Viewers Give ‘Three-Body’ Animated Series Two Thumbs Up
When animated and live-action versions of famed Chinese writer Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” were announced last year, sci-fi fans wondered whether they would do justice to the beloved Hugo Award-winning novel.
But following Tuesday’s finale of the third season of a different, longer-running animated series, the answer is clear: Yes, it can.
Fans say “My Three Body, Legend of Zhang Beihai” — the third season of the animated series based on the second book from Liu’s trilogy — has exceeded their expectations. Viewers have left glowing reviews on microblogging site Weibo and the host video-streaming site Bilibili, praising the plot, visual effects, and music. The series has even scored 9.7 out of 10 on review platform Douban, in stark contrast to the initial skepticism over whether the trilogy could be visually rendered.
“It has the flavor of the original work,” one Weibo user wrote, praising the series as the “pride” of China’s animation industry. “The scenes are all there, built from words I could barely picture myself using my barren imagination.”
“My Three Body, Legend of Zhang Beihai” has been well-received since it premiered in early January. The nine-episode series is adapted from “The Dark Forest,” the second of Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, and tells the story of Zhang Beihai, a Chinese naval officer who evades an alien civilization to preserve hope for the future of humanity.
The series’ director, who asked to be identified as Shenyou, and his team started production on the third season in 2018. He said they weren’t expecting it to be such a resounding success.
“We anticipated getting some praise, since the first two seasons were generally well-received, too,” he told Sixth Tone. “We have the same crew and concepts, so we thought it wouldn’t be hard to get good reviews — but now this has exceeded our expectations.”
As an animation enthusiast and a fan of the sci-fi trilogy, Shenyou said he started working on the series in 2014 using the Minecraft computer game, which allows users to build and populate their own worlds. This inspiration can still be seen in the latest season, too, with the blockheaded cartoons resembling Minecraft characters.
“At that time, the novel had not won a prize, and it was not as popular as it is now in China,” Shenyou said, referring to the 2015 Hugo Award that Liu won for the trilogy’s first installment. “Many people didn’t know the novel or its content, so I wanted to make a video, since it’s easier to watch a video than read a book, and help everyone understand the story.”
A 19-year-old student in the eastern city of Ningbo, surnamed Zhao, started reading the trilogy when he was in middle school and has watched all three seasons of the animated series. Though he’s often confused by the characters, he still likes the show.
“The storyline is quite clear, and many details have been added to maintain the originality of the novels,” he told Sixth Tone.
A 24-year-old fan of the trilogy in Nanjing, using the pseudonym Li Xi, told Sixth Tone that the animation is on par with what she had imagined while reading the book. She praised the production team’s careful attention to the music, dubbing, and visual design. “It’s great,” she said. “Although I was familiar with the plot, I still cried when I watched the last episode.”
“The book also digs deep into the (political) system and human nature — the content about the Cultural Revolution in the first book is difficult to render visually, but it’s important context for later storylines,” Li said, adding that she didn’t think it would be possible for the animated series to capture certain elements from the books.
China’s sci-fi industry has attracted significant interest and growth in recent years, generating 45.6 billion yuan ($6.5 billion) in 2018, a threefold increase from 2017, according to a report released in November at an annual science fiction conference. In June of last year, Bilibili announced it was producing an animated adaptation of “The Three-Body Problem,” a week after another, separate TV adaptation project of the first novel received the green light.
Visually rendering works of science fiction can be mind-numbingly difficult. Despite the success of sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth” early last year, another star-studded movie of the same genre, “Shanghai Fortress,” bombed at the box office, prompting the movie’s director to apologize for the epic flop.
Shenyou said his team has faced challenges during production, too, often having to add plot lines to the story that weren’t in the book.
“We don’t want to let people down, so we have to have an accurate understanding of the original story, which is quite difficult,” he said. “After all, everyone in the industry thinks the trilogy is difficult to adapt.”
Chen Qiufan, a Chinese science fiction author, agrees that the genre is challenging to render but is hopeful that the visual medium will help authors gain a wider audience. He said the production team’s Minecraft-style design of the characters was a “smart idea,” as it saves them the trouble of dealing with nuanced facial expressions. (The square-faced Minecraft characters are typically devoid of expression.)
Though a fan of Liu’s work, Chen said he didn’t have high hopes for the series’ latest episodes, as the first two seasons looked a bit “unpolished.” However, he has been pleasantly surprised by the script, as well as the third season’s higher production value, even if he still has some constructive criticism to offer.
“There is quite a lot of information they have to present (in each episode), so sometimes the scenes and dialogue are a bit cramped,” he said. “It may be a bit dizzying for the audience, so it might be better if each episode was longer, with more relaxed pacing.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A promotional image of “My Three Body, Legend of Zhang Beihai” featuring the titular character. From Douban)