I love the opportunity to read a novel and see the film adaptation in a back to back sequence. This was the case with The Queen’s Gambit, which I thank Owen for bringing to my attention.
This novel, written in 1983 by Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth), centers around Beth Harmon, a young female chess prodigy who is orphaned, discovers her talent at chess by playing the janitor in her orphanage, and goes on to become a champion.
You don’t need to play or even know anything about chess to become engrossed in the characters and the story.
The novel is a stunner, told through Beth’s point of view, and including a supporting cast of complex characters. While at the orphanage, Beth becomes addicted to tranquilizers which are given to all the children to keep them calm and obedient, and her addictions (alcohol comes in later) dog her through most of the novel, and are enabled by her adoption mother, a melancholic, sympathetic, and pitiable character.
Chess is a competitive and unexpectedly dramatic game played by obsessives who have few interests beyond chess. The novel is full of tension when Beth is competing in tournaments. Beth’s narrative arc—her goals, the forces of antagonism aligned against her, the story climax and ending—is classic, somewhat predictable, and yet totally satisfying.
How often do you love a novel and then are disappointed, even outraged, by the film adaptation? Many times it’s because of the impossibility of doing justice to the complexities of a novel in a 2-hour film, which is why the choice by Netflix to produce a 7-episode limited series of The Queen’s Gambit was such a brilliant move.
Seven hours of story—about the same time it might take to read the novel—allows for fully realized, complex, and contradictory characters. The adaptation is largely true to the novel, with a slight exception toward the end that isn’t a bad idea.
Anya Taylor-Joy shines in the challenging role of Beth Harmon. Marielle Heller as the woman who adopts the young Beth gives a nuanced performance. Even the janitor at the orphanage was complex. Chess—and how Beth sees the game—are visually compelling.
It doesn’t happen often: both the novel and the adaptation being award-worthy. I feel fortunate to have experienced them, one after the other. If it’s not too late for you, be sure to read the novel first.
Novel: 5/5 Stars
Series: 5/5 Stars