Freedom and Chess: Playing The Queen's Gambit
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
The Queen's Gambit is a wildly successful seven-part mini-series on Netflix, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Please stop here if you don't wish to see spoilers. The story follows an orphan named Beth Harmon from her early childhood as a chess prodigy to her defeat of the world champion at the age of 19. Beth's is a path strewn with isolation and substance abuse, but she eventually triumphs. Most of the changes that screenwriters Scott Frank and Allan Scott made from the novel sharpen the focus of the story, but all of the changes are interesting, and examining them can illuminate the narrative of both novel and mini-series.
At first I didn't think there was all that much to The Queen's Gambit. It seemed like a stylish, seven-hour version of "Behind the Music," that old MTV show about drug-addicted rock stars and their recoveries. Not much depth there. But as I talked it over with my wife and my Facebook friends I came to see that there is more to it than that.
I'm not going to give a full or linear plot summary, because the reader should see the mini-series or read the novel before reading this review. Suffice it to say that Beth has an up-and-down journey. But The Queen's Gambit has a well-developed, if not ultra-tight plot, and it is not naturalism in that its characters make meaningful choices. And most of all, for my purposes at least, it has a theme worth teasing out of the material.
The theme of The Queen's Gambit is: Freedom in the Self-Realization of a Genius.
Beth starts out as a very restricted person. She needs to achieve and does achieve both "freedoms to" and "freedoms from." She achieves both the freedom to play chess successfully and joyously and the freedom to connect with other people. She achieves freedom from institutions that try to control her but, more importantly, freedom from drugs and alcohol and freedom from isolation.
From the beginning of the story, when Beth is placed in the orphanage, various institutions try to dominate her, but she escapes time and again. The orphanage is extremely regimented, but with black fellow orphan Jolene she finds a kind of rebellious freedom, and with the janitor Mr. Shaibel she finds the possibilities of the chessboard. Sadly, Mr. Shaibel is never very warm to her, setting a pattern of isolation associated with chess.
Much later on, the Christian Crusade gives Beth money to travel to Russia and play in a tournament, on the condition that she make a statement against godless communism, a statement Beth rejects as "fucking nonsense." She gives them their money back, even though that leaves her with no way of getting to the tournament. This rejection of "generosity" that is not on her terms is a major act of self-assertion for Beth. While in Russia, which she does eventually reach, the State Department representative of the mini-series who accompanies her tries to keep her on a short leash, but eventually she walks away from him. Beth has too much pluck to be restrained by institutions.
Something that restricts Beth to a much greater degree, however, is her addiction to pills and liquor. The conceit of the mini-series is that tranquilizers help her with her eidetic imagination. I find this completely unconvincing, but it does set up an opportunity for Beth to learn to use her ability without the aid of pills. This connection between drugs and ability is not present in the novel, in which Beth uses tranquilizers simply to calm her overheated brain. I will say that the CGI of Beth's eidetic imagery is spectacular.
The Beth of both novel and mini-series is deprived of love. Her mother dies when she is a child. The gruff Mr. Shaibel invests time and energy in her, but never even asks her how she is. Things go wrong with her male friends. Jolene in the orphanage is her friend, but after Beth is adopted, she doesn't see Jolene for years. Her adoptive mother is distracted with drink and drugs and then dies. Beth is orphaned again and again.
Through all this she has chess. She tells an interviewer that she loves it because a chessboard is a world in 64 squares and that if she loses it's her own fault. Her early years at the game are triumph upon triumph because she is a genius, but when she begins to play Russians she becomes scared. Her friends try to help her in her final match against the formidable Russian champion, Borgov, and their support does help her emotionally, but in the end their advice is inadequate and she has to win on the basis of her own intuition. As a chess player she has come fully into her own.
The final scenes are the big pay-off. After she defeats Borgov, of whom she had been terrified, he goes beyond the usual polite handshake and gives her a hug. I take this to mean that she is now an accepted member of the chess pantheon and can face opponents without putting her self-esteem on the line. Having reached her chess goals while connecting to her friends and overcoming her dependence on the substances she's been abusing, Beth is no longer an obsessed person. She walks into a Moscow park where the old men play chess and for the sheer joy of it asks one of them if he'd like a game. She has achieved her potential in all areas of life and is a now free, self-realized person. This is the real meaning of both the show and the novel.
There are quite a few changes that were made when Frank and Scott adapted Tevis's novel for Netflix. The most obvious one, at least visually, is that the Beth of the novel is plain with brown hair, although she dresses well, while the Beth of the mini-series looks and dresses like a model with breath-taking red hair. I am not sure this is an improvement, and though it is stunning to look at, to me it feels superficial. The triumph of a plain Beth would be one more way for her to show that she can beat the odds, but the writers declined this gambit. Still, there is something thrilling about seeing this doe-eyed woman-child stalking her opponents. In the spirit of our age, the Beth of the mini-series is almost a character out of a Marvel movie: she is Chessgirl! with her special costumes and flame-hair, brandishing her eidetic superpower. All that's missing is a cape.
At an interior level, the mini-series loses the novel's portrayal of Beth's feelings of extreme hostility toward her early opponents. The Beth of the TV show seems overly detached at times because we do not see the seething inside her. In both versions it is difficult to see why anyone likes Beth, rather than simply admiring and feeling sorry for her. The people who do like her seem to do so purely out of their own good will and not because of any appealing human qualities she has. I suppose she can be proud and spunky, tossing off a good line from time to time, but she often seems a bit wooden and cold. The only thing I can think of is that many of the people in her life are responding to what they see as the vulnerable child in her. She is a kid sister to them, even to her lovers.
