Netflix’s adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit was one of my favorite things of 2020. After blitzing through all seven episodes I even started playing chess again and enjoying it despite how terrible I am. Between Anya Taylor-Joy’s incredible performance, the unique subject matter, and the incredible vintage clothing there was a lot to love. So I eagerly snapped up a copy of the source material and plunged in.
The danger of course with reading a book after seeing the adaptation is that the book will suffer by comparison. And of course, no matter how you feel about the book you can’t be sure if you would have felt the same if you had picked it up before the show. There’s also the fact that some of the joy of reading lies in imagining the characters and the scenes for yourself, which isn’t really possible if you’ve seen the show. No one reading Tevis’s description of Beth Harmon would picture someone who looks like Anya Taylor-Joy, but it was obviously impossible not to in my case.
If you have enjoyed the miniseries, and judging by Netflix’s numbers you probably have, I think you probably will enjoy the book as well. The series is certainly a faithful adaptation, with minimal differences in plot or characterization. Tevis’s prose at times even reads like a screenplay, especially when describing one of Beth’s matches.
Tevis’s writing is also a tad matter-of-fact, more interested in telling a story than in exploring Beth’s character and how the events of the story shape her. That aspect is there, of course, but it’s really left to the reader to do the work. It can seem at times as though Tevis is racing through the ups and downs of Beth’s chess career and her use of drugs and alcohol without really probing them. Certainly the Netflix show goes further in showing the depths of Beth’s addictive behavior and its costs.
It’s hard to know if I would have enjoyed Tevis’s novel more or less without the imagery of the Netflix version already in my head. Trying my best to evaluate it on its own merits I see a fascinating idea for a story with a well-executed plot that could stand to expend more effort in penetrating into the mind of its main character.