Second Union

Second Union

REVIEW: The Queen’s Gambit

“The noises had already faded into a white, harmonious background. Beth lay happily in bed, playing chess.”

“You’re bigger than The Monkees.”

The Queen’s Gambit, 2020 (Anya Taylor-Joy) Flitcraft Ltd./Wonderful Films/Netflix

I’m not much of a chess player. As a matter of fact, I’m terrible. I’ll get a game from time to time, I’ll even beat the computer, but I’m not a chess player. After sitting through six-and-a-half hours of The Queen’s Gambit, I now know why. I never examine or study the relationships between the pieces. I don’t look at the board in my head all night long. I don’t agonize over moves. I don’t play to win. Beth Harmon plays to win, but when she does come up against defeat, she goes to pieces. Yet there is nothing in her character to dictate the impossibly high standard she has set for herself. She’s merely a gifted child that doesn’t exist.

She spent most of her life in an upscale orphanage after her mother’s attempted murder-suicide (she succeeded with the second part). The girls are fed, well-cared for and paraded about by the mercurial Mrs. Deardorff for prospective parents. On a trip to the basement to clean chalkboard erasers, she spies the janitor, Mr. Schiebel, playing chess. She gets curious. He teaches her the game, beats her (or forces her to resign) and she becomes angry and calls him a bad word.

She develops an addiction to dangerous tranquilizers prescribed for the kids at the orphanage. She is adopted by the Wheatleys, a seemingly nice salesman husband and homemaker wife in her native Louisville, Kentucky, where nobody seems to have an accent. A short time later, the husband takes off on another sales job and never comes home, leaving mom and adopted daughter in a lurch.

Harmon enters local chess tournaments and collects cash prizes, shocking everyone around her because she’s a girl, and going by the “logic” of The Queen’s Gambit, girls don’t play chess. I don’t understand this reasoning. Most, if not all, women represented in The Queen’s Gambit, get married and have children and live quiet little lives and none of them play chess! They look down their noses at women who dare to make a life and name for themselves.

Her mother, Alma (who gave up her dreams to become Mrs. Allston Wheatley) brokers her career and earns a 15% commission. She makes decent money, but not enough to live on. She gets into the bigger competitions with bigger cash prizes. She travels all over most of the known world, playing tournaments in Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris, and culminating in a trip to the Soviet Union.

The Hustler scribe Walter Tevis hustles his way through a fanciful piece of fiction about a character who could be real, but never crosses the line into non-fiction. The Queen’s Gambit is so genuine in stretches, you could swear there was such a girl, a chess prodigy named Beth Harmon, who took the world by storm with her talent, but that’s where the authenticity ends. Her life, outside of chess, is so uninteresting, so bereft of chance and change that this cut-and-paste story could be applied to anyone with a particular skill-set. Simply remove the mechanics of the game and replace them with another skill most of us absorb.

Anya Taylor-Joy is sullen and expressionless (you might even say joyless) as Harmon; a polished white pawn on an idealized board surrounded by pieces that attempt to protect her rather than the other way around. She’s a fine actress, but she’s given very little to do for seven episodes except stare down her opponents, relations, and acquaintances with those enormous eyes of hers.

This wouldn’t be a form of non-fiction fiction without the easy path to self-destruction. Beth picks up her mother’s habit of drinking, possibly as a replacement for her reliance on the tranquilizers she needs in order to hallucinate the impressive chessboard on her bedroom ceiling.

Throughout the series, I kept trying to understand and decipher the meaning of the word, prodigy. People call Beth Harmon a “prodigy,” given her embrace of chess at an early age, but she comes across kids even younger than her mastering the game and if she owes her success to pills and alcohol, she isn’t really a prodigy, is she? The point of chess is not to win. The point of chess is to lose. Like The Queen’s Gambit, chess is a study of failure. We learn from failure, not victory, but because Harmon comes apart at the first smell of a mistake and storms off when she loses a game, she deprives herself of a world education.

The script, which has characters talking like verbose writers instead of real people, isn’t interested in creating a well-rounded character, merely a vessel, a Forrest Gump for the chess world; the idiot savant who makes easy work of “geniuses” as she flouts current society (the mid-to-late ’60s) conventions. Scott Frank’s direction is dull as dishwater with an over-reliance on slow tracking movements of his camera to create a gloomy, oppressive mood.

The production design and costumes are wasted in a flat, colorless high-definition image. In attempting to simulate the actions of a chessboard and using his characters as pieces, it’s more than obvious he knows very little about chess. I noted all the “cookie-cutter” moves his “grandmasters” use in their games: bishop’s pawn, knight, knight’s pawn, bishop takes queen’s pawn, etcetera. I also noted a few errors in piece movement and configuration.

The book is another matter. Tevis, always a smash-up brilliant writer, levels the playing field with real dialogue, characters with personal failings either already ingrained or beginning to blossom. Harmon is seen as “ugly,” quite possibly the “ugliest white girl ever,” according to her friend, Jolene (again rewritten to be less predatorial and more ingratiating). I like to think perhaps she is homely or plain. I don’t know that I can seriously size anybody up (particularly a child) as ugly, but these are cruel, terrible children after all.

The language of the book is raw with plenty of derogatory terms, though Tevis swore at the time of publication he meant The Queen’s Gambit to be a “tribute to brainy women,” but the series believes the only way to empower unattached young women is to denigrate women who choose the more orthodox path.

While there are tough lessons to be learned, the series travels in the opposite direction, treating these fleshed-out characters with kid-gloves and never permitting them to venture outside the borders of their own boards, and the men, though telegraphed as oppressors inside their hierarchy, appear docile and practical, while Beth is lauded for simply winning her games. One of the better scenes in the series has a gaggle of girls singing and dancing to The Vogues song, “You’re the One” as Beth makes a swift exit. It feels natural and spontaneous in a situation replete with unbending choreography and poise.

Horrific incidents of cruelty and sadism in the book are glossed over in the series. I don’t understand why. Netflix, as far as I know, offers unparalleled freedom in the content of their productions that we shouldn’t have to question what is and what is not acceptable for a private pay streaming service. Nevertheless, the story’s fangs have been removed and The Queen’s Gambit becomes a sterilized, sanitized experience.

Because the book’s story was dependent on this coarseness, removing it changes the motivation of characters. Consequently, this is one of the worst adaptations from previously written material I’ve ever seen. If the series existed on its own, it probably would’ve played better, but still been too long. This is a story best served by the feature film format. As it stands, it’s a grandmaster class in tedium and the saga of a talented loser.

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