3 Body Problem’s Biggest Character Change Explained

“The Oxford Five” of 3 Body Problem is based on a single protagonist in Cixin Liu's novels, and the change makes all kinds of sense.

The Oxford Five at a bar table in 3 Body Problem
Photo: Ed Miller / Netflix

This article contains spoilers for 3 Body Problem season 1.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a tour de force of hard science fiction, but its deep dive into physics in passages that sometimes contain large information dumps must have been a true adaptation challenge to 3 Body Problem creators David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo. Fortunately, the writers were able to humanize the narrative by creating “the Oxford Five,” a group of scientist friends that divided the experiences of the novel’s single main character among them to create a more dynamic story filled with conflict, love, tragedy, and more.

The decision no doubt went beyond simply lending more emotional weight to the actions of the show’s protagonists; it also served to broaden the story from a singular Chinese experience that was the author’s focus to a more international, less male-centered perspective. Instead of merely following Professor Wang Miao, an applied physicist specializing in nanofiber technology, 3 Body Problem has Jin, Saul, Jack, Auggie, and Will all playing their own parts that Wang kept all to himself in the first book in Liu’s trilogy.

To be honest, Wang Miao wasn’t as fully fleshed out as his TV counterparts anyway. He played the VR game with a sort of academic detachment that became much more sympathetic in Jin Cheng’s hands. And although he felt the same stress that Auggie Salazar did about the ocular countdown, his emotional detachment during the nanofiber military operation in the Panama Canal was more like that of the show’s Raj Varma, and Wang didn’t even share his distress with his own wife, who in the novel was clearly concerned about her husband.

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Wang was not entirely devoid of emotion, though. His relationship with Da Shi, Benedict Wong’s character in 3 Body Problem, was initially contentious but grew into a friendship with mutual admiration. He similarly grew quite close to Ye Wenjie as he learned more about her history and the story of her first contact with aliens. But there was nothing of Will’s secret love of Jin, and certainly no analogue to Jack’s quirky snack food empire. Wang even got the blinking universe all to himself, shared only with a radio telescope technician.

Oddly enough, Wang Miao does not continue as protagonist in the second and third books in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, despite helping to dismantle Mike Evans’ band of alien sympathizers. He instead passes the torch to, among others, an astronomer and sociologist named Luo Ji in The Dark Forest, who takes on the enigmatic Wallfacer role bestowed upon Saul Durand in 3 Body Problem. The Netflix series similarly brings forward part of Project Staircase, which in the show involves sending Will Downing’s brain to space, from book three, Death’s End.

In other words, the protagonist modifications made in 3 Body Problem serve a dual purpose. They allow the Netflix show to divide storylines between several characters and to compress centuries, allowing elements from later novels to play out among characters viewers are already familiar with. Those who have read the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy understand that Liu’s novels definitely aren’t obvious candidates for adaptation, but the TV series nevertheless manages to tweak where needed while still remaining true to the spirit of the source material.

All eight episodes of 3 Body Problem are available to stream on Netflix now.