Revisiting The Queen’s Gambit

In a recent review of this hit Netflix series, I mentioned that I found the lead character Beth Harmon not compelling and that this reduced my enjoyment of the series. Some commenters disagreed with me. I could not quite put my finger on why I had this reaction but Sarah Miller who, unlike me, has read and loved the book by William Tevis on which the series was based, writes that she too was dissatisfied with the character because, while most of the series stayed close to the book, the creators of the series had made a crucial change in Harmon’s character that eliminated the central tension, because the lead actor Anya Taylor-Joy “is way too good-looking to play Beth Harmon”.

Allow me to shout from my lone perch at its summit that Beth Harmon is not pretty, and there is no story about her that can be told if she is.

We know that Beth is unattractive because it is written down. It is one of the first things we find out about her, right after she arrives at Methuen. “You are the ugliest white girl ever. Your nose is ugly and your face is ugly and your skin is like sandpaper. You white trash cracker bitch,” her bully and future friend Jolene declares. Beth does not respond, “knowing that it was true.”

She takes the shame of feeling plain into her new life, however: “Sometimes when Beth saw herself in the mirror of the girls’ room between classes, her straight brown hair and narrow shoulders and round face with dull brown eyes and freckles across the bridge of her nose, she would taste the old taste of vinegar in her mouth.”

Tevis mentions Beth’s ugliness too often for readers to imagine that it is just some routine, awkward part of childhood that slips away with puberty, like a boy’s squeaky tones settling gradually into a mannish timbre, or because some nice girlfriend – she has none, after Jolene – takes her to Sephora. Instead, Beth becomes reasonably attractive by learning to play chess and then excelling at it. The first moment that Beth is able to regard her reflection without disgust comes right after she wins her third tournament game. Some forty pages later, a chess player turned journalist named Townes tells Beth, “You’ve even gotten good-looking.” Toward the end of the book, Jolene herself, seeing Beth in magazines, declares, “You’ve lost your ugly.”

Beth’s transformation – not into a swan, exactly, but a better-looking duckling – doesn’t need to be mimicked exactly for the adaptation to work. The problem has to do with the fundamentals of storytelling, in the tradition of Syd Field or Joseph Campbell or “Save the Cat!” – the character has to want something.

Even as an orphan, in her sweet white nightgown, elbow-checking Jolene, smiling with sexy snideness, there’s no question that Netflix Beth will land on her feet. She walks into every room like she owns it. One signature move is tucking her chin into her chest, looking up at people with widened eyes – a disdainful miming of submission.

I don’t mean to suggest that Taylor-Joy is a bad actress. But she exudes mattering. The core of “The Queen’s Gambit” – a young woman struggling to matter at all becomes a great chess player – might be impossible for her to play. The series copies virtually everything from the book aside from its central tension.

In other words, it is her success in chess that enables Harmon to fight her way into acceptance in the male-dominated world of chess. Having her be so good looking that she could just as easily be the prom queen at her high school or a model (as Taylor-Joy was before acting) takes away that Harmon is driven to succeed at chess because that is all she has going for her.

Making lead characters in TV and films be far more good looking than the written source material describes is of course routinely done because good looks attract audiences. It is when the homeliness of the character forms a central part of the narrative structure that completely abandoning it becomes a problem. It is clear that the makers of the Netflix series felt that they could sacrifice that particular feature and still produce a compelling story. The commercial success of the series can be used to justify that decision.

But might the story have been even more compelling and drawn audiences with a character that fitted the book description better? We will never know.


  1. says

    Oooh, I hadn’t read the book before watching the series so I didn’t “miss” this aspect. (You can’t miss what you’ve never known.) But I can say that making Beth ugly would have enhanced the movie for me.

    They obviously tried to do a little of that with the cool girls mocking her clothing and how she uses her success to buy progressively more glamorous attire, but there’s no hiding the fact that Taylor-Joy is not ugly without getting some help from the cosmetic effects department, and that they did not do.

    Yeah, I would have liked the story even more, found it even more compelling, if this layer had been present as well.

  2. mnb0 says

    “Beth Harmon is not pretty”
    Then I won’t have a problem, because I think Anya Taylor-Joy (in her role as Beth Harmon) unattractive as well.
    As an enthusiast chess amateur I think the idea of a minority complex ‘cuz ugly being the driving motivation to excel at chess utterly stupid, so I won’t read the book. Its fans should read a biography of Vera Menchik.

    Pay special attention to what Alexander Alekhine, one of the strongest players ever said: “it is totally unfair to persuade a player of an acknowledged superclass like Miss Menchik to defend her title year after year in tournaments composed of very inferior players”.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    See also Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie version of “Frankie and Johnny”, in a role originally played on stage by Kathy Bates.

  4. kestrel says

    This happens a lot I think because of our culture’s obsession with “whiteness” and “beauty”. This happened to Ursula K. leGuin for her series about Earthsea. She deliberately wrote it that the main characters were almost all people of color. When it was turned into a series for television, everything got changed -- all the actors (except one) were white people. To the author, this completely destroyed her book and message. She has some pretty strong words about it.

  5. says

    I haven’t read the book either, but in principle, I greatly dislike multiple things here.
    I do not like the “smart girls be ugly” trope/stereotype, as well as the “pretty girls be daft” one. Both tropes can be used well, but both are also used-up clichés. When one looks up current female chess grandmasters, they usually do not fit either of those two stereotypes. There is simply no negative causal connection between beauty and intellect.
    On the other hand, I do not like when movie adaptation differs significantly from how the characters are described in the books, or when the plot is significantly changed. That is one reason why I do not intend to watch the Witcher series on Netflix either because there both the characters and the plot differ from the books.

  6. billseymour says

    I’m thinking of all the actresses who were never even considered for the part and would probably have done a much better job.

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    This, and the director’s predilection for spending far much camera time on Taylor-Joy in her underwear for no discernible reason*, adds to my sense of unease. It tainted my enjoyment of the otherwise generally well-crafted story.

    *Particularly awkward: the child Harmon gets a gratuitous up
    skirt / up nightdress shot so prolonged and so obvious that, I feel sure, they decided they could only keep it by grading it into dark shadows. The colourist saved them.

  8. Holms says

    #1 Crip

    Oooh, I hadn’t read the book before watching the series so I didn’t “miss” this aspect. (You can’t miss what you’ve never known.)

    You can’t forget what you’ve never known, but you can definitely miss details due to a lack of pertinent knowledge.

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