The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

It is not my usual order of doing things, to watch a film or series based on a book before reading the book itself but those wily creatures at Netflix made The Queen’s Gambit such an alluring prospect and, with positive reviews from my Facebook peers, adding to the fervour surrounding the chess-based drama, I was helpless to resist in the face of such ongoing perceived peer pressure.

Actually, I am glad I succumbed as I didn’t know that there was a book or indeed who Walter Tevis was and I would not have wanted to miss out. However, after discovering that there was a novel, I felt compelled to read it.

I’m not sure if you’re like me: I like to let my imagination form its own pictures from what I’m prescribed by the author; then, if a series, book, one-off drama is released, I like to draw comparisons based on my reading knowledge of what I think works, what I think of the casting choices, what’s been added, what’s been edited, etc. etc.

I have to say that on my reading of The Queen’s Gambit, there is a lot that remains true to Tevis’ original text.

The book deals with Elizabeth Harmon and begins with her arrival at the orphanage after her mother dies in a car crash. This is all that we are told about her mother – there is no back story and we are also told that her father is dead.

Elizabeth’s introduction to chess by Mr Shaibel in the basement where she is sent to shake out the blackboard erasers of chalk is true to the book as is the visit at the high school and the subsequent tournaments.

Mrs Wheatley and Beth’s relationship with her as her reputation increases and her chess playing prowess takes her to the higher flight competitions is similar in the Netflix production.

Alma and Beth – true to the book

I could continue to list but this would be a very mundane book review. You get the idea.

The book is good, as good as the series.

Walter Tevis is a good writer with a succinct style of prose which is easy to read but not scant on atmosphere and detail. His narrative is controlled and well-paced, building up to the dénouement – the tournament in Russia.

His characterisation of Beth shows a girl without family finding something in which she can invest, something in which she has an interest and can feel confident doing. Chess fills a gaping hole in a life that is likely to be bereft of family and friends, the chance of her being adopted as she gets older becoming more and more unlikely. It also shows someone conquering addictions despite the fact that she craves their artificial chemical support.

What is the biggest difference which must be commented on is, in the book, she is a round faced, brown haired girl, unattractive and aware of it. This contrasts greatly with the casting of Anya Taylor-Joy who is quite angular and lovely. However, Anya’s comportment mirrors Tevis’ creation of Beth in the book – the progression from girl to woman, becoming more aware of her appearance is the same. I think books are able to provide introspection better than TV: you are given a direct link into the character’s headspace, their fears, their feelings, their hesitations and in this, the book is better. Beth is much less composed than she appears in the series. She is a closed person, not prone to showing emotion anyway, which seems to be a trait that most chess players have. However, Tevis is able to allow you to explore the inner machinations of her mind in a way that can only be portrayed through expression and inflection and subsequently gleaned as a viewer from a performance in a TV show.

Anya Taylor-Joy – angular

I found this to be especially revelatory in terms of the way that Beth views Borgov throughout the book. He is her nemesis when it comes to chess but what does not come across in the TV programme is that she is more than mentally unsettled by him: she has real fear of him, perhaps because he is a Russian chess player, perhaps because he is the best in the world, perhaps because she has no point of reference with which to compare him, not having strong older male role models in her life.

Even the contact that she has with male chess players is centred around chess so her relationships with men are never really developed – maybe she does not know what to make of him because he is an unknown quantity and it is from that which her fear extends. Also, he beats her at the game, the playing of which is the foundation for her confidence, which would surely add to her trepidation; he is expressionless and aloof at every interaction that they have so he is not personable; he is a family man whereas she is an orphan. It makes his reaction when she forces him to resign all the more poignant as he embraces her in a Russian bear hug, his previously impenetrable façade eagerly dropped to share her triumph.

This discussion of male chess players brings me nicely on to Benny Watts, Beth’s main squeeze, if you can call him that. He is blond in the book and his hair is longer and he does not wear the Indiana Jones-style hat that Thomas Brody-Sangster adorns in the TV series; one reference is made to a hat when Beth first sees him in the book and it is more like a beanie than a brimmed hat. However, the growing attraction to each other when Benny helps Beth to train for her Russian trip is the same in both, culminating with them sleeping together and her going off to Russia on her own.

Would the TV series have been less successful had Beth Harmon been portrayed by someone less attractive? If Benny had been blond?

Who knows? But the question of Beth’s plainness in the book in contrast to Anya Taylor-Joy’s beauty in the TV series surely demands some discussion.

Does the idea of a plain woman being supremely intelligent play to our idea of stereotypes? That women can’t be beautiful and really intelligent? That you are either blessed with one thing or the other?

In our modern age and the advent of fervent feminism, is there a point being made in having a beautiful actress playing a genius chess player? Is there an attempt being made to thwart the idea that women are not just objects to be admired but that they can be attractive AND supremely intelligent and, dare I say it, able to dominate in a male-dominated world?

Maybe. Maybe not. It could equally be as likely that Anya Taylor-Joy was considered à la mode, the face of the moment and that casting her would bring maximum publicity and exposure to the Netflix production. There is no doubt that her appearance is distinctive and engaging.

I’m not sure and Anya Taylor-Joy’s visage has become so linked with The Queen’s Gambit that Beth’s plainness in the book will surely fall by the wayside.

Whatever the truth, Walter Tevis has, in his creation of Beth Harmon, created a powerful female character who will be remembered by me in both of her manifestations, as a TV character and a literary one.

And now that I have had my reading world opened to the works of Walter Tevis, there is no doubt that you can expect to read more reviews of his works here.

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