Book Blog: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

A few weeks ago,

every time we went on Netflix the first title offered was

The Queen’s Gambit.

The blurb was intriguing:

In a 1950s orphanage, a young girl reveals an astonishing talent for chess and begins an unlikely journey to stardom while grappling with addiction.

I googled the title and found that the series was an adaptation of a novel by Walter Tevis. In the Amazon Kindle Store there was a 99p Deal of the Day download of The Color of Money also by Walter Tevis. So I downloaded that.

The Color of Money is a sequel to Tevis’ novel, The Hustler. Both novels were turned into highly acclaimed films, The Color of Money in 1986 directed by Martin Scorsese. I haven’t seen either film and can’t believe I actually read a book about shooting pool, a topic in which I have no interest whatsoever.

The Color of Money really is a remarkable novel dominated by strong writing of the central characters. The author’s insights into relationships and the effect of choices on the way lives develop makes for compulsive reading.

Despite the alien context I really enjoyed reading the novel and for me it was a compulsive page-turner. Interestingly the Wikipedia entry for the film suggests that the film script was a re-write and bears little resemblance to the novel, so I won’t bother watching that. But the novel was one of the best I’d read in ages.

Tevis wrote The Color of Money shortly before his death in 1984. His writing career commenced with short stories, The Hustler (1959) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963).

The Man Who Fell To Earth was filmed in 1976. Directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring David Bowie it’s one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen but I had no idea about the film’s genesis.

Tevis wrote a dystopian novel, Mockingbird (1983), set in a grim and decaying 25th century New York. (Currently on my TBR list). And then he wrote The Queen’s Gambit the following year.

The Queen’s Gambit

centres on the life of fictional female chess prodigy Beth Harmon. As a coming-of-age story it explores the themes of adoption, feminism, chess, drug addiction and alcoholism.

We decided to watch the Netflix adaptation and I read the novel alongside. Or rather, just behind. We watched the series over several evenings. As I read the novel I never went past the point we were at in the series; a new experience for me. I’ve read countless novels and then watched a film or TV adaptation afterwards but never the other way round.

And it’s certainly an experience I shall repeat as it provides insights into the text different to a straight read through. For example, the portrayal of orphanage life in the novel was intensified by having seen the additional details in the film but the key emotional moments weren’t in anyway blurred by the visuals.

The Netflix adaptation is remarkably true to the text and it’s only at the end that the screen writers have changed the order and significance of certain events. Which, actually improved the storyline anyway.

The dialogue in the series follows the novel closely as indeed does the characterisation. Where the adaptation scores is in the settings. No writer could do other than hint at what Netflix offers in locations, scenery and re-creating the fifties and sixties. Trevis gives enough in the novel to place the characters and support the story but leaves much to the reader’s imagination where required.

The brilliance of the novel, like The Color of Money, is in the writer’s deep insights into the darker emotional lives of the main characters. His empathy with the traumatised Beth as she begins her new life in the orphanage is sustained through her adolescence and into young adulthood. In places the writing is so moving it created tears for this reader.

Each of the supporting characters is strong and written superbly well. With concise and economical language Trevis creates a cast who play out their role in Beth’s life while having complex and often deeply flawed lives of their own.

The Queen’s Gambit is an excellent novel and the adaptation makes it even better. Brilliant!

Thanks for reading my book blog today.

Next I’m reading Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

How about you?