Is it the “sexy chess” or the allure of a master storyteller that’s making a new Netflix miniseries such a hit? Gary Raymond looks at The Queen’s Gambit, a coming-of-age tale about a chess prodigy based on the novel by one of America’s great “forgotten” writers, Walter Tevis.
So dazzling and dashing, so stylish and poised is Netflix’s new miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, it’s easy to forget while watching that much of its narrative success can be traced back to the fact it’s a straight-forward, very traditional, sports movie. Rags-to-riches, orphandom-to-stardom, outsider-to-master of the known universe. The Queen’s Gambit, if you were to map it out on a graph (yes, I do things like this), wouldn’t be a million miles away from the structural patterns of, say, Teen Wolf. It would also follow a similar trajectory to the two best movies made about pool, The Hustler, and its sort-of-sequel The Colour of Money. The other connection here is that the novel on which The Queen’s Gambit is based shares the author of the two pool novels on which those films are based: Walter Tevis. These may just be biographical notes for a surprise hit series that social media is currently claiming has made chess sexy, but run with it for a moment and layers are revealed. Tevis’s MO was writing about outsiders. Beth Harmon, the orphan chess prodigy of The Queen’s Gambit, booze and pill addicted, socially awkward, her own worst enemy, is very closely related to “Fast” Eddie Felson, the pool genius who hurtles through life and the back alley pool halls of 50s New York in The Hustler and The Colour of Money. (Tevis also wrote the novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which became a Nicholas Roeg movie starring David Bowie. Tevis commented once that this sci-fi classic about an alien seeking refuge on Earth from his own dying planet, was actually the most autobiographical of his works). But The Queen’s Gambit is not about a hothead like “Fast” Eddie, it is about the “genius in a woman”, as Tevis noted in an interview shortly before his death in 1983.
Whether the book or miniseries really gets to grips with Harmon’s genius is debatable. The nature of genius remains a subject with which both literature and cinema have had many more misses than hits over the years. Anya Taylor-Joy, straight off the back of bringing us arguably the best Emma Woodhouse yet put up on the screen, has a lot of fun as Harmon, and she does a good job of presenting the image of a genius. Her face is simultaneously immovable, expressionless, and hard-working. Cogs are whirring behind those eyes. We see her mind being unlocked by daily doses of tranquillizers at the orphanage she grows up in. We feel her obsession with chess. It pulsates out of her. But do we get into her head? You can guess at her being some sort of savant, although, in keeping with the era in which it’s set, there is never any reference to neuro-divergency as a conversation topic. As Tevis explored time and time again in his writing: you are either in society, conforming (and usually disintegrating), or you are out of it, being interesting. But The Queen’s Gambit rides out its lack of real depth on the subject Tevis set out to explore, and it does this because Tevis is a master storyteller.
The superficial (though not insubstantial) successes of The Queen’s Gambit – the design, the script, Anya Taylor-Joy’s fastidious performance – all come secondary to the decision from show creators Scott and Allan Frank to remain loyal to the source material. It’s a good story expertly managed by Tevis, and it’s the story that grips the heart. The novel straddles several dependable forms, most notably as already pointed out, the sports novel, but also the bildungsroman. This is the story of Beth Harmon’s coming-of-age. That she does most of this through chess and learns most of life’s lessons through chess, harks back to the comfort zone of Eddie Felson who can only truly be at peace when strutting his stuff around a pool table. But whereas Felson is a character study by a writer whose creative preoccupation was “the outsider”, The Queen’s Gambit is much more ambitious. It touches on issues of race, the Cold War, and sexual politics. But the Franks never fail to remember the arc this story must take, and the marks it must hit along the way. Michael Ondaatje has said that he rereads The Queen’s Gambit every few years to revel in the “pure pleasure and skill of it”. The skill of it. The skill of the miniseries, (which rattles along at quite a pace in a brief seven hours), is that it dazzles with whip-smart dialogue, astutely drawn characters, and reel after reel of luscious sets and frocks, but all-the-while its backbone is good old-fashioned storytelling.
One joy of the series is a faint suggestion that television execs in general may be moving to think more respectfully of “the source material”. Perhaps controversially, Ben Wheatley’s poorly received adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca might also have a part to play in this, if this is indeed a thing. Wheatley may have crafted a version that looks more Chanel advert than fans of the book or the Hitchcock version might have been ready for, but he still allows the story to unfold with a reverential adherence to Du Maurier’s genius for the art. The recent tendency to take a beautifully crafted, perfectly-honed piece of literature, and tear out its guts, has left us with bloody messes such as the popular-but-terrible Mike Flanagan ghost story anthologies which have so far assaulted Shirley Jackson and Henry James (no less) by bloating the perfect source materials with tangents and backstories and diversions and bad casting and laughable writing and entire episodes of superfluous bag-shaking. But the great storytellers are there, waiting, like Tevis, to be transcribed for a hungry modern audience who desire the most old-fashioned of services from their entertainers; to be whisked away to another world for a few hours, to laugh and cry and love and hate, to be cradled in the arms of a master of storytelling. The Queen’s Gambit is excellent because everything it does, it does in the service of the story.
The Queen’s Gambit is available now on Netflix. (Be aware of subscription costs)
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.