The source material for… (Episode II of these episodic posts: The Queen’s Gambit)

Should you read the book or see the movie? If you do both, what’s the right order? And does a mini-series count as a movie?

I promised a couple of months ago that I would re-read The Queen’s Gambitthe original book version, that is—which I hadn’t read since 39 years ago. In other words, I read it when it was first published, and not since. Until now. So now I am better equipped to answer the question of how it compares to the Netflix mini-series: which is better, and in what ways? And why?

Here’s the thing. I’m not trying to waffle, but each medium has its advantages. If you pinned me down to a simple (and simplistic) answer, I would have to say without hesitation that the book is better. The biggest reason by far is that there’s no straightforward way for a movie to convey interior monologue convincingly, and a mini-series is pretty much like a movie in that regard.

So why was the mini-series so popular? The obvious answer is the visuals. Most people don’t like to read anymore, and a visual medium makes many fewer demands on the imagination.

For better or for worse, movies condense many hours of material into a few minutes. I suppose a mini-series is more flexible in this regard, since a lot more time is available than you have in a conventional movie. The Tolkien films and the Harry Potter series are good examples of the need to cut out large amounts of narrative; some of the same happens in The Queen’s Gambit, where chess is just too slow to portray accurately. Even the few scenes of five-minute games would be too slow. Just read the book! More broadly, in fact, my biggest criticism of the mini-series is that it doesn’t (and probably can’t) portray the pace of tournament chess games. This issue, of course, comes back to the question of interior monologue. The portrayal of Beth as an intuitive chess player, rather than a deeply thoughtful and introspective one, is much more evident in the mini-series than in the book, where it’s easier to convey the intricate in-depth thoughts of the expert in chess.

Finally, we wonder about the theme of the book/movie. In some sense, of course, it’s chess—but that’s really just the context, as you don’t have to know how to play chess in order to enjoy either the book or the mini-series. Or is the theme addiction, as I suggested in my earlier review of the mini-series? In the original book it’s clear that Beth has an addictive personality, but that’s way in the background, not playing the major thematic role. But if you were making a movie, surely you would find it more exciting to make addiction the theme rather than chess. So the contrast is not surprising. And then there’s one more thematic difference: the book is sometimes presented as a bildungsroman, a novel of a young person’s coming of age. Maybe some viewers see the mini-series that way as well, but I don’t think that’s how it comes across.

If you choose both reading and watching, I recommend you do the watching first, for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere. Reading the book first leads to disappointment.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV