Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, about a female chess prodigy, has become a miniseries, premiering Friday on Netflix. It is a sports story, a coming-of-age story and a becoming-human story, and also a kind of mortal version of that popular modern genre, the inner life of a superhero, and the first thing to say about it is that it is very good — thoughtful, exciting, entertaining. Tevis was also the author of the pool novel ‘The Hustler’, its sequel, ‘The Color of Money,’ and the sci-fi parable ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ sits among them as a mathematical sports novel with an uncanny heroine.
It is also, in screen terms, something like a cross between ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ — a lovingly decorated period piece, stretching from the late 1950s through most of the 60s, concerning a young woman triumphing in what was then considered a man’s game — and ‘A Beautiful Mind’, as an attempt to concretely represent the workings of an unusual intelligence living way out in the abstract.
The second thing to say about it is that it’s quite faithful to its source material. There has been some alteration of minor characters and expansion of major ones, for the usual reasons of exposition, but nothing out of the spirit of the story. Only a few of Tevis’ scenes are missing, and nearly all of his dialogue is spoken in the miniseries, which was developed by Scott Frank (‘Get Shorty’, ‘The Wolverine’) and Allan Scott (‘Don’t Look Now’) and written and directed by Frank. And much that is not spoken aloud in the novel’s text is turned into speech as well.
Third, and perhaps most important, it’s about chess as chess; there is something almost audacious in making a series in which the main dramatic action involves two people at a table, moving little carved pieces of wood around, punching a clock and taking notes. Nobody is murdered, except metaphorically, in tournament play or physically assaulted or even sexually harassed, which is a little surprising, given the premise, and refreshing among lurid shenanigans that make up so much contemporary television.
Beth Harmon (played as a preteen by Isla Johnston and as a teenager by Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a star so quickly and unequivocally that all bow down before her; her greatness is never in question, any more than is Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound or change the course of mighty rivers with his bare hands, and she is told almost from the time she learns the game from the janitor at the orphanage where she lives (Bill Camp, gruff but tender) that she is “astounding” and “maybe the best ever.”
By the second episode, Beth will be adopted and, notwithstanding some mutual incomprehension, find an ally in her new mother (Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley), a mutually supportive, mutually exploitive relationship in which Frank has made sure we see the warmth — little physical connections that register hugely. (I would watch that cough, though, Mrs. W.)
Throughout Beth will battle, or give in to, alcohol and drugs — a recurring theme in Tevis’ fiction and life — beginning with the tranquillisers she’s fed at the orphanage, a kind of junior ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ situation. While key to the story, it is somewhat less convincing on-screen than the chess, because addiction is harder to play than concentration, or easier to overplay, and perhaps because it is something we have seen often in the talking pictures. There are some standard-issue intoxicated camera angles and moves, and we see Beth smoking pot and dancing to ‘Along Comes Mary’ by the Association and drinking wine from a bottle and dancing to “Venus” by Shocking Blue. (She seems to have stolen their lead singer’s look when she arrives hung-over and heavily made up to a match the next morning.)
As to the chess, it is, of course, a compressed version of the game; there is a passage in the book where Beth takes an hour to make a move, sitting with eyes closed, and there is no way to represent it on-screen that won’t have viewers leaving the room to cook dinner or buy a car or whatever. Yet even when the play moves fast, there’s a stillness to it, and a quiet, and Frank mostly holds back on the underscoring, at least until the finale, when he lets everything rip. And even when Frank hauls out some old Hollywood effects or surgically inserts a line of cornball dialogue (“We weren’t orphans, not as long as we had each other”), it works.
Whatever quibbles I detail here in the name of thoroughness, I was involved from beginning to end; there are chess games and human games, and I was alert to Beth’s losses and wins, in both respects, in an actual bodily way. That one feels protective toward the character has something to do with the fact that, even as a consistently winning phenomenon, she is an underdog through to the end and much to do with the authority of the performances by the well-matched actresses who play her.
Johnston, reserved and determined, is believably possessed by the game and good at it. (All the chess play comes across as authentically sure, at least to a lay viewer with no talent for the game.) With her wide-set eyes and triangular face, Taylor-Joy has something appropriately alien in her mien, in the Area 51 sense, but she manages to integrate the otherworldly lack of affect we associate with intensely focused people — as represented on TV and in the movies anyway — with recognisable human warmth; she is a likeably self-involved character. (The flashbacks Frank adds to “explain” her aren’t really necessary, nor are the interpolated suggestions from a Life magazine reporter that “creativity and psychosis often go hand and hand — or for that matter, genius and madness.”)
Other hands will help her along the way, most notably fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram), a voice of experience and proportion, and US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), flamboyantly unconventional in a cowboy hat and duster with a knife strapped to his belt. Brodie-Sangster is possibly best known for playing Liam Neeson’s little boy in ‘Love, Actually’, and looks weirdly identical 17 years later, only stretched out tall with a wispy beard and moustache. (There is some love interest along the way, but love is ultimately less interesting than chess.) The idea is floated that we are better as a team, but in the end we still face the board alone.