Archive for October 20th, 2020

Can chess making a gripping film? Watch Walter Tevis’s “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix this Friday, October 23

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
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Silence and staring, winners and losers – and it’s definitely been a man’s world. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Last year, Stanford’s “Another Look” – a public events series that focuses on forgotten, out-of-the-way, overlooked books – sponsored an event on Walter Tevis’ Queen’s GambitThe idea came from Another Look’s founding director, the eminent American author Tobias Wolff, always a keen watcher of American fiction. It turned out to be one of our most popular selections ever. Thanks to the cooperation of Tevis’s daughter, Julia Tevis McGory, we published a number of photographs on the Another Look website, and even a mini-memoir from son Will Tevis about playing chess with his father here.  The January 29, 2019, panel featured Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Inga Pierson.

Author Walter Tevis played chess, too.

It’s an overlooked book no more. It will be a seven-part mini-series on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 23. Did Another Look make a difference? We hope so. Our crusade for books that haven’t received the attention we think they merit has moved the needle on several books. We hope we’ve done the same this time, though there’s a story that goes way back before last year’s Stanford event. In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a script. More recently writer and director Scott Frank took an interest.

So far the reviews are glowing. (Google it.) The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess-mad heroine (she was the star of this year’s acclaimed Emma, too). Garry Kasparov, one of the best chess-players ever, was a consultant for the film. 

More from the story by The New York Times:

The novel is brief. Dialogue is spare and the action beyond the gameboard minimal. … “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’” Frank said. “And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

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It’s also exceedingly faithful to its source material, a slender 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, an author with a knack for books that Hollywood wanted: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis, a respectable club player, could delight even non-players with chess’s rhythms and language: the Sicilian Defense the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. The book borrows its name from an opening move in play since the 15th century.

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A glamorous and wrenching view of chess, set in the 1950s and ’60s, it centers on the fictional character Beth Harmon (first Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy), a child prodigy who discovers the game in a Kentucky orphanage. Despite punishing addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers, Beth, clad in Gabriele Binder’s elegant period costumes, plays and trains obsessively, rising through the rankings until she faces the world’s best. Which makes her something like the thinking woman’s Rocky.

Join me in tuning in this Friday. Until then, there’s a podcast of the Stanford discussion of the book here.

Postscript on 10/21 (hat tip David Schwartz): The review is in from the Wall Street Journal today, it’s here, and not even behind the usual paywall. An excerpt:

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chess—though that’s a bit like saying “Hamlet” is about Danish royal succession, or “The Wizard of Oz” is about meteorology. … “The Queen’s Gambit” is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, she’s been a chess savant.

For all the series’ successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the ’50s and ’60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joy’s face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next day’s attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the game—is a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politics—that they’re so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmon—and therefore to her audience—chess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.