Genius comes with a price. This is what one young woman comes to learn in Netflix’s
The story is set in 1950s Kentucky where Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) faces the tragic death of her mother and ends up at an orphanage. Her misfortune, however, leads her to discover her life’s purpose when she plays a game of chess with the orphanage’s janitor. Her gift for the game becomes apparent immediately.
She will also encounter a new challenge; the state provides tranquilizers as a sedative for the children there, which leads her down the dark path of addiction. As a youth, she’s socially awkward but through the game, she finds her purpose and transforms into a remarkable competitor.
She also has an eye for fashion and like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, goes from impressively skilled outcast into a glamorous champion known the world over as she masterfully conquers the traditional boundaries in the male-dominated world of competitive chess.
“This is a coming-of-age story,” said series writer and director Scott Frank in an interview. The two-time Academy Award nominee explained that though the series has more of a slow burn feel to it, the book read like a thriller. “It’s a great read. A really, really wonderful book,” he emphasized. “I had never seen a character like this.”
This, he explains, is why over the years so many in Hollywood had responded to the book, which was first published in 1983. “You just cannot put it down even if you don’t know anything about chess.” Tragically, Tevis would never know how his novel touched so many readers. He didn’t live to see his success and died soon after the book was published.
The novel passed through many hands in the worlds of television and film and at one point in the 1990s, it almost became a feature film. “It fell through because it just wasn’t the type of movie being made at the time,” Frank says.
“Many directors have tried to make it. Heath Ledger was set to direct this as a film a few years before he died. This was going to be his directing debut,” he says. Allan Scott, who co-created the series, had the rights to the book and eventually decided episodic might be the best approach and it finally found its home at Netflix.
Though chess is the main plot point for the protagonist in this tale, Frank explains why one need not know the game to relate to Beth’s story. “The true cost of genius, for me, is the single most important theme of the book. Beth has this gift and it takes a piece out of her. There is an enormous burden tied to genius. She has imposter syndrome and to me she is her own antagonist. Chess is just the world she moves through.”
Another relatable theme, especially in the current pandemic, is loneliness. “Having a gifted brain can be a curse really. Beth is so smart that she’s isolated from other people. The victory for her is not as much about chess but finding a group of people, a family, that she can call her own. She starts out in life alone in this world as an orphan and ends up with this group of people that know and love her.”
As for the leading role, Frank talks about how other actresses were suggested to him but Taylor-Joy was always his first choice. “I’d seen her work and thought she was amazing and riveting. She’s a terrific actress and can convey so much with her eyes and the slightest facial expressions and we knew there would be a lot of close-ups with this role. She also understands production and how things work on set. I really wanted her from the get-go.”
This story of triumph over adversity is premiering at the perfect time and Frank hopes viewers will tune in. “People are looking for connection and I think this story is relevant to our current world in a lot of ways.”
The Queen’s Gambit is executive produced by Frank, Scott and William Horberg. Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling and Bill Camp round out the cast.