AMC Theatres, the country’s largest movie chain, employer of hundreds of fine people at its headquarters where I live in Kansas City, not to mention thousands of ticket takers and popcorn servers worldwide, is rapidly going down the drain. If that happens (and I pray that it doesn't), I think we’ll look back and say that productions like The Queen’s Gambit contributed to its demise.
The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-part, six-hour adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel about a female chess prodigy coming of age in the Cold War, and it’s fabulous. Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma, Peaky Blinders) lights up the screen. This is a sterling example of streaming TV giving a story its due when Hollywood had long ago decided it was too big and complicated for a two-hour film. Even if we weren’t all scared to go sit in a cinema for two hours, productions like The Queen’s Gambit — neatly sliced up into standalone episodes that can be watched over one, two, or more nights — offer an equally compelling reason to stay home and pop your own popcorn.
If the name Walter Tevis doesn’t ring a bell, the movie adaptations will: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth represent half of the novels he published before his untimely death in 1984. The Queen’s Gambit opens in a Kentucky orphanage in the early 1960s, an echo of Tevis’ own year spent in an institution as a child. Little Beth (Annabeth Kelly) has just been in a fatal car wreck involving her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie), a brilliant but unhinged woman who seems to have been trying to kill them both. In the cold marble confines of the state school for orphaned girls, Beth makes three friends: her no-nonsense bunkmate Jolene (Moses Ingram), the school’s chess-playing janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), and the little green pills that the staff hand out to the girls to help them sleep.
One day Beth wanders into the basement, where Shaibel is playing chess by himself. He shoos her away, but she’s not going anywhere — not until a family decides to adopt her, which might be a while. So they play, and it turns out she’s got mad skills. Especially when she’s on the mad pills. As the years go by, and Beth matures into an attitudinal teen played by Isla Johnston, and the secret gets out that this girl can really play. But she’s got another secret she’s keeping to herself: She plays better stoned.
Only when a married couple decide they’ll take her home does Beth’s talent explode on the stage. And speaking of explosive, this is when the third Beth appears, all grown up and played by Taylor-Joy, curving her British accent into flat Midwestern brogue and stealing every single scene with her attitude and fashion sense — a grandmaster with flash.
Navigating her way through the all-male chess circuit, Beth crushes hopes, shatters barriers, and occasionally breaks hearts. By the time she competes for the national title, the world is pretty much at her feet. Yet Beth’s years of fending for herself have put a protective shell around her. It keeps others at a distance while trapping her inside that brilliant mind with memories of her mother and her own insecurities rattling around. To keep down the noise, she medicates.
Along the way, Beth picks up a few friends — mostly admiring young men she has thumped in chess — and they form a ragtag Team Beth as it becomes clear that she is the United States’ best hope against the feared chessmasters of the Soviet Union. It is the peak of Cold War tensions and, for reasons that seem hard to imagine now, the Americans and Russians carry out some of their fiercest proxy battles on the chessboard.
It’s worth remembering that Walter Tevis wrote mostly speculative fiction, not historical novels, so don’t go looking up The Queen’s Gambit in Wikipedia. You’ll just find articles linking to a famous chess maneuver. In The Queen’s Gambit we see one of Beth’s male rivals on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It is true that SI put a chess player on its cover … but it was a woman, Lisa Lane, way back in 1961. All of Beth’s big tournaments are covered on live radio by announcers describing every move in hushed tones, which I found no evidence of ever having happened. Tevis had good material to work with, but he obviously gave it his own special treatment.
That said, the attention to historical detail does give this limited series an authenticity that measures up well against Mad Men, the standard by which all shows set in the Sixties are measured. And remember, Mad Men mostly followed a group of overprivileged white people in the media business. The Queen’s Gambit has a wider and broader scope, covering institutional life, then suburban America (where Beth spends her post-orphanage life), and then the surprisingly glamorous world of grandmaster chess.
Also, while the storyline takes a few dark turns, it’s ultimately a brighter take on those turbulent times than Mad Men was. Here, friendship and cooperation checkmate the forces of self-destructive individualism and chest-thumping nationalism. Even Jolene — the designated Black Friend and Confidant of The Queen’s Gambit — has an empowering scene or two.
CBS All Access is bringing back Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth as a “reimagined” series. I predict when Scott Frank’s marvelous adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit has had a chance to cover Netflix World, it will only be a matter of time before Tevis’ sci-fi dystopia Mockingbird — which has been optioned at least twice — gets the streaming treatment as well.
The Queen’s Gambit drops on Netflix on October 23rd.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.