by Megan Snopik
The novel-to-screen-adaptation discussion has always been tumultuous, with one never quite living up to the “hype” of the other. The idea that the book is always better has also been debated in recent times, as quality film and television become instantly accessible to the home audience through streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. The rise of these media giants in particular have led to the production of new and exciting TV shows, reboots, and adaptations galore. However, in this influx of media and adaptation, can the good series, the ones we really binge watch, stand up to the expectations set by their source texts?
In the case of The Queen’s Gambit, a highly successful page-to-screen adaptation, the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis was adapted into a 2019 Netflix limited series by the same title. The show presents a highly stylized, polished view of the 60s, but it contains a series of additions and subtractions from the original text that call into question whether or not reading source texts is necessary when we have adaptations to edit them for us. The Queen’s Gambit is an interesting case dealing with highly politicised times and starring a unique and fictitious female prodigy. While the series is quite similar to the novel in most ways, its largest divergence is in the success of the series. Not only did the show completely overshadow the success of the book, a record 62 million households watched The Queen’s Gambit in its first month, making it Netflix’s most popular limited series to date. However, dissimilarly from other adaptations, the series’s success did not correspond to a rise in novel sales (although it did lead to an increased sale of chess-related items). This uncommon case prompts the question: is this a singular example or is it indicative of a larger trend in the world of book-to-TV adaption?
In both versions of The Queen’s Gambit, the young orphaned Beth Harmon is raised at Methusen Orphanage after the untimely death of her mother. There, she takes informal chess lessons from a reclusive janitor in the building’s basement. She and the other girls are administered daily “tranquilizer” pills and, after a few doses, she develops a reliance on the sedatives. In her teens, she is adopted by Alma and Alston Wheatley, but within a few weeks, Alston leaves Beth and Alma for another family. Beth, in the face of their financial hardship, begins playing chess competitively and wins state and national championships, splitting the winnings with Alma. As she attempts to become a chess grandmaster, Beth’s addiction to drugs and eventually alcohol causes trouble as she tries to balance her genius and her vices.
The frame of the show provides unique challenges, as the novel is written in the 80s and looks back on the 60s. The series then takes that 80s novel and reflects on it from the point of view of 2019. To comprehend everything the writers of this show had to consider in writing it demands a certain capacity for time travel. It’s hard to imagine how they managed to compile a unified, coherent end product that could capture the sensibilities of the 21st century while paying its dues to the style of the 60s and considering the atmosphere of the 80s when the story first entered the world. Upon Walter Tevis’s death in 1992, Alan Scott bought the rights to the novel, and ever since then, he had tried to get the book portrayed on the screen. After writing a screenplay to produce it as an independent film, contracts were rumored with filmmakers Michael Apted and Bernardo Bertolucci to direct, but financing fell through. Heath Ledger then wanted to direct the film, but his death in 2008 caused that production to fall through. Finally, Netflix bought the screenplay in 2019 and started production on March 19th of the same year.
Even though the book had been well received, the Netflix series has far-eclipsed the reach of Tevis’ original conception. While many other popular adaptations like Twilight or The Hunger Games had a rally of support behind the screen versions from readers who have long loved the novels (causing the adaptation to be widely anticipated) The Queen’s Gambit lacked an active readership who would do the same. As a result, the adaptation was received mostly without the context of the initial work. In fact, many believed it to be based on a true story and assumed Beth Harmond was in fact a true chess aficionado (or at least directly based on one).
As a result of this dissonance, there are many things about the novel that may shock the avid series-viewer. In the novel, our favorite protagonist, Beth Harmon, calls Jolene the n-word. The original Methuen is a co-ed orphanage, adding a level of sexual danger for the woman-run orphanage depicted in the series. Tevis also wrote a description of Jolene attempting to molest Beth while urging her to engage in mutual masturbation, adding a level of racialized sexuality to Jolene that Netflix decided to leave out. Instead, the TV series adds a few of its own flourishes. The show explains Beth’s tranquilizer and alcohol addictions through flashbacks to her childhood trauma, whereas the book frames substance addiction sans backstory. The series has the dreamy Townes reappear after Mexico City (and hint at homosexuality), has Benny become Beth’s sexual zenith (“what its supposed to feel like”), and has the wispy, French Cleo (and the night she and Beth spend together) completely recontextualize her first match with Borgov, inventing a whole new character.
