruined the entire scene. Luckily, most of the other cast ranges from okay (e.g. Shen Yufei) to superb (e.g. Chang Weisi).
Netflix 7 Acting from the minor cast is fine, nothing remarkable but nothing terrible either.

Cinematography

Version Rating Commentary
Tencent 10 It’s a masterpiece of an art that left a huge mark on me. The cinematography is simply breathtaking. Even more, each episode includes a bunch of photo montages during credits.
Netflix 7 It’s mostly a standard sci-fi look and feel, it looks good but nothing too inspiring here.

Music / Soundtrack

Version Rating Commentary
Tencent 9 A collection of finely composed soundtracks covering a wide range of emotions. I was moved by many of them. Check them out here.
Netflix 7 As a fan of Ramin Djawadi and his work from Game of Thrones and Westworld, this is a fine collection of soundtracks, albeit a tad forgettable compared to the aforementioned masterpieces.

VFX (Visual Effects)

Version Rating Commentary
Tencent 7 Some VFX are a bit janky. Though in most cases the producers have hidden them well. The “in-game” CG and animation are very janky but that can simply be attributed to them being “in-game” therefore to be expected, besides, they are actually quite charming.
Netflix 6 This surprised me. I thought for sure Netflix would have the budget for higher quality VFX. In most cases this is true, unfortunately this is let down by some key moments having very questionable VFX and/or artistic choice.

Audio and SFX (Sound Effects)

Version Rating Commentary
Tencent 5 Another unfortunate weakness of the Tencent adaptation. Many sound bites (such as the eery music) were simply lifted from other TV shows like Dark which takes me out of the immersion. What was also baffling, is the audio mixing - in more than one occasion, lines from different takes are stitched together with vastly different audio levels and uniformity.
Netflix 7 Like the cinematography, there is nothing wrong or special here. It’s good.

Extra: Languages

As someone who speaks both Mandarin and English, it’s been an interesting experience.

The Netflix version is easier to consume in this regard. Other than the character Mike Evan’s borderline gibberish Mandarin, for the most part I only needed subtitles for the few lines of French and Spanish that didn’t really impact the story. Although, Ye Zhetai speaking with a heavy southern Chinese accent is a bizarre casting choice.

The Tencent version on the other hand is much more difficult to consume. A few episodes in I had to rely on subtitles to make out both the Mandarin and the English spoken by the non-native speakers.

Final Thoughts

I liked the original novel trilogy and loved the cinematography of the Chinese TV adaptation. I probably would’ve liked the Netflix adaptation more if I had no point of reference from the other two.

If you’ve watched the Netflix version and are curious about the source material - read the novel(s) or watch the Chinese TV adaptation.

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