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Netflix's 3 Body Problem Fails Its Most Important Character

Wenjie should serve as a reminder of how our trauma can change the trajectory of not only our lives, but of the universe.
  • Rosalind Chao in 3 Body Problem (Photo: Netflix)
    Rosalind Chao in 3 Body Problem (Photo: Netflix)

    Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was one of the deadliest periods in Chinese history for those in the scientific and technological community. Fueled by the desire to remove all forms of Western influence, Mao’s Red Guards destroyed laboratories, burned scientific literature, and executed or incarcerated scientists. It was a dark and troublesome decade for many people, including for acclaimed science fiction author Cixin Liu. Liu was only three when the political upheaval began, but remembers the gunshots and the Red Guards patrolling the streets.This distressing decade plays a pivotal role in his 2008 Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.

    The book opens at the height of the Cultural Revolution as scientists are humiliated and are publicly executed during struggle sessions. One of the scientists, who refuses to denounce science, is brutally beaten to death by the Red Guards. His wife, also a scientist, rebukes him for not changing his beliefs to fit the current political climate. All of this is happening as his daughter, an astrophysicist, watches from the crowd. This moment would ignite her growing contempt with humankind, resulting in her committing the ultimate crime against humanity.

    In 3 Body Problem, created by Alexander Woo and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the adaptation opens on that exact scene, in which Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) watches from afar as her physicist father is accused of being a traitor for teaching the theory of relativity and the Big Bang at the university. He refuses to reject these theories, prompting the Red Guards to kill him.

    [The rest of this post discusses plot points from 3 Body Problem Season 1.]

    In the aftermath of her father’s death, Wenjie becomes a shell of a person as she struggles to survive in Mao’s regime. Her pessimism grows after she encounters Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, considered contraband, and is disappointed by more people. Wenjie is eventually recruited to a secret military base called the Red Coast where she works with military physicists, Yang Weining (Guming Yu) and Lei Zhicheng (Deng Qiaozhi) to search for the existence of extraterrestrial life. Even after the end of Mao’s reign, Wenjie remained cynical towards people and society.

    When confronting the guard who killed her father, Wenjie’s rage continues to grow as the guard refuses to apologize, selfishly believing themselves to be the victim of the revolution. Soon after Wenjie returns to work on the base, she receives a message from an alien lifeform called the San-Ti (Trisolarans in the novels), who warn her to not contact them again because their kind will conquer Earth. Filled with hatred for humankind, she transmits the message: “Come. We cannot save ourselves. I will help you conquer this world.”

    In the intervening years, Wenjie (played by Rosalind Chao in the show’s present day) has teamed up with billionaire Mike Evans (Jonathan Pryce) to prepare for the arrival of the San-Ti, whom they consider to be gods with the ability to coexist with humans and advance society with their knowledge. Their organization has brought on a new hope for Wenjie, and she stops at nothing — even murder — to assist the San-Ti in their quest to take over Earth. Wenjie tells her supporters, “We must prepare our world for their arrival and prepare our descendants to welcome them. We will give them the gift of our world so that they can do with it what we could not, so that they can mend what we have broken.”

    With a renewed sense of hope, Wenjie and Mike begin a relationship, which produces a child, Vera (Vedette Lim), who later dies by suicide after learning of her mother’s treacherous act against humanity. Despite her loss, Wenjie's mission and belief remains unchanged — until she learns of the San-Ti’s true intentions with Earth and its inhabitants. While she never apologizes or expresses regret for her actions, she does leave a cryptic message for her daughter’s former colleague, Saul (Jovan Adepo), to interpret that could potentially tip the scales in the battle against the San-Ti.

    For the most part, the series captures Wenjie’s overarching story quite well, but it downplays and even removes some of the tragic events that sends her down her despondent path. Throughout her young life, she experienced nothing but loss and betrayal by humankind, reducing her to a life of misanthropy and detachment. In that same NYT interview, Liu said Wenjie needed “to have total despair in humanity” representing how the lowest and most despicable parts of human nature can turn a person into a monster.

    Yet the series presents Wenjie as selfless more often than it shows her being betrayed by others. In Episode 1, at the labor camp, Wenjie meets Bai Mulin, a Chinese reporter from the government’s Great Production News. They bond over their love for the environment and Mulin gives her a copy of a contraband book. He says nothing as she is found and blamed for it. Wenjie doesn’t report him and accepts the arrest.

