clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Is the Grand Master of the Limited Series

Netflix’s zeitgeist-capturing smash hit was nearly a movie. But as with ‘Godless’ before it, Scott Frank’s sprawling yet finite rendering is a testament to the tweener form.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Since its release in late October, The Queen’s Gambit, a seven-episode adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, has earned glowing critical reviews, snowballing word of mouth momentum, and the no. 1 spot on Netflix. With its sparkling performances from a range of emergent actors and its mix of snappy economy with a lingering eye, the limited series traces the trajectory of a girl who learns to play chess in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage basement and grows up, sort of, into a troubled and globe-trotting phenom throughout the 1960s.

A number of factors have contributed to The Queen’s Gambit’s appeal, including but not limited to its loud wallpaper, its sumptuous costumes, its familiar yet fresh sports-film cadences, the dimensions of its lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes, and its admirable ability to somehow make the horny side of competitive chess (?!) positively sing. All that said, when it comes to doling out credit for the production’s wholesome popularity, there’s a key influence that ought not be overshadowed: Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh’s aversion to horses.

Let’s back up a bit. (Whoa there, one might say.) A decade and a half ago, in the mid-aughts, screenwriter Scott Frank had a new pet project in the works. Frank, a rising industry star whose writing credits at the time ranged from Little Man Tate to Get Shorty to Minority Report, had tackled all sorts of genres in his young career, and had become fixated on a new one: the Western. “I remember saying to my agent, ‘I’m going to take a year or two off and write a script on spec,’” the now-60-year-old Frank told The Ringer’s The Watch podcast in 2017. “She said, ‘Write anything you want, as long as it’s not a Western.’” Westerns, once one of the most reliably popular forms of cinema, didn’t travel well, so to speak; their dim international box office prospects made them unappealing to studios.

Frank was undeterred, and anyway, he had a grand plan. When he and his longtime research assistant Mimi Munson finished brainstorming an idea about a frontier town populated largely by widows in the aftermath of a big mining disaster, the first person Frank showed it to was Soderbergh, with whom he had previously worked on the cherished firecracker of a film Out of Sight. Soderbergh replied that he loved it, but that there was a problem: “I’m terrified of horses,” he later recalled, explaining why he passed on directing. “The whole thing is just traumatic for me.” Frank hadn’t quite anticipated that response, and though he shopped the script around for years, a decade would go by before he got anyone to finally bite. (In the interim, he adapted Marley & Me and cowrote Logan.)

Soderbergh’s reluctance to giddy right up to that project made it more meaningful in the end, in more ways than one. When Netflix finally green-lit and developed Frank’s idea, it was in a mostly unfamiliar form for the then-Hollywood veteran. Instead of the major motion picture he was accustomed to, the story became a seven-episode limited series called Godless, which aired as a planned one-and-done season in 2017. And Soderbergh, whose positive experience putting together Behind the Candelabra for HBO led him to encourage Frank to go the miniseries route, ultimately signed on as a producer, though he told Deadline he stayed far away from the set. “I call the show the writer’s cut,” Frank later joked in an interview with Slashfilm, “because it’s doing the exact opposite of what you normally do. It’s taking a script and making it longer.” The show was nominated for 12 Emmys, and won three.

And it ultimately paved the way for what has become an even more zeitgeisty project, The Queen’s Gambit, another collaboration between Frank and Netflix. “I tried to make it into a film,” Frank told the Vineyard Gazette, “but didn’t get any interest. But after I made Godless for Netflix, I realized a limited series would be the way to do it. If you do a limited series, you can do what the book is really about, which is the cost of genius.” Crackling with Cold War tension and tick-tock competition, the program is ambitious in both detail and scope, moving with the slooow-quick-quickness of a foxtrot. Arriving at a trying time for us all, it delivers the numbing zap of a mentholated balm. And it does so in part because of its format—expanded enough to feel immersive; structured enough to remain disciplined—which showcases what the “limited series” treatment can offer.

Creators have long sought to explore the tweener space between TV and movies, often with books as creative inspiration. Some of the earliest examples of TV miniseries were multipart adaptations of books like Pride & Prejudice that the BBC aired in the early ’50s. The format crossed the pond, and by the 1970s, broadcasts like the eight-night Rich Man, Poor Man and the eight-part Roots, both adapted from novels, had become events. (The “smash ratings” of the former, wrote The New York Times in 1976, “opened the gates to dramatization of contemporary American fiction in the commercial medium.”) Part of David Simon’s original pitch for The Wire involved describing it as “a novel for television,” according to a New Yorker profile, with a book writer’s ability to digress. The Game of Thrones showrunners memorably and controversially described their full-length, eight-season program as a “73-hour movie.” And as streaming services began proliferating about a decade ago, a new category, the “limited series,” began cropping up too.

When The Hollywood Reporter, in 2014, asked 10 TV executives what ought to have been a simple question—just what are these so-called “limited series,” and how do they differ from the classic “miniseries” of yore?—no one could really give a straight answer. “There’s not a difference,” said one, from MTV. “Maybe the difference is the amount of money that the network spends to market it.” Two others joked about it meaning whatever it needed to mean in order to have a chance at awards shows. And to some, the concept behind the term “limited series” was mostly just a rebranding exercise.

“One of the reasons that I like to use ‘limited series’ is I think ‘miniseries’ is tainted,” said a bigwig from the CW. This descriptor was echoed by the head of FX, who declared: “‘Miniseries’ is tainted. It became synonymous with this big, cheesy melodrama that would galvanize people back when the networks were in that business.” (Big, cheesy melodrama? Couldn’t be Big Little Lies!) Ultimately, summarized one respondent, “we’re all using different terms for what is happening, which is the disruption of the established 22- to 24-episode run.”

Six years later, one of these liminal limited offerings, The Queen’s Gambit, is among the buzziest projects of 2020, though a few things have changed. Today’s entertainment powerhouse, Netflix, absent from that 2014 survey, had only just dipped its toe in the original content waters at the time; House of Cards, its first series, was about to begin its memorably murderous second season. The paradigms being disrupted of late aren’t just the ones embedded in those old two-dozen-episode TV shows, but also the ones found on the other end of the spectrum: those old two-and-a-half hour cinemaplex films.

Material that might have once been stuffed into a mid-budget movie (or, in the case of Godless, that long struggled to do so) can be, and increasingly is, woven into something with more texture and give. Current audiences, pandemically housebound and well primed by now to consume high-quality work from their sofas, have gotten pretty great at absorbing seven hours worth of prestige programming in a couple of sittings. And even before this year, that shift was already in the making. In 2018, Frank was happily blunt when asked in a joint interview with Soderbergh about the advantages of making Godless as a series as opposed to a feature film. “Well, for starters,” he told Deadline, “you can get it made.”

Soderbergh remarked that when people read Godless as a feature film script over the years, the typical response was never that they didn’t like it; it was that Frank kinda needed to cut 40 pages to winnow it down to a film-ready size. By transitioning to a limited series instead, those constraints went away; instead, the script wound up doubling. “I think it was one of those examples,” Soderbergh said, “of an occasion where the thing that everybody tells you is the problem is not the problem. It’s actually the solution.”

The Queen’s Gambit tells a story in which, frequently, the inverse is true: The thing that is supposed to be the solution—a car ride, a tranq pill, an adoption, an intuitive chess move, just one drink—is actually the problem. It is a story of genius and addiction, and a reflection on the promise and tyranny of being blessed by a gift. While its aesthetics and mid-century setting (and its home-redecoration porn) conjure inescapable memories of the long-running Mad Men, it isn’t too difficult to imagine The Queen’s Gambit as a feature filmcombining various elements of The Cider House Rules, and Flight, and Rocky, and A Beautiful Mind (and starring a doppelgänger of a young David Spade, natch).

And it nearly was a feature film: According to Allan Shiach, who first optioned the rights to the novel The Queen’s Gambit in 1992 and who, along with Frank, is the cocreator of the 2020 series, the late Heath Ledger was on board to direct a movie version until his unexpected death from an overdose of prescription drugs in early 2008. (One of the actresses discussed for the role of Beth Harmon was Ellen Page.) Ledger, who would have been making his feature film directorial debut, was drawn to the source material, Shiach said—much of which, as David Hill pointed out for The Ringer, was itself drawn from the life of the novel’s talented, restless author, Tevis, a man well-acquainted with the tiptoe-thin edge between artistry and ruin.

A movie-length picture, however, likely could not have brought the viewer along in The Queen’s Gambit the way seven episodes did. Midway through the series, one opponent turned suitor faces Beth Harmon, the icy, inquisitive main character played by Taylor-Joy, and gives her a book about 19th century chess legend Paul Morphy as well as a little history lesson. “You know what they called him? The pride and the sorrow of chess,” he says, explaining that Morphy’s otherworldly talents made his eventual early downfall all the more tragic, and adding that the self-destructive yet self-assured Beth is already on a similar track.

Both of those emotions—pride and sorrow—carry an intensity that is a factor of time: The longer an investment in someone, the more acute any feelings of supportive thrill or disappointed sadness on their behalf will be. When characters from Beth’s past reemerge to help her, their instincts are relatable. Just as they once stood in a dusty gymnasium trying to make sense of the strange and self-assured young woman before them, so do we, cultivating a shared history that makes every slowly unfolding (or brisk!) win feel that much more fun. When Beth makes the biggest screw-up of her career, we’re not just witnessing her downward spiral, we’re caught in it ourselves.

The show leverages time and pace within individual episodes, too, with its ever-ticking clocks and its competitors who are capable of mentally skipping many moves ahead. Some of the most effectively jarring moments in the show occur when a chess match runs long and gets adjourned for the day, to be resumed the next morning. Sometimes this pause feels excruciating, and sometimes it feels like a breath of fresh air; either way, it adds a dimension not typically present in most coming-of-age stories or sports films. When Netflix ordered The Queen’s Gambit from Frank in 2019, the deal was for six episodes, but, he told the Vineyard Gazette, the ratio of action-to-narrative felt a little bit off at that length. “Sometimes there were too many matches in one episode,” he said, and ultimately the series was lengthened to smooth things out.

Not every bit of tempo, both chess-related and otherwise, in The Queen’s Gambit is perfect; while some scenes unfurl rather slowly, others, like the reappearance of a long-ago orphanage comrade, feel frustratingly incomplete. But just as it’s possible to conjure up a lesser, shorter movie version of The Queen’s Gambit, it’s also easy to visualize a longer and worse version of it too, a typical TV series without limits, that swims out well past its source material and then drifts indefinitely along. (Once again, couldn’t be you, Big Little Lies!) Chess can reward risk-taking, after all, but a player’s toolbox still ought to carry some restraint. By sticking with a limited series—and by ending on a cheerfully unresolved note—The Queen’s Gambit more closely resembles the experience of finishing, and then missing, a book.

In an interview a few weeks ago with Entertainment Weekly, Frank said when he wrote the 1991 movie Little Man Tate, his very first in a series of successful scripts “originally I wanted it to be about the cost of genius, and I didn’t quite get there with it. … I was too young, and I didn’t quite understand what I was writing about.” When he read The Queen’s Gambit all these years later, he saw that it was a more compelling version of the story he’d hoped to tell, and got to doing so. You can tell a lot about a chess match by examining its opening and its endgame, but the best parts of its story lie in all the moves that take place in between.