The Queen's Gambit: a character study of genius
The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, is a fascinating story about a girl, Beth Harmon, who is a chess genius.
The Queen’s Gambit is based on a novel of the same name, by Walter Tevis, which was first published in 1983. Tevis has also written novels that have been created into movies including The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money. Anna Taylor Joy has acted in earlier roles such as Lily in the thriller Thoroughbreds (2017), Thomasin in The Witch (2015), and she starred in the movie Emma (2020). In a video interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Taylor Joy said that she fell in love with the character and felt that she could tell Beth’s story accurately. She began this project with no knowledge of chess. She stated, “That’s also what was awesome about getting to do this is I got invited into a very secret world that’s super cool and really interesting...It was so exciting to have the pressure of- okay, you have to learn this very complicated sequence over three boards as quick as you can in 5 minutes and just give it a go. I loved it.”
In an interview with NPR, the show’s producer, Scott Frank, said that since the book came out in 1983, there has been a high demand to adapt it to the screen. He said that the book itself is a page turner and accurate to how chess is played. Frank states, “There were all sorts of people who flirted with it over the years. Heath Ledger was going to do it as his directorial debut before he died. And so it’s been around. And I think everybody has faced the same battle, which is when you reduce a novel to a screenplay...it just becomes a sports movie, period. Whereas, if you can do something longer with it, it can be so much more.” Frank does exactly that.
The story begins when Beth’s parents die tragically and she is moved to an orphanage. Beth is later adopted by a couple and enters a chess competition. Even though she does not own a chessboard herself, she soon makes a name for herself in local tournaments. While Beth’s mother originally wants her to become more social at her school, she quickly takes notice of Beth’s talent through news stories and supports Beth’s endeavors in chess. Beth and her mother travel around the world to different chess tournaments. Beth is an intuitive chess player who spends hours studying chess strategies. She is calculated, stating that a chess board is something that she can control. Beth has another side to her: one in which she is dependent on prescription pills and drinks heavily. While she rejects the circle of girls in her high school, she is seen being self explorative when she parties with students from her community college. Beth and her mother share their vice of drinking, and the two make for an unconventionally likable duo.
The tone of the series is cerebral and meditative, and each scene is crafted artfully. Much like Mad Men, The Queen’s Gambit takes place in the ‘60s, and its communication style relies on subtleties to create depth. The scenes blur the line between video and photography, and the characters carry themselves with elegance. The show pushed itself further than just a sports movie about who will win. The show carries the thrill of “who will win?” and “will Beth be the champion?” but goes deeper into a human story about feeling alienated, approaching one’s own genius, and wrestling with your own demons.