The Queen’s Gambit, one of the most talked-about miniseries on Netflix in 2020, follows the story of an orphaned chess genius and how she rose to fame while grappling with addiction and finding her identity.
Having captivated viewers from all over the world, the award-winning miniseries is lauded for its production style, cinematography, and the moving performance from Anya Taylor-Jay, as lead character, Elizabeth Harmon. So what’s behind the success of The Queen’s Gambit? Are the chess games real? Will there be a second season? Find out below!
Anya Literally Ran to the Director
The story of The Queen’s Gambit, inspired by Walter Tevis’ 1983 book by the same name, captured Taylor-Joy’s heart right after she finished reading the novel. She literally ran to a restaurant to meet Scott Frank, the writer and director of the Netflix hit, to discuss the story and share her ideas, such as making the character redhead.
“It’s still the only job that I’ve ever physically run to. I was so excited,” the 24-year-old actress told NPR. Prior to Gambit, she appeared in psychological horror movies Split and Glass and the period drama Emma, which was released in 2021.
Before filming, Taylor-Joy also studied a book featuring 350 chess games. However, the games changed on the set so she had to learn new choreography five minutes before a scene. “It was just such an interesting way to challenge your brain,” she said.
Similarities Between Beth Harmon and the Author
Bits and pieces of Tevis’s life are noticeable in The Queen’s Gambit. Tevis, born in San Francisco, California, in 1928, seemingly wove his own personal experiences into Harmon’s journey.
The Ringer reported that Tevis started playing chess at seven but was not able to join professional competitions at an early age. While he never reached chess stardom as Harmon did, he developed a fascination for the game.
Tevis was reportedly abandoned by his parents while he lived in a house for medical recuperation while he suffered from medical complications. Like his lead character, he became addicted to alcohol when he became an adult.
The Heath Ledger Connection
The late actor, Heath Ledger, planned to make his directorial debut through The Queen’s Gambit. Ledger, who became famous for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight, reportedly became interested in the book and initially planned to get Elliot Page to play Harmon.
Screenwriter Allan Shiach shared that Ledger was hooked on Tevis’ story and that they were working on creating the adaptation before Ledger died in 2008.
“I did draft after draft, and he gave his input and we met several times in New York… we had got to the stage where we had sent the script to Elliot… We were planning to make a movie at the end of 2008.”
Thirty Years in the Making
Shiach, who uses the pseudonym Allan Scott, revealed that The Queen’s Gambit miniseries was 30 years in the making and went through nine revisions before it became an actual production. He first got hold of the novel in 1989.
He bought an option on the book to turn it into a movie and renewed it every year. Finally, in 1993, he was able to own the rights to show it on screen. Before taking it to Ledger, Shiach once discussed making the movie with renowned Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci but it didn’t pan out.
Shiach said in an interview that Netflix wanted something longer than a movie for The Queen’s Gambit and he agreed because there were different issues to tackle in the character’s story, which he likens to a Victorian melodrama.
The Chess Games Are Authentic
If the moves in the chess games in the miniseries amaze you, that’s because they are real and choreographed by professional chess consultants. The pieces are not randomly moved by actors because they had to play a real game.
Grandmaster Garry Kasparov and National Master Bruce Pandolfini guided the actors in their scenes, especially during the speed chess matches which Taylor-Joy said were among her favorite acts in the series. Meanwhile, the chess moves in Harmon’s imagination are also not fictional, and the special effects team also learned how to play chess.
“You can freeze-frame anything, and it’s a real chess setup. There’s even a whole sequence where you never see the board, but they’re still actually moving the pieces where they’re supposed to. The actors always knew exactly where every piece was supposed to go,” Frank told Entertainment Weekly.
Beth Harmon’s Outfits
Since The Queen’s Gambit is a character-driven story, everything about the lead can tell her story and shape her persona, and Harmon’s clothes did that flawlessly in the series. But where are those fashionable dresses now?
Gabriele Binder, costume designer for The Queen’s Gambit, told Taylor-Joy she could take home all of Harmon’s clothes because they are all hers already. However, the actress revealed that the clothes, from the coats to the dresses, are now in a museum.
In a Buzzfeed interview, Binder revealed that 80% of Harmon’s costumes were handmade and showcased some of Taylor-Joy’s ideas since they created the sketches together. Even Harmon’s makeup reflects the phase the character is in on the screen—light for her younger years and bolder shades as she explores her femininity.
Taylor-Joy’s Own Mr. Shaibel
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Taylor-Joy was asked if she has her own Mr. Shaibel, the character that taught Harmon how to play chess, and she mentioned that her directors throughout her career have helped her not only in acting but also in navigating her professional life.
Taylor-Joy, who will star in the upcoming historical film The Northman alongside Nicole Kidman, considered Frank of The Queen’s Gambit and Robert Eggers, director of The Witch, another film she starred in.
“Not only did they really want me to become a really good actor, but they also allowed me to stick around on set. I’m really interested in directing, and basically everything about movie-making, so I just hung around and learned about what everybody does,” she told Harper’s Bazaar.
The Truth About Chess Review Magazine
You may have noticed throughout the series that Harmon is always adamant about reading the Chess Review Magazine, and at one point, she steals a copy from a shop. In case you do not know, Chess Review Magazine was a real magazine published from 1933 to 1969.
The series features the September 1963 issue of the publication, but it shows a different cover than the real one. The Piatogorsky Cup champions were the ones shown on the real cover.
If you saw the USSR Chess Championships piece, it was actually seen in the February 1963 issue of the magazine. Meanwhile, the write-up entitled Pawn Power of Chess was released in 1968.
Born for the Role of Beth Harmon
Taylor-Joy was chosen for the role of Beth Harmon even before the script was written, and she became truly invested in the character and involved in the production. She said in an interview that playing complex characters is a form of catharsis for her.
One proof of her dedication is while filming The Queen’s Gambit in 2019, she was also doing Emma and the horror film Last Night in Soho, with a one-day break in between each project. She described 2019 as “a very intense year” since she was portraying three different characters.
Her hard work seems to have paid off for Taylor-Joy because she won ‘Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film’ at the Golden Globe Awards and ‘Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries’ at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards.
A Cultural Phenomenon
The adaptation may be a work of fiction about a chess prodigy, but it moved 62 million viewers and placed the board game back in the spotlight. Chess.com reported that it garnered 3.2 million new followers when the show was launched and has since welcomed 12.2 million new followers as of March 2021.
In the US, sales of chess sets rose by 87% three weeks after the series’ debut while sales of books about chess experienced a whopping 603% surge, based on the tally of marketing research company NPD Group.
Moreover, chess has been one of the most searched terms on Google since October 2020. Crafts platform Etsy recorded a 364% increase in searches for chess products while eBay’s chessboard sales soared by 250%.
With its aesthetically-pleasing cinematography and the stunning performance of the cast, The Queen’s Gambit evokes a sense of mystery, tension, and drama.
The real stories behind the series, such as the concepts behind Taylor-Joy’s wardrobe and how the speed chess matches were done, are as exciting as what you see on the screen.