    In the book, though, Mulin asks for help writing a letter in English to the government to consider protecting the environment. When his plan backfires, he blames Wenjie for the letter, which leads to her arrest. She is constantly let down by the people around her and this is one of the reasons her trust in people is gone. She also learns more about the terrible decisions in history through her studies while living on the base. She believes that her father’s violent death was inevitable because of the destructive nature in humans.

    It’s why she is more than willing to sacrifice mankind to the Trisolarans/San-Ti. She has lost all hope in humanity and their inability to change for the better. In the book, Wenjie feels a sense of relief and happiness when she sends the doomed message to the Trisolarans. By comparison, the series has Wenjie hesitate over her decision, suggesting she was questioning the morality of her decision. Though it was probably done for dramatic effect, it undercuts the character’s determination to destroy humanity.

    What makes Wenjie’s original story so compelling was that she failed to form any human connections, but bonded with the Trisolarans, which pushed her to betray her own kind. In the book, Wenjie is in a loveless marriage with Yang and becomes pregnant with his child, never becoming romantically involved with anyone else. But the series gives Wenjie a moment of passionate human connection with Mike as they create their organization together, resulting in a child, revealing that she is capable of love. Yet their relationship is never brought up again. And despite their apparent estrangement, they were still perceived to be on the same side regarding their beliefs in the San-Ti.

    This is another departure from the books, as Mike is part of a faction that believes that the Trisolarans should wipe all of humanity, including himself, from existence. He is much more extreme than Wenjie, who vacillates between wanting to destroy mankind and co-existing with the aliens. Their differing goals are the reason for their separation in the organization. Mike perceives Wenjie as a threat to his cause, which is why he kept the messages from the Trisolarans away from her.

    3 Body Problem avoids putting blood directly on Wenjie’s hands, but she’s more than capable of killing if it meets her purpose, proving how dangerous of a person she is. In Episode 6, Wenjie doesn’t admit or deny that she is at fault for Jack’s (John Bradley) death when Jin (Jess Hong) confronts her in the interrogation room. It’s the only time she’s accused of being involved in a violent act. Though she is calm and quiet, she does not seem to pose any threat. This repeats in her later years, when she has one of her followers killed during a meeting for disobeying her orders, which parallels the public execution of her father, showcasing that she has become the people she hates.

    Human life is inconsequential to her. In the books, Wenjie murders her husband and her commanding officer, Lei, to prevent them from revealing the discovery of alien lifeforms and keep her secret of the Trisolarans safe. She shows little to no remorse for the deaths, reasoning that the end justifies the means.

    The series's biggest failure in adapting Wenjie’s story is the change it makes at the end of her life. In the books, she has lost everyone that meant something to her — her father, daughter, and now her faith in the Trisolarans. She cannot change what has happened nor does she try (aside from giving her colleague a clue on how to defeat the aliens). She returns to the military base where she plans to end her life at the same cliff where she killed her husband and Lei. But before she does, she watches the sunset one final time alone, uttering her final words, with a profound sense of regret, “My sunset, and sunset for humanity.”

    At the end of Episode 7, Wenjie does return to the military base to end her life, but is interrupted by Tatiana (Marlo Kelly), a devoted follower of the San-Ti. Though they share a tender moment, it is obvious why Tatiana is there. She offers Wenjie a quicker and more painless death than the one Wenjie had planned. But before the final act is committed, they embrace each other while watching one last sunset. Unlike in the book, Wenjie doesn’t have to face death alone and isn’t given her final moment alone to reflect on what she’s done. This act of compassion actually robs Wenjie of reflecting on her actions before her passing. Instead Tatiana reassures her former leader, “You worked so hard for so long. You deserve a rest.”

    In Liu’s Remembrance of Earth Past’s trilogy, Wenjie serves as a reminder of how our trauma can change the trajectory of not only our lives, but the world — and possibly, the universe. But one person should not decide the fate of the world, despite their negative outlook, and they should atone for the harm they have caused. Wenjie isn’t given enough time or development to fully address her trauma. Although the series is compelling and beautifully consolidates three books into one season, it’s clear sacrifices were made. It’s just unfortunate it had to be the most important character in starting this entire war against humanity.

    Laura Sirikul is a freelance journalist covering entertainment, pop culture, and health. Her work has appeared in Empire Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Elle Magazine, What To Watch, Nerdist, IGN, Timid Magazine, and more.

    TOPICS: 3 Body Problem, Netflix, The Three-Body Problem, Alexander Woo, Cixin Liu, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss