The Queen's Gambit: show v. book
The show is excellent but the book, playing first, has the edge
Spoilers ahead. TW: mentions of drug addiction, alcoholism, and child sexual abuse.
I recently watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit in a day, then read the book by Walter Tevis in half a day, and in between I have been compulsively watching analyses of live chess games that I do not fully understand, running up and down the stages of grief and trying to delay leaving Beth Harmon’s world for a little while longer.
The result of this lethal multimedia concoction (besides a lucid dream in which I was lectured on pawn formations by my mother) is that I have observed where the book and its adaptation majorly depart, and I have Strong Opinions about these points of departure.
Before we get into it, some framing. I have two eyes and a heart and an ear for dulcet tones, so of course I watch Lessons from the Screenplay. One of my favourite videos in this channel talks about how Eric Heisserer adapted Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang into the movie Arrival. He altered the core deterministic philosophy of the story because he thought that would tug at the heartstrings harder. He also changed several elements to create tension and surprise the audience. All of this is to say that we shouldn’t judge the success of an adaptation by how closely it follows the original. Rather, we should see if adaptation has done justice to its new medium while retaining the spark of what makes the original compelling.
The Netflix series succeeds here. Most of the deviations from Tevis’s story are understandable, and many are effective. They make the story more digestible, visual, and dramatic, and that is exactly what a television adaptation needs to do when it doesn’t have the space of a five season Sopranos arc to examine the protagonist’s every nose hair. So yes, while there is something thrillingly puritan about preferring a book to its adaptation*, and while I do in fact prefer the book here, the series is excellent and I will not be hating on it (hate-readers, exit now or forever hold your peace). On we go.
1 | Beth’s rubber ducky
In the show, Beth’s pill addiction helps her cope with childhood trauma and win at chess. Her mother, trying to kill them both, died in a car crash that Beth survives. She fed Beth’s sense of abandonment and worthlessness right until the end, trying to cast Beth off to her father and referring to Beth as a problem that needed to be solved. Taking tranquiliser pills helps Beth suppress these traumatic memories. They also improve her eidetic ceiling visualisations, initially helping her beat Mr. Shaibel, and then other players like Harry Beltik. It should be noted that Beth’s mother was an accomplished mathematician and addicted to the same kind of pills as Beth. This gives a predestined quality to both Beth’s analytical genius and her addiction.
As the show progresses, Beth oscillates frustratingly between relapse and recovery until the night before the climatic game against Vasily Borgov. Having beaten the great Luchenko, she is high on self-worth. She remembers her trauma in full and flushes her pills down the toilet. Though initially she second-guesses herself, she goes on to win, proving that the drugs were a false crutch.
In the book, Beth is not present for her mother’s death and has no such specific trauma. There is no ‘rubber ducky’ moment**, or an incident in a character’s early life that fully explains why they are dysfunctional. We don’t know if her mother was a mathematician, a pill addict, what she looked like, or if Beth loved her. Tevis is not interested, and frankly neither am I. Being an orphan is tragic enough without all the particulars.
Beth’s pill addiction has very specific beginnings here. She is an insomniac and takes them to sleep, usually after playing out her tiring eidetic games. The pills are tranquilisers after all, not steroids, and it is a distinction that refuses to play into the false, ‘drug-addled genius’ trope.
The book directly questions “the complicity of the orphanage that had fed [Beth] and all the others on pills that would make them less restless, easier to deal with” (51). Punishing her for trying to steal the jar of pills is shown for what it is: entrapment. When an adult Beth visits Methuen Home with Jolene DeWitt, it’s not only to realise how closely Mr. Shaibel had followed her career. She also begins to appreciate the sadism of Mrs. Deardorff’s decision to forbid chess. At the same age, her male peers would’ve been attending tournaments and deepening their skills. Beth discloses these “Dickensian” cruelties to reporters at Moscow and hope they print the truth (346).
By elevating Beth’s trauma, the show rebalances the relative strength of other factors in explaining her drug addiction and alcoholism. The orphanage is absolved of responsibility, e.g. Mrs. Deardorff is a sympathetic character, and the purpose of the road-trip to Methuen Home is only to mourn Mr. Shaibel and revisit Beth’s childhood trailer. I’d prefer it otherwise, but I see why the showrunners did it. Childhood trauma is a dramatic, compelling Goliath, and the show probably felt more comfortable resolving that in seven episodes than, say, institutional injustice.
The show also brings Beth’s alienation as a girl apart into sharper focus. Beth is bullied more (making her more of an underdog), is under greater pressure to dress well and be sexually desirable (making her transformation into a sexually active fashion icon starker), and sees her female peers adopt traditional gender roles (emphasising the oddity of her own place in society). In short, more drama. I approve.
Importantly, Beth in the show ends up much less alone. She has more supportive friends than Beth in the book. The show uses this to bold and underline a few messages. Build mutual support systems and don’t abandon friends in need. Reject American individualism and adopt a communitarian model of achievement. Some viewers have noted dissonance; Beth is a dick, and doesn’t do much to inspire loyalty besides being a genius. Others would argue that she does, in her own weird and misanthropic way, show affection. And perhaps being a (very attractive) genius is enough of a draw.
But there is a hidden cost to maneuvering such a supportive community around Beth...
2 | Beth’s agency
The show creates opportunities for supporting characters to intervene in Beth’s life, usually to urge her to go sober, and usually at the cost of her agency. Take the instance of Beltik showing up at the Kentucky State Championship. Beth has visibly fallen off the wagon. He tells Beth she smells like his drunkard father and that he’s worried about her. This dramatic intervention causes Beth to drop out of the tournament and rush home. There, Jolene turns up, surveys the empty bottles and pills, and tells Beth to stop digging herself into a hole.
In the book, Beltik disappears from the story after training Beth. He never shows up at the Kentucky State Championship. Beth plays the first round of that tournament, suffers a humiliating defeat to a low-ranked player named Foster, and then drops out. The loss is a wake-up call, and it is Beth who seeks out Jolene’s help as a result. She realises “with an unaccustomed clarity” that if she doesn’t stop drinking, she’ll ruin her life (279).
There are more examples. Jolene lends Beth her college fund money to fly to Moscow, and uses the gesture to teach her about friendship. In the book, Beth does not need that money (after paying back the Christian Crusade, she has enough for herself, just not for her second, Benny Watts), and instead of playing therapy squash with Jolene, she goes through a gruelling, five-month fitness routine.
The show, in knotting Beth’s addiction with her trauma, makes her less self-aware and more of a slave to her addiction. Beth in the show barely indicates she knows the impact of the pills and alcohol on her mind until Jolene prods her. Beth in the book knows exactly how bad they are, as early as Mexico City. “[T]he tournament started tomorrow. She did not need liquor. Nor tranquilizers. She had not had a green pill for several months now. But she drank the beer.” (172). In the first tournament she wins against Beltik, Beth does not go to the bathroom to take a pill when Beltik plays a confounding move. She only cools herself off with some towels. The series begins in media res with Beth’s monumental screw up at Paris, when she turns up late and hungover to the match with Borgov. Cleo, who makes Beth relapse, is an invented plot device. In the book, Beth is on time, sober, and plays some of the best chess of her life. Borgov simply outplays her. Beth then chooses to relapse after her loss, and the line given to Mrs. Wheatley is actually hers: “[Beth] had flirted with alcohol for years. It was time to consummate the relationship.” (268). And so on.
The show’s choices, while justified, are flawed. I see why the series does all this. By re-inserting characters like Beltik into her life, it is trying to show Beth she is not isolated, that she has the help of good people. By making Beth win and lose pivotal games on the strength of the pills, the show is increasing the stakes for when she will eventually overcome addiction.
But these choices are kind of sloppy and condescend to Beth’s intelligence. Do the pills work, or don’t they? Is it that the pills work in moderation, so they don’t when Beth spirals and takes them in excess, which is why she needs a support system to help her play chess and wean off them? Or is that they don’t work, and have nothing to do with her ceiling visualisations, but Beth only wanted to believe they did, because they help her feel less lonely after people abandon her and she doesn’t want to acknowledge that to herself? The viewer may be convinced one way or another, but the show doesn’t actually clarify this. The result is that Beth comes off as strangely naive. If chess is her life, isn’t she curious whether the short-term benefits of the pills come with long-term costs? And if the pills aren’t in fact helping, how does she deceive herself for years that they are, only to change her mind in the space of a night with some light interrogation from D.L. Townes?
This is not to say that Beth can or should resolve her issues wholly independently. Indeed, Beth in the book leans on Jolene emotionally and uses her Phys Ed. expertise to get healthy. The difference is, as I’ve stressed before, that she knows pills are bad for her and she takes the first steps to recovery herself. This makes her a more active agent in her own life, which I find more compelling than the show’s version.
Beth in the book also gets that much-needed phone call from Benny before the Borgov match. The difference is that she doesn’t also have Townes and Beltik and Matt and Mike around. Arguably none of these men have a deep relationship with her. (I love Jacob Fortune-Llyod’s face just as much as the next person, but he had no business being in Moscow. Beth and Townes barely moved past being acquaintances. A small town newspaper funded a last-minute flight to Moscow, but the International Chess Federation and the U.S. Government couldn’t? All right.) Here’s how I see it. In the show, Beth wins against Borgov with the help of an unlikely motley of friends and by somehow internalising an insight she reached the night before. In the book, Beth’s win against Borgov is more about the bravery of fighting the Russians on their home ground, the commitment to sobriety (she doesn’t need to flush any pills, because she doesn’t have any with her), and in general, playing the kind of chess she’s always wanted to play. It feels more organic and hard-won. It feels more about Beth.
3 | Jolene and racial politics
The show blunts the edges of Beth and Jolene’s friendship. Beth and Jolene fall into a trope-y dynamic of the outsider white girl and the street-smart black girl who shows her the ropes. In the book, Beth and Jolene have a deeper and pricklier relationship. By having Jolene show up at Beth’s house instead of Beth seeking her out at her lowest point, we lose the insight that Beth really loves Jolene (and gain the Black Girl Saviour trope instead). She associates her with good things; she trusts her implicitly. These feelings are built upon a complex bedrock that we don’t get to fully see because the series progresses quickly from Beth’s time at the orphanage.
In the book, Jolene coaches Beth in volleyball, which Beth is terrible at (this comes full circle when she pushes Beth into dedicated exercise before Moscow). In a non-consensual encounter, she tries masturbating with Beth. Beth is frightened and refuses; Jolene calls her a cracker, and Beth responds with the N-word. They become friends again soon after, but it’s a loaded event. Beth envies Jolene for her beauty and athleticism: “With the light coming from behind her and with her frizzy hair and her big, wide eyes, Jolene was beautiful. Beth felt ugly, sitting there on the bench beside her.” (36). This carries on into adulthood, when on the drive to Methuen Home, Beth tells Jolene “I'd like to be half as good-looking as you are.” (301). The show does show the other side of this longing, that as a child Jolene was pissed at Beth for being white, and continues to be equal parts jealous and admiring of Beth’s genius.
We can’t talk about Jolene without talking about race, and the politics of 1960s America. The show tries to meet that moment, but doesn’t do enough. The show keeps much of Jolene’s dialogue in the book around how she impresses her white interviewers who are just looking for a token black employee. It goes a step further and even makes Jolene an aspiring radical who wants to change the world with her law degree. (Though for my money, Jolene in the book slumming it at the law firm with no such radical aspirations, declaring that “I'm a black woman. I'm an orphan. I ought to be at Harvard. I ought to be getting my picture in Time magazine like you,” is more vivid and layered (285)). But Beth’s tongue-in-cheek response, “I wasn’t aware [being a radical] was a career choice”, is unmoored from the rest of the show. Where exactly does Beth gain the political literacy to not only understand what a black radical is, but sympathise with Jolene’s aspiration to be one? In fact, how is Beth not, like…racist?
For all that the show contextualises the Cold War, it does not contextualise how matters stood at home. A year after Beth wins the Kentucky State Championship, the Civil Rights Act passes. The year she’s training for Moscow, Martin Luther King is assassinated. Beth in the show may move through a man’s world, but Beth in the book knows that it is a white man’s world. At her first tournament, she observes: “The room was full of people talking and a few playing; most of them were young men or boys. Beth saw one woman and no colored people.” (87).
Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley are implied to be racist early on. “In the car Mrs. Wheatley had said how glad they were to have an older child. Then why not adopt Jolene? Beth had thought. But she said nothing. She looked at Mr. Wheatley with his grim-set jaw and his two pale hands on the steering wheel and then at Mrs. Wheatley and she knew they would never have adopted Jolene.” (64). This is made explicit when Beth tries to save money to enter the tournament and broaches the topic of working after school. ““The only girls of your age who work," Mrs. Wheatley said, “are colored.” The way she said “colored” made Beth decide to say nothing further about it.” (80). The politics of the time bleeds into little details. When she plays at the U.S Championship, Beth has a match “against a tall , silent Californian in a Black Power T-shirt (...) he wore his hair in a kind of Afro, he was white—as all of them were.” (221). This low-grade and constant attention to race makes the book more believably set in 1960s America, even when black characters don’t get speaking time.
The show blunders in simplifying Beth’s relationship with Jolene and side-stepping politics. I see why the show glides over certain parts of Beth and Jolene’s friendship, especially the non-consensual masturbation scene. The portrayal of that kind of hostile, intimate, but ultimately deeply loving friendship is difficult to pull off. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante comes to mind, but even that series has four books, and its television adaptation has four seasons. That the show does not give Jolene more time, introduces three new characters who are white but none who are black, and generally avoids race except in blithe terms such as inside Jolene and Beth’s exchanges, is also technically not surprising—but it should give the showrunners pause that a novel written in 1983 has more to say about race than a show made in 2020.
Writing an essay like this doesn’t allow me to focus on all the things the show admirably translates to screen. The casting, the music, the pacing! The choreography of the chess games, that beautiful upside-down chess board! Vasily Borgov marking Beth as his equal in the elevator, unaware that she’s right behind him and listening keenly to every word he says! “She is an orphan. A survivor. She’s like us—losing is not an option for her.” I punched my palm; what a line! Borgov scraping his chair back in the middle of a game, ignoring his indignant opponent and going over to the board at which Beth has just won to study her position! The alluring shot of that half-open hotel door; these strong Russian men with their sleeves rolled up, bathed in soft white lamplight, discussing how best to decimate Beth (“And then she’s done”), such that when Beth wins against Luchenko, it feels like she’s impishly tapping at Borgov’s shoulder, too! The rivalry between them is juiced for all it’s worth, and I like it more than the book’s subdued version (though we do miss cute this interaction: “When the director came to escort them to the stage, Borgov glanced at her just before he left the room and raised his eyebrows slightly as if to say, "Here we go again!" and [Beth] found herself smiling faintly at him.” (335)).
But yes, in conclusion, the reason why the adaptation doesn’t work quite as well as the book has to do with how it responds to the constraint of space, and how it tries to inject more drama and tension. The book has more space. It allows for finer shading. Beth actually laughs a lot in the book. She is studious and buys Modern Chess Openings with her very first winnings instead of waiting on the stolen copy. She has a weirder and deeper relationship with Benny Watts; on her flight to Moscow, he’s the only person she really misses. She enjoys novels and movies and listening to foreign languages, all of which serves to make her fixation with chess starker. It’s a testament to Walter Tevis that only a day after Anya Taylor-Joy captured my imagination, his Beth Harmon recaptured it as quickly and brutally as she would any opponent’s chess piece.
Tevis’s characters, no matter how fantastic or far fetched, whether they are gamblers or aliens, always feel true. At times, reality has even bent toward his fictions, rather than the other way around. The pool room he described in The Hustler was the only pool room he had ever been in at that point in his life but today, most pool rooms in America continue to look just like it. The pool player Rudolf Wanderone, who was known in the world of pool as New York Fats, famously changed his name to Minnesota Fats and convinced the world that he was the inspiration for the Minnesota Fats character in the book, despite the fact that Tevis invented Minnesota Fats from whole cloth. “A lot of people ask me, ‘When did you first meet Minnesota Fats?’ And I feel like Walt Disney being asked, ‘When did you meet Donald Duck?’” he told Brick.
Today, 34 years after Walter Tevis died, his fiction feels as true as ever. So much so that the success of the Netflix show has sent many to their computers to look up whether The Queen’s Gambit and Elizabeth Harmon are based on a true story. Some are perhaps disappointed to learn it is a work of fiction. But it isn’t that simple. In so many ways, Beth Harmon is the real thing.
And now, prompted by that excellent The Ringer profile, I am off to read more of Walter Tevis.
(*) Unless you’re Lorrie Moore talking about Normal People.
(**) My friend Amy brilliantly analyses the narrative strength of the Rubber Ducky here, in an essay that contrasts the archetypes of James Bond, Hannibal Lecter, and Sherlock Holmes.
All my gratitude to Saumya and Anurag for lending me their eyes.