Book vs. Screen: The Queen’s Gambit

A while ago I wrote about the beauty of understatement. This was then followed with a serendipitous reading and reflection on how overstatement can be so much more than simple hyperbole. If you’re here for the headline but not the rest of details, then TL;DR: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis is understated, elegant (for the most part) and actually talks about chess, and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is a disappointment for its unartistic overstatement and general heavy-handedness. (Minor spoilers ahead).

Still, I’ll happily assume that you’re reading a reading blog because you like reading, so on we go! Let’s start positive. I watched the Netflix miniseries before I read the book, and only realized it was based on a book halfway through the series. When I placed a hold on the book at my local library, I was 97th in line, I think. All this is to say that there was a good amount of time in between either consumption to reflect and slowly hash out my thoughts about the show.

The miniseries was a visual and aural treat. Director Scott Frank (of which I’ve watched Logan and The Minority Report, but don’t remember much about either) and his team pull together a show quite worthy of the medium. I watched the series almost entirely in the early hours of several mornings (’twas insomnia and my toddler woketh often) so I wasn’t able to listen much, but what I did hear at the end made me almost want to rewatch the series, just for the music. Apparently composer Carlos Rafael Rivera created a different score for each match – I think that’s enough reason to rewatch at least the matches. I was also captivated by the clothing. Beth Harmon is increasingly gorgeous and I wouldn’t wear each outfit but I would love to draw every single one. The lines! The myriad interpretations of chess in cloth! I’ll not go on.

Little was I to know that this was actually a choice that departed from Tevis’ novel. Whereas book-Beth pointedly restrains herself from buying much anything, Netflix-Beth plays up the glamour-girl starry-eyed in Paris. This wasn’t the furthest departure from the book though. See, Tevis writes about chess at length. You wouldn’t become a master by reading his book, but you’ll feel like you know something. His writing reminds me of manga like Hikaru no Go, where significant time is spent during game sessions, exploring players’ thoughts as well as describing chess strategy. In fact, I think The Queen’s Gambit would have been better rendered as a manga. As word-for-word as some of the scenes were, Netflix-Gambit overall is simply not about chess.

Anya Taylor-Joy, lead actress, says exactly as much in Netflix’s “Creating The Queen’s Gambit.” And I facepalmed when she said it because it was glaringly obvious. Netflix’s-Gambit could have been about golf. It could have been about baseball, or American football, or any male-dominated sport, because Netflix-Gambit was more about our modern-day issues than it was about the sport. Don’t get me wrong. Netflix-Gambit could be used as an exploration of femaleness in the 1960s. Frank adds to Tevis’ work by depicting more of Beth’s birth mother, Beth’s control of her own sexuality, and, of course, the whole girl-is-winning-in-a-male-dominated-field schtick. Oh, and destructive habits, in the form of alcohol abuse, drug use, and alienation of friends. There’s a lot of that as well, and to a significant point it departs from the book.

As important as these issues are, though, Netflix-Gambit is heavy-handed in its depiction and discussion. “DRUGS BAD. ALCOHOLISM BAD. OVERCOME. BE GOOD FOR YOU,” the show yells, on and on, and it doesn’t have much to add (what else can you add with such simple points?). Beth struggles and overcomes, notably when she realizes she is no longer as alone as she used to be, yet her victory seems less about a change in character and more about a desperation to win in every part of life. Book-Beth, on the other hand, struggles similarly with drug use and alcohol, but her victory comes about much more gradually. Netflix-Beth, even up until the end, is forever having people reach out to her, but Book-Beth starts reaching out to others for help much earlier. Her journey is more about conquering pride and accepting weakness, and it contrasts ever so beautifully as she continues to conquer others and exploit their vulnerabilities.

She felt naked with no queen this early in the game, yet she was beginning to feel strong without it (p. 155).

Tevis, W. (1983). The Queen’s Gambit. Walter Tevis, Inc.

This is not to say that Tevis’ work is some perfect thing of art. I found an early scene of prepubescent girls disturbing given the lack of consent in the scene and the fact that it was written by a middle-aged man. The other question I have is, “For what purpose?!” (but Tevis is dead, so I guess there’s no knowing ever). There are several instances of the n-word in the text. Given the time period in which he wrote, I suppose he thought it wasn’t a problem. Frank, of course, figures out that these are the most problematic things according to today’s morality, but then he goes about recasting the rest of the novel so that an idiot could watch the show and learn a supposed lesson about life, but to the point where chess is an accessory and not a necessity.

Indeed, this choice is fatal. The contemplation of a new move or strategy is time to explore Beth’s thoughts and feelings. Her growth manifests in the moves she chooses against her opponents. It’s in Book-Beth’s time spent playing chess, for example, that we see her grief and healing from the loss of both mother and her first international title. At this point in the show, Netflix-Beth tosses Beltik aside quickly enough after he shows up to help. Book-Beth, however, is less about her sharp independence than it is the fact that she is allowing alcohol to threaten her love for chess, though they both seem to be a form of healing at the time.

In the last [book] there was a beautiful pawn to Queen’s rook four on the fifteenth move, as sweetly deadly as a pawn move could be. She left it on the board for the time it took to drink two beers, just looking at it (p. 143).

Ibid.

In short, chess according to Tevis has real personality and charm, and it is a divinity of sorts that the players in the book worship and relate to for their identity as players and as people. The time he spends in the book writing about the chess moves used is artistic overstatement, where more is more to the reader’s understanding of Beth and her world. Yet chess as a forgotten muse in Frank’s work is a decision several moves short of checkmate. The show must resort to simplistic messages and painfully obvious plot points to convey any message of impact. Watch Frank for a visual treat, but read Tevis if you want to think.


Featured photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

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