Three other changes have to do with homosexuality. Early on in their time in the orphanage, the Jolene of the novel crawls into bed with Beth, rubs her and tries unsuccessfully to get Beth to rub her in return. Today we would call that sexual assault, though it may be pardonable among young girls. At any rate, it does not affect their relationship. When Beth hits bottom she turns to Jolene for help. The Jolene of the mini-series is something of a black superwoman with ambitions to become a lawyer and a radical, ambitions that the novel's Jolene does not have. She becomes even more the black pepper that Beth needs in her life, but not in a sexual way.
It is worth mentioning that the mini-series slyly declines to use an offensive trope with Jolene, one that the novel mercifully does not even go near. In the mini-series (but not in the novel) Jolene lends Beth $3000 to go to Russia on, and in return Beth calls Jolene her "guardian angel," thereby setting Jolene up in the role of the "magical negro," a black character with special powers or insight who exists in a story solely to save a white person. Jolene is having none of this and rejects the characterization, saying that Beth would help her if she needed it. They are family and thus are equals, although Jolene is clearly the big sister in the dyad. Jolene helps Beth get off the alcohol and pills, not by a revelatory piece of wisdom intoned in the voice of Morgan Freeman, but by hard work in the gym. In the mini-series Beth also has a cathartic cry in Jolene's arms when she finds out how much the late Mr. Shaibel had felt for her all along.
Beth's friend Townes has a much larger role in the mini-series than in the novel. In the novel, he is just a hunk whom Beth desires. Nothing comes of it, and she does not carry a torch for him. In the mini-series, something is starting to come of it when Townes' male lover walks into the room. Apparently, Townes was only having an exceptional moment when he strokes Beth's cheek. Angry and hurt, she walks away from him without looking back, but when he shows up in Russia, they are reconciled and hold hands. Townes apparently arranges the call from America in which her supporters give her encouragement. Between Jolene, her supporters, and Townes, Beth the orphan now has a family. This is a major moment of connection for Beth, and she finally finds freedom from her isolation.
Another gay (or at least bisexual) character was wholly invented for the mini-series. Cleo is a model who tells Beth how empty models really are. I'm not sure what to make of this, except that Cleo envies Beth for her meaningful pursuit. Later Cleo seduces Beth, getting her drunk and luring her into bed, sabotaging Beth's big game the next morning. Interestingly, The Advocate, an LGBTQ newspaper, regards the portrayals of Townes and Cleo as positive presentations of gay characters, when, in fact, Townes, at least early on, wounds Beth by not telling her the truth about himself, and Cleo seems to deliberately undermine her. The Advocate refers to Cleo's behavior as the classic "lesbian who leads young woman astray" trope, although for some reason it is willing to allow that it is a positive occurrence this time even though "astray" really means "astray" in this case and not just "having sex with another woman." It's not clear to me why Cleo is introduced into the mini-series at all, except to make the story more diverse and to make Beth's problems more "spicy."
The two largest changes from novel to mini-series have to do with motherhood. Alma, Beth's adoptive mother, in both cases adopts Beth because she wants a companion. Each Alma becomes an agent for Beth's career and each has substance abuse problems that encourage Beth's own. But the role of Alma in the mini-series is greatly expanded. She becomes a real parent to Beth, who calls her "Mother" several times and holds hands with her. She is also transformed from a mere housewife who branches out as a manager for Beth, into a concert-level classical pianist who cannot perform professionally because of stage fright. Thus, in the mini-series she is a doppelganger for Beth to feel close to and a warning to Beth of what her fate might be if she is not careful. Since Alma is more fleshed out in the mini-series than in the novel, it is more credible that her death there would lead Beth to her drunken nadir, as she has been orphaned once more.
The largest change in the adaptation has to do with Beth's birth mother. In the novel she never appears onstage and her death in a car accident is only mentioned to explain how Beth has been orphaned. In the mini-series she is a major character. She is given a name, Alice, and we are shown the cover of her dissertation in mathematics from Cornell, letting us know that genius runs in the family. Unfortunately, she is also mentally ill and tries to inculcate in Beth a distrust of other people, especially men. In the end Alice doesn't know what to do with Beth and commits suicide, attempting to also kill Beth in the process. This horrifying incident, shown to us in pieces until it is completely revealed in the final episode, is the original trauma that is supposed to have motivated Beth's isolation. Apparently, just being orphaned is not enough to explain Beth's problems.
While Beth does not follow in Alice's paranoid footsteps, she does have problems being intimate with her lovers Harry and Benny. She is unwilling to rely on them emotionally, turning instead to the substances she habitually abuses. Another problem Beth has with men is that she is condescended to for being a female in the male-dominated world of chess. Alice has warned her that men will think themselves smarter than she is, but this is actually only a small issue in Beth's life. The Washington Post points out how inaccurate a portrayal of the sexist 1960s this is, an accusation confirmed by Hungarian grandmaster Judit Polgar, who tells of chess pieces being thrown at her by men she defeated and unwanted sexual advances being made toward her, even in the 1990s. Perhaps Alice's rantings are a way, not really convincing, to get some of the sexism of the 1960s into the story.
To conclude, The Queen's Gambit is a sophisticated and thoughtful look at the life of a modern genius. During today's pandemic, when isolation and substance abuse are so common, viewers can identify with Beth's struggles and revel in her triumphs. Eventually, Beth does not have to keep her distance from other people nor wear a protective mask, and, watching her, we can hope for a freer life. The mini-series has come at an opportune moment.
I would like to express my gratitude to John Paquette, who gave me invaluable feedback as I wrote this review.