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Book vs Film: The Queen’s Gambit

If you’ve seen the mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, released on Netflix in October, then you already know it’s a powerful illustration of addiction, love, and ambition, as well as the only chess-based psychological drama you’ll likely ever consume. Although it would officially go on to become Netflix’s most-streamed limited series, the question remains – how does this adaptation compare to Walter Tevis’ original 1983 novel?

With any book-to-film adaptation, certain liberties can be taken from a storytelling perspective. Even so, its presentation as a seven-part miniseries certainly helped with its inclusivity, and there are few moments in the book that aren’t shared by its counterpart. 

The novel is fast-paced and ceaselessly entertaining, taking the reader through Beth Harmon’s erratic life with only small moments for reflection. The tone is as definite and final as the character herself, and is completely accessible for all levels of readers. 

That being said, there are certain stylistic decisions that I believe may have aided in the success of the Netflix adaptation. There is profound imagery in the series: shadows of chess pieces consuming Beth’s body, up-side-down chess boards on her bedroom ceiling, and the development of her appearance as she grows into womanhood, to name a few. These things are simply not present in the novel, and although there’s still deep emotional potency to her character, her struggles are more explicitly stated than shown. 

Even still, Tevis’ Beth often feels more tumultuous. Although strong and confident, she experiences moments of shyness, embarrassment and confusion; in some ways this vulnerability makes her more relatable to the average reader. By contrast, Scott and Taylor’s Beth is a joy to watch because of her titanic endurance and determination. She seems only to go from moments of anger, to pride, to nonchalant coolness as she is exposed to new challenges. Book readers will find themselves exposed to far more facets of the character’s emotional development.

What may be the most interesting difference between the novel and show is Beth’s relationship to drugs. The miniseries makes it very clear that her green ‘tranquilizers’ allow her to more clearly visualise a board and practice in her head. Even as she’s losing her first big match, she goes into the bathroom, takes a few pills, and returns to obliterate her competition. This creates a very interesting dynamic between Beth and substances, as they enhance her ability to further her career, portraying them as a kind of secret weapon. 

The novel offers a completely different, and far more traditional perspective on drug abuse. The battle is solely between herself and her addiction, and Beth even admits that taking the tranquilizers actually makes her far more foggy when trying to play. Her addictions only serve to impede her, and it is never implied that there is anything to be gained from them beyond instant gratification and peaceful sleep.

This is a liberty of the miniseries that I deeply appreciate. Beth using the influence of the pills to succeed feels like the experience of an addict, realised for an audience of non-addicts. The green pills being necessary for her to win is what an addict would believe regardless of whether or not it was actually true. Beyond simply showing that the character has an addiction, the miniseries forces the complicated relationship between drug use and the character onto the viewer as we continue to root for her victory while also observing the negative effects of her vices. 

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the book or watched the series, The Queen’s Gambit is a thrilling story of defeat, success, loss, and love with skillful depth and insight. The miniseries provides a very cinematic and dramatic interpretation of the novel, and I think those who enjoyed the Netflix adaptation will find that its source material widens the world, providing further insight into all the characters they’ve come to love.

Image: Charis Tsevis via Flickr