Checkmate or blunder? Adaptation of “The Queen’s Gambit” for the music scene

CW: drug addiction.

Contains spoilers for the Queen’s Gambit.

In the year of multiple closures, sweatpants, and face masks (not the liquid spa kind), Netflix has given us an array of shows to chill out. King tiger graced our devices, keeping us busy researching “Did Carole Kill Her Husband?” For six good months. Yet we didn’t know that at the end of those six months, orphan-turned-chess prodigy Beth Harmon would amaze us with her intellectual and addictive personality in The Queen’s Gambit. The Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit, the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, became one of the most unexpected critical and commercial hits of the year. More than 62 million accounts viewed the seven-part series from creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott in a month, earning its title as Netflix’s most watched limited series to date. Following its television success, The Queen’s Gambit is about to be adapted into a musical. Can such a show that tackles sensitive and complex subjects ever be successfully adapted to the euphoric world of musical theater?

Broadway adaptations are not uncommon. The tastes of Legally blonde, Shrek and Bad girls all fall into this category – but can we say that they were to success adaptations? There is a noticeable difference when we see songs stuck in already built storylines. The songs almost seem forced as if they have only one purpose which is to mold to the arc of the story already established. It can be argued that adaptations deprive composers of their artistic freedom to create innovative and inspired music since they are not themselves involved in the process of building history. Musically, I personally find the above adaptations to be deficient, lacking that spark found when the story and song are carved together.

In the adaptations, the music has an instrumental role (excuse the pun), where it simply helps the plot as opposed to manufacturing the parcel. Compare these adaptations to West Side Story, where we see the composer, lyricist, choreographer and writer working hand in hand to produce art based on the original concept of modern day Romeo and Juliet. The dances, the songs, the lyrics are beautifully incorporated into the scenario that is built alongside it: the score corresponds to the emotion of the lyrics which are as passionate as the dance which reflects the power of the story. The four elements of the musical have equal force. Perhaps it is time for Broadway to abandon adaptations and produce more original works, given the recent decline in the quality of adaptations.

The Queen’s Gambit explores the life of Beth Harmon; a skillful chess player – an intellectual, high-stakes game, but not a game known for its visual excitement. Despite this seemingly straightforward narrative, the plot’s scope expands considerably, following the themes of drug addiction, drug addiction, suicide, autism, feminism, and homosexuality. Following the suicide of her mother, Beth, an orphan, is taken to Methuen House, where tranquilizing drugs are routine in disciplinary practice, causing the onset of a long struggle with drug addiction. It is here that she also develops a propensity for chess. His natural skill and drug-induced state allow him to visualize games of chess. Beth’s adolescence also explores ordeals of marital toxicity, withdrawal symptoms, and alcoholism. Additionally, the theme of feminism parallels Beth’s success at chess, as she consistently outshines men at their own game.

Several members of the autistic community agreed that Beth Harmon is a richly rendered portrayal of autism. It is important to recognize that we cannot fully contemplate how Beth’s addiction manifests itself without also considering the fact that she is arguably an undiagnosed woman with autism living in the mid-twentieth century. While Beth’s autism isn’t at the center of her story, it’s clear to see how this affects her relationships. Beth has two central relationships: her addiction and her talent. After a devastating loss in her sport, Beth plunges into a drug and alcohol frenzy for several days. Although in a final in Moscow we see the peak of her abilities and difficulties, because with the support of her friends Beth is able to visualize the game without using any substance. This last moment carries with it a double meaning: a victory against its rival in chess as well as a step towards the fight against drug addiction.

Recent theatrical performances are not just an enjoyable watch, but have a clear purpose: to elicit a reaction from the audience and spark conversations on relevant topics. Dear Evan Hansen discusses the topics of suicide and mental health; Waitress draws attention to abusive relationships. Heather The heavy, satirical tone explores some of the most serious social issues facing young people in America, such as shootings / bombings and suicide in schools.

We can conclude that the successful integration of serious subjects in musicals is indeed possible. However, it is not certain that this could be the case with The Queen’s Gambit. It would be impossible to address each of the issues discussed above in such a short period of time while giving each issue the weight it deserves. If the writers choose to approach Beth’s autism in a sensitive and authentic way, they must reach out to the community that will receive this performance. There is also the risk that by addressing the darker themes of drug addiction, drug addiction, suicide: do such themes become trivialized, or worse, glamorized?

The challenge of making these topics more accessible while avoiding downplaying the seriousness of each topic is risky. Can Beth’s story really be approached appropriately in the span of 150 minutes? It seems the authors are left with two options. Should they be broad and shallow: a portrayal of the heroine, briefly touching on all darker themes at the cost of creating a complex character? Or, alternatively, go narrow and deep, spinning the musical purely around her chess journey at the cost of giving up some of Beth’s defining character traits. Both options have their downsides: the first impacts the success of the musical, the second impacts Beth’s now-diminished character, as the communities, once included in Beth’s story on Netflix, are now excluded from debut on stage.

The stage rights to the novel were acquired by the entertainment company ‘Level Forward’. It should be mentioned that this company has produced films about harassment and sexual assault including the musical Little jagged pill focusing on similar issues. They are also responsible for “the most controversial play on Broadway” according to Vox, Slave game, which explores the impact of racial identity on the sex and personal lives of couples. We can therefore keep a little hope for the musical adaptation of Queen’s Gambit, taking into account the company’s experience in dealing with important matters.

We can say that musicals are capable of approaching heavy subjects with care and nuance as they have done in the past. However, the complexity of Beth Harmon appears to differ – her character demands a specific compassion that a musical adaptation may not be able to provide. I remain convinced that The Queen’s Gambit concerns a girl simply floating through the ranks of chess, usually unchallenged and almost entirely unrestricted by sex. I’m also not convinced that her portrayal throughout the story can be described as “consistently serene” and I’m disappointed that her complex character has been so easily reduced to her talent for chess. This diminished perspective of Beth Harmon, I believe, is unfortunately the only perspective from which a somewhat cohesive musical can be formed. The Queen’s Gambit is the story of competition, control, addiction, being a woman in a world dominated by men, trauma, autism. Adapting such a complex series into a musical would seriously undermine the weight of each of these subjects and in turn, the production would not do justice to the character of Beth Harmon and the communities she represents.

Image Credit: Charis Tsévis via Flickr and Creative Commons.


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