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'3 Body Problem' cast addresses whitewashing criticism from fans of the original Chinese novels

The new Netflix series changes the setting from China to England, with flashbacks to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
From left, Eiza González, Jess Hong, and Benedict Wong in "3 Body Problem".
From left, Eiza González, Jess Hong, and Benedict Wong in "3 Body Problem".Ed Miller / Netflix

Amid early criticism and fears of whitewashing, the cast of the highly anticipated sci-fi series “3 Body Problem” says it does justice to the original Chinese novels.

The Netflix series, developed by writer Alexander Woo and “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss, follows a group of London-based scientists and authorities who band together to fight a seemingly ​​all-powerful extraterrestrial threat after a slew of suicides alarms the scientific community.

When the Netflix series was announced, many fans voiced concerns that the novels would be culturally and thematically diluted in the adaptation.

Based on Liu Cixin’s acclaimed “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, the eight-episode show is a departure from the source novels, which set the time-spanning story in China beginning during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, a time of violent upheaval.

On Reddit, one user noted that separating the setting from the cultural context seemed “unnecessary and flagrant.” Another commented they had doubts about the adaptation being led by non-Asian creators who were “rightfully criticized for their treatment of both women and [people of color]” on “Game of Thrones.”

But actor Benedict Wong, who plays Detective Da Shi in the Netflix adaptation, told NBC News the creators got the go-ahead from the author.

“Cixin gave Dan, Dave and Alex the blessing to move this story into a global story,” Wong said. “My character’s from Manchester, Jess Hong’s [is] from New Zealand, and we have Ye Wenjie [played by] Rosalind Chao and Zine Tseng, just to kind of show how global we all are telling this world story.”

Yu Guming, left, and Zine Tseng in "3 Body Problem".
Yu Guming, left, and Zine Tseng in "3 Body Problem". Maria Heras / Netflix

The series, like the book, starts from the point of view of astrophysicist Ye Wenjie, who witnesses her father’s murder by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The incident gives rise to her disdain for humanity and her subsequent decision to invite an alien civilization to conquer Earth.

Hong, who plays physicist Jin Cheng, said the show leaves the beginning intact while the changes broaden the story’s focus.

“Everything in the books that was referencing the Cultural Revolution has been essentially untouched,” Hong said. “But the rest of it is a way to globalize a story that was very heavily Eastern-focused into a Western perspective, a global perspective. Because we’re all from different countries, for the actors, you get to pull in all of these different storylines into one emotional core, which I think is quite brilliant.”

Chao, who portrays the older version of Ye, says the show doesn’t shy away from the lingering trauma of the Cultural Revolution.

“The seed is still that time period. It’s a period of trauma, emptying out of all hope, and great division. I do think they honored it,” Chao said. “My parents are immigrants. I’ve heard about it since growing up. And somehow the way they imparted that in this series made it more, you know, I could understand the trauma.”

Tseng, who plays the younger Ye, recalled remarks from the series’ Hong Kong director Derek Tsang, who “gathered every single one of us, saying, ‘It would be so great if we can do this and bring the honesty to the audience, to the story.’”