The Queen’s Gambit is one of Netflix’s most popular releases to date. Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, which was published in 1983, the screen adaptation was a long time in the making. In 1992, screenwriter Allan Shiach (penname Allan Scott) optioned the rights to the book. Prior to his death in 2008, Heath Ledger had planned to direct and star in the film opposite Elliot Page. The book was finally brought to life with the 2020 miniseries, with Allan Scott contributing as an executive producer, writer, and creator.
Though it’s not without its differences, the series is quite a faithful adaptation of the book and has been praised for its realistic portrayal of chess. Both stories follow the life of Beth Harmon, an orphan who grows up to become an international chess sensation. Though the events of the story begin in the 1960s, in real life, women weren’t allowed to play chess until the 1980s. Even so, Beth is one of the only women playing a men’s game, but she doesn’t see why her gender should even enter into the discussion. Here are some of the differences between the book and the miniseries.
- Townes isn’t explicitly queer. In the series, Beth meets Townes at her first local tournament in Lexington. Though she’s still a teenager and he’s a grown man, it’s clear she’s attracted to him. The two keep bumping into each other over the years, and Beth begins to think he reciprocates her feelings. However, when he invites her to his hotel room to photograph her for a newspaper, another man enters. The brief interaction is enough for Beth to deduce that Townes is probably gay. In the book, Townes doesn’t show any romantic feelings towards Beth because he thinks she’s too young for him. The pair doesn’t really get a resolution as they do in the series when Townes shows up in Moscow as a reporter. The two are able to talk over what happened between them, but in the book, Townes just disappears from Beth’s life and there’s no suggestion of a male lover.
- Beth’s rock bottom. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth slips down quite a dramatic spiral in the show. While her arc in the book is similar, she doesn’t hit rock bottom quite so hard. In the miniseries, Beth comes to rely heavily on alcohol, cigarettes, and tranquillizer pills – so much so that she cuts all her ties to her friends and can barely muster the desire to play chess. She locks herself inside her house, occasionally humiliates herself in public, and almost throws her potential away. This part of the story isn’t so dramatic in the book. Beth isn’t as devastated about Alma’s death, and her distance from Harry Beltik isn’t so important. Thus, she doesn’t have as far to fall.
- Alma. Beth doesn’t come crashing down so hard in the book because she and Alma aren’t as close. Her flaws are much more vivid and permanent, whereas in the show, Alma clearly goes through some change. She becomes much more loving, and the two appear to enjoy each other’s company.
- The Paris game with Borgov. Since Beth doesn’t rely so heavily on alcohol in the book, she isn’t drunk during her game against Borgov in Paris. It’s an important tournament, but she isn’t completely disoriented the way she is in the show. In fact, so important is this moment that it’s the opening shot of the miniseries. In the book, Beth loses the game because Borgov is simply better than her. He’s more experienced and has a different, more logical way of playing the game, which Beth comes to see and lament.
- Beth and Benny’s relationship. The miniseries leaves a lot about this relationship ambiguous. Because of the format of the story, the romantic aspect is drawn out and amplified. In the book, the most important relationship Beth has is with chess. This is true of the series to an extent, too, but almost always, there’s Beth’s underlying confusion about which romantic partner to choose. First, she believes Townes is the only person she’s ever been in love with, but Harry becomes the person to treat her the best, and Benny is the only one she truly understands and feels compatible with. In the book, Beth spends far more time with Benny in New York. He’s also a gambler, but in the show, Beth only mentions in passing that he must’ve gambled all his money away when she asks for travel funds. This seems to refer to the money he throws away on speed chess, but in the book, he goes to the casino and plays poker. On the page, their relationship has a lot more depth and complications, but it’s still clear that Beth loves him. This isn’t quite as obvious on the screen. The final episode seems to suggest that Beth and Benny still have a chance when he calls her in Moscow. In the book, Benny is with two other players on the phone, but the show also places Harry, Matt, and Mike there. Harry is a significant addition because it finally allows a fair comparison between him, Benny, and Townes, who is in the room with Beth as she takes the call. In the book, Benny is the only one of her romantic interests who still supports her (and is still in her life) at this point. After Harry’s stay at Beth’s house, he stays out of the book. With him and Townes long gone, the door is open for Beth and Benny as she returns home after the World Championships.
- Cleo doesn’t exist in the book. Though Cleo isn’t a romantic interest, Beth has a brief fling with her in Paris. This interaction is part of the reason why Beth fails so miserably in her match-up with Borgov. Cleo sees something in Beth that no other men have, and her liberation and sensuality tempts Beth.
- Matt and Mike don’t exist in the book. Like Cleo, the twins are fun additions to the show who help Beth feel less alone. Tevis’s Beth is on a solitary journey and must figure out a lot of things for herself. Many of Beth’s thoughts and choices can’t be translated to the screen, so it makes sense to introduce some more visible external forces. Matt and Mike are there at every step of Beth’s chess journey, ready to answer her questions and show her the ropes of professional chess.
- Jolene. In the book, Jolene comes across as somewhat problematic. At the orphanage, she abuses Beth – verbally, physically, and even sexually. Beth is a lot younger and feels powerless against her, but also indebted to her – after all, Jolene is the one to supply Beth with extra pills, if not always directly. Still, the two become something like friends, but not in the way they are in the miniseries. Years later, Beth decides to call Jolene at the orphanage, and from there, the two go to the gym a lot (versus squash in the series). Jolene has clearly made something of herself, much like she has in the screen adaptation, but Beth’s transformation upon Jolene’s return is much more internalized. The series brings much of Beth’s thought process to the surface. Jolene returns to inform Beth of Mr. Shaibel’s passing, then offers to pay for her trip to Moscow. In the book, Beth is much more alone, and while Jolene is there, Beth must figure out for herself how to get to Moscow. She slowly makes herself stronger, both physically and mentally. She focuses on herself, on working out at the gym, eating better, and living without substances. When Beth leaves for Moscow, Jolene isn’t heard from again.
- Annette Packer. Another character to help Beth navigate the world of chess, Annette is a friendly young woman and the only other female (in the show) Beth encounters at her early tournaments. When Beth gets her first period, Annette is there to offer her support. Beth still feels alienated because she hasn’t grown up around girls like her, but she isn’t entirely alone the way she is in the book. Annette shows up again when Beth returns to play a tournament in Lexington, hungover and under the influence. It’s an important moment for Beth to take stock of who she’s become and allows audiences to reflect on her journey so far. Annette doesn’t show up in the book beyond her appearance at Beth’s first-ever tournament.
- Who is Beth Harmon? Walter Tevis describes Beth as plain and brown-haired. Beth thinks of herself as ugly and is often perceived as ugly by other characters, including Jolene. This is very different from Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth, and this is mostly because of her appearance. However, it’s worth noting that in the miniseries, it would’ve as easy for Beth’s hair to be brown as it is red. Perhaps this is meant to make Beth more of an outsider, someone who stands out and looks different from most of the people around her. Taylor-Joy is much prettier than Beth is described in the books, and the character’s “ugliness” is an important part of who she is. Beth is constantly aware that she’s not desirable in looks or personality, and in the show, Beth tries to change her appearance by shopping for nice clothes and altering her hairstyle. She takes control of how she’s perceived and has a very clear goal of who she wants to make herself, as exhibited by her relationship with other women in the show, especially Cleo and Jolene. At the end of the last episode, Beth proves herself to be the autonomous woman she’s grown to be; albeit with a smile, she commands, “Let’s play.” The book ends with a question: “Would you like to play?” This alone leaves readers with a very different impression of who Beth is and who she’s evolved to become.