Goodreads: The Queen’s Gambit
When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.
It seems as if everyone has seen the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit (even though it’s not everyone; Krysta hasn’t seen it!), and the miniseries is so brilliant and charming and engaging that I find it impossible not to compare the book to it in this review. The short version is: The book and the adaptation are astonishingly close – there’s practically nothing in the novel that isn’t in the miniseries – but I actually prefer the show. The screenwriters smartly streamlined the story in a couple places, and the actors brought the story to life in a way that made reading the book a better experience for me.
As I was reading, I was reminded strongly of the time I attempted to read Pride & Prejudice after watching the BBC miniseries about three times in a row; the stories seemed so close that I could recognize the word-for-word dialogue pulled from the pages for the show. Unlike with Pride & Prejudice, however, I did not abandon reading The Queen’s Gambit because of this but, rather, plodded steadily on, enjoying seeing the characters I’d become so invested in once again. There were only a few places that I recognized the show deviated from the book, and by and large I approve of the changes. For instances, the show eliminates a few minor characters and replaces them with major ones. The boy who yells profanities in the orphanage in the book becomes Jolene in the show, for instance, while a random man discussing chess at a tournament becomes Benny.
The book also has a few sexual scenes in the orphanage that were eliminated in the show, and I cannot emphasize how strongly I think removing these was a great decision. I was extremely uncomfortable watching Jolene make advances to Beth and imply that she had a relationship with a teacher at the school and later watching Beth masturbate by herself. I don’t know what the author was going for here, if he thought this would happen at an orphanage and was “realistic” or if he thought it was “artsy” or what, but it added absolutely nothing to the plot or character development.
The book was also full of chess, which means practically nothing to me. I had a friend explain some of the games that were narrated more in-depth, but understanding the chess was not necessary, nor did I feel that it was so confusing that it detracted from the book.
Mostly, however, I appreciate the actors’ interpretations of the characters in the show. Alma came across a bit flat to me in the book, but in the show one gets more of a sense that she did try her best to be a decent mother and that Beth was attached to her. Similarly, I think Beth’s and Jolene’s relationship comes across more clearly in the show; reading the book alone, it wouldn’t be clear to me why Beth might want to call her years after leaving the orphanage.
So is the book worth reading? Yes and no. It’s a good story, but it’s also so close to the adaptation that I think watching the show is “enough.”