the queen's gambit novel by walter tevis

“The Queen’s Gambit” – A Novel to Television

I broke one of the cardinal rules with The Queen’s Gambit–I watched the Netflix adaptation before reading the book. To be fair, I hadn’t even known it was a book first. It’s not a novel that would not have been on my radar when it was first published (1983). It isn’t one I’ve heard talked about much since. But I started reading the source material just days after watching the seven-hour TV series, and I read it pretty slowly, on purpose. I just wanted to stay in Beth Harmon’s world longer.

The novel is psychologically complex and surprisingly warm. Over the course of a decade, Beth Harmon goes from learning the basic game from the orphanage’s janitor to facing down the world champion at the Moscow Invitational tournament. Along the way, she makes some of the men she meets as competitors her strongest champions. And they’re always men – it’s the 1960s, and as she rises through the ranks of elite chess players, Beth is almost always the only woman in the room.

Book to Movie: Compare and Contrast

Books tend to be better than films at letting you into a character’s head, and that’s especially true here. Tevis seems more comfortable conveying what’s in Beth’s mind than in her heart, And yet, the story resonates emotionally and engages on that level too.

On the other hand, film does some things better than books. The adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit is largely faithful to the novel, but it does enhance it in places:

  • I know next to nothing about chess. The written descriptions of Beth’s matches engaged me despite that, but the dramatizations in the TV series were riveting.
  • Perhaps because the novel is relatively short and the language of film is different – a picture stands in for a lot of words – there’s some expansion to fill seven hours of television. For the most part, I think The Queen’s Gambit benefits from that, particularly in how it explores Beth’s relationships.
  • As Beth becomes an increasingly accomplished chess competitor, the clothes keep getting better. It’s not just an engaging story – the production design and costumes make this a great story to watch.

I’m glad that television led me to this book. And I’m glad this book came to television and brought Beth Harmon’s story to millions.

“The Queen’s Gambit” – A Novel to TelevisionThe Queen's Gambit (Television Tie-In)
Written by Walter Tevis
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on December 15, 2020
ISBN: 9780593314654
Genres: Fiction
Format: ebook
Pages: 256
Source: purchased

Engaging and fast-paced, this gripping coming-of-age novel of chess, feminism, and addiction speeds to a conclusion as elegant and satisfying as a mate in four. Now an acclaimed Netflix series.
Eight-year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she's competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.

(via Google Books)

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One comment

  1. You’re the first person that I’ve heard has read the book. I worried reading about chess scenes would be utterly boring so I’m glad they aren’t. I did love the way her clothes changed as she got better and better at chess. The culture of the series was really well done.