A common threat endangers every nation on Earth. Countries around the world are forced to band together to defeat said threat. These nations find ways to overcome their differences for the sake of mankind.
While this plotline may sound like something we desperately need right now in light of the outbreak of Covid-19, the concept of overcoming cultural differences is a cornerstone of science fiction texts, TV programs and films. And no one has done it better within the realm of Chinese literature recently than award-winning writer Liu Cixin.
Chinese Sci-Fi Author Liu Cixin Honored at Arthur C. Clarke Awards
Winner of prestigious science fiction literary prize the Hugo Award, as well as a firm favorite of former US president Barack Obama, Liu’s work has had a wide-ranging influence within Chinese culture. The smash box office hit, The Wandering Earth, is based on a novella written by the Shanxi-born writer. That movie was famously released at the beginning of 2019 to rave reviews and talk of a crossover global hit. That didn’t exactly come to fruition, but it certainly made folks around the world sit up and recognize China’s science fiction, as well as film production, chops.
More recently, talk about big and small screen adaptations of Liu’s work has turned to his excellent and sprawling trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past (commonly referred to by the name of the first novel in the series, The Three-Body Problem). With a high-profile Bilibili adaptation by YooZoo Pictures in the works, often overshadowed is the quirky, Minecraft-animation adaptation of the trilogy by a company called The Three-Body Universe.
First Look: Bilibili’s Animated “Three-Body Problem” Teaser
That animation, called My Three Body first aired in 2014 and just finished up its third series on Bilibili, scoring a stonking 9.7 stars on notoriously hard-to-please rating site Douban. One particularly ardent reviewer said of the series, “My Three Body, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of domestic science fiction animation.”
Certainly a sparkling review of the show, which has evolved dramatically over its three series run.
The Three-Body Universe, which produces the series, is devoted to promoting the importance of Liu’s seminal series of novels. Besides their work on this Minecraft-animated series, they’re also involved with the YooZoo Pictures animated series mentioned above, which is also set to be aired on Bilibili, though not until 2021.
“The emphasis of each of the different adaptations will be different, and we are looking forward to presenting the world in The Three-Body Problem from different angles,” Xu Yao, CEO of The Three-Body Universe, tells us.
This idea of adapting a given story with different angles is becoming increasingly prevalent within Chinese cinema and TV. The idea is intrinsically related to the idea of an expanded universe, as seen with Marvel’s various iterations of the Spiderman story. Another prime example of this phenomenon within China is how production companies have recognized the cultural value of the 16th century novel, The Investiture of the Gods, which provided inspiration for the wildly successful animated film, Nezha, and which also provides inspiration for Mongolian director Wuershan’s forthcoming Fengshen Trilogy, which has been compared to The Lord of the Rings in terms of scope and scale.
How “Nezha”, a Revamped Tale from Chinese Mythology, Became the Country’s Biggest-Ever Animated Movie
Among The Three-Body Universe’s plans for expansion, according to Xu, are “the fields of film and television, business, education and offline experience entertainment.” That’s a veritable smorgasbord of cultural products and is testament to the power the company sees in Liu’s storytelling — especially in the wake of The Wandering Earth‘s success.
While the first season of My Three Body dropped back in 2014, The Three-Body Universe got in on the act before the release of the show’s second season. The difference in production quality of the show since then has been considerable, as the company’s involvement brought with it some major changes.
“Most of the production staff have changed from amateur The Three-Body Problem lovers to professional animation producers who understand The Three-Body Problem, says Xu. “But the core team, such as directors, screenwriters, and voice directors, remains the previous team.”
One thing that did not change was the style of the animation, which retains a square, Minecraft quality. Speaking as to why this particular style of animation was used, Xu says, “In 2014, Shenyou [director Shenyi Li] was a Minecraft player. Minecraft’s game features allow players to build characters and build scenes. Without a budget and professional ability to create animation, Shenyou chose to build scenes in Minecraft and record them to make the first few episodes of the first season of My Three-Body.”
Noticing the uniqueness of this style of animation, The Three-Body Universe decided to maintain the Minecraft style for subsequent seasons, although certain imagery, such as the smooth teardrop-shaped alien spaceships in the show, have veered away from the distinctive “blocky” look.
Yet as the series continued, other problems emerged, such as how to express the sprawling nature of The Three-Body Problem, told as it is from a variety of character viewpoints. This has long been seen as a major difficulty for any film or TV adaptation, and has scuppered several previous attempts.
“One of the problems we encountered was the complexity of the story and the difficulty of adapting the multi-line narrative into film and television scripts,” Xu says. “Therefore, when we came to the [second] book The Dark Forest, we chose the way of character biography, taking a single character as the main clue, and cascading larger events by telling individual stories to reduce the difficulty of the storytelling.”
For the second season of My Three-Body, the show therefore took unlikely hero Luo Ji as its focus, while the third season used the idealistic political commissar Zhang Beihai as a vehicle to further the stories told within the trilogy.
“The Wandering Earth”: Propaganda, Ratings Wars, and the Future of Chinese Sci-Fi
Building on the recent success of The Wandering Earth, and with multiple adaptations of his books in the pipeline, Liu Cixin’s work has become a cornerstone of modern culture in China for readers and non-readers alike — and perhaps a key to opening up such a cultural impact to the rest of the world.
Speaking to this impact and The Three-Body Universe’s hopes for their work, Xu tells us simply, “As the first loyal readers of The Three-Body Problem, regardless of the popularity of the book, we all love this work very much and think it deserves to reach a larger audience.”
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