I myself saw the show before reading the book and was so taken by how unique its style was that I devoured the book in a flurry, trying to find all the details I so loved in the Netflix series. The iconic fashion was gone. The will-they-won’t-they Townes relationship was gone. The chess support line at the end of the last episode was gone. The fashion-forward, confident-yet-reclusive hero was gone. What the reader got was a stoic and eerily disengaged woman, obsessed with a game that modern audiences don’t really know much about.
Contrary to the show, the narrative style of Tevis, short and direct, alienates the novel-Beth to the society around her in every way – leaving her ability to play chess as her only avenue into the social circles around her. In the novel, Beth is not a bold, red-headed fashionista, but rather a socially awkward mousy brunette. The casting of model Anya Taylor-Joy to play Beth is one of the most divergent aspects of the series in terms of characterization, changing the trajectory and nature of Beth’s empowerment as it was depicted in the novel. While chess served as her singular lifeline there, the strong confidence that Taylor-Joy uses to power through the chess world creates a new sort of tension and a new narrative arc that gives Beth a stronger sense of inner strength and outer beauty.
One of the biggest positive responses to experiencing The Queen’s Gambit in its screen version has been that women find it empowering to see young, uncredentialled Beth Harmon sit across the chessboard from men who condescend and smirk at her presence and then to watch her beat each one squarely. As she realizes her dream to become a grandmaster, we see her continue on the same path she decides on in the very first episode. No forces of sexism or political strife, or even serious financial barriers rise up to stop Beth from her victory. And when these forces do play out, they are easily disposed of at no real cost to Beth herself. Beth lives in a fantastic reality — and one the 21st century viewer (and surely any real woman from the 60s too) can’t help but envy. The mere anachronism of Tevis’s original construction of Beth in the 80s is just as prevalent in the 2019 version. Her journey to maturity, the bildungsroman written and rewritten by man after man for this precarious female character, makes less and less sense the more we think about it.
A large tension in both mediums is Beth Harmon’s enactment of womanhood, as she is depicted as antagonistic to her all male surroundings, threatening the status quo with her chess genius. While her achievements are certainly inspiring for women (in that they portray a reality which women aspire to and can live in vicariously through her), the lack of reality, and especially the lack of a political reality, for Beth makes her character act not as a strong female lead, but more as a lens for the experience men imagine women having. Other woman chess players from the time period corroborate this saying they experienced much higher degrees of sexism than either Beths ever did. The first (real) female grandmaster Susan Polgar stated she faced explicit “sexual harassment, physical intimidation, and, regularly, verbal and mental abuse” when she won her 1986 title.
In the chess world, Beth is characterized as an anomaly, symbolized to the viewer through her striking red hair, her good fashion taste, etc., and we are told she is the exception and not the rule. Seen in her first match against the other female chess player, Annette Packer, she defeats female competition even faster than her male competitors. Then, later in the series when Packer comes to watch Beth in her second Kentucky open, Beth blows her off completely. Thus, if she breaks any competitive chess “glass ceilings” she quickly pulls up the ladder and closes the hatch behind her.
In the case of this adaptation, reading the book led me away from believing in the myth that was Beth Harmon particularly in the possibilities for female empowerment it initially provokes. This series operates as an escapist illusion, made for the 21st century watcher. It erases the difficulties of everyday life (nevermind everyday life in the 60s) and it hits the right notes to inspire — if you don’t think too critically about its reality. So, if you want my take on if you should read the book, or heck, if you should ever think on or research too deeply the media you consume, I would tell you to proceed with extreme caution.The rights to a musical version of The Queen’s Gambit were bought on March 8th by a woman-run theatre production company called Level Forward, whose CEO stated, “The story is a siren call amidst our contemporary struggles for gender and racial equity, and we’re looking forward to moving the project forward.” We will see if the cycle continues…