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'The Queen's Gambit' Centers On The Kind Of Chess Prodigy We Seldom See

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit," which drops this Friday, is about a brilliant young woman who crashes the traditionally male world of chess. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that the series offers the kind of heroine we seldom see.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Good novels, the saying goes, make bad movies. But you wouldn't know that from Walter Tevis, a skillful novelist whose books have been turned into memorable movies - "The Hustler," "The Man Who Fell To Earth," "The Color Of Money." That's why ever since Tevis published "The Queen's Gambit" in 1983, fans have been waiting for someone to adapt this addictive page-turner about a troubled, female chess prodigy. "The Queen's Gambit" finally arrives on screen this week as a seven-part miniseries from Netflix. It was made by Scott Frank, a crack adapter of novels. He scripted "Out Of Sight" and "Get Shorty," among others, and the writer-director of the Western "Godless."

Although I wish it was directed with a bit more flair, its story is a good one. The action begins in early 1960s Kentucky, when 8-year-old orphan Beth Harmon - that's Isla Johnston - is put into an institution that keeps the girls in line with tranquilizers. A quiet loner, Beth has two unlikely allies - Jolene, a shrewd African American orphan played by Moses Ingram, and the janitor, played by the reliably superb Bill Camp. He teaches her to play chess, and though he starts off gruff, he's soon awed by the gifts of a child who can play out entire chess games by watching them unfold on the flickering shadows of the ceiling.

When Beth is 13 and now played by Anya Taylor-Joy, she's adopted by the Wheatleys, an unhappily married Lexington couple. Her home life is dominated by her new mom, played by film director Marielle Heller, a thwarted musician and alcoholic who largely ignores her. Then, Beth begins winning tournaments and prize money. Soon, this wunderkind is jetting from Vegas to Mexico City to Paris to Moscow, self-destructively cooling her overheated psyche with booze and pills. Her whole life keeps building to a final showdown with the world champion, a daunting Russian who seems Soviet-manufactured while Beth's a true American - moody, improvisational, solitary.

You see her aloneness and innocence in this early scene when 13-year-old Beth hands over $5 to enter the Kentucky state championship and is met with condescension.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you have a clock?

ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We have a clock-sharing system. If your opponent doesn't have one, come back to the desk and we'll loan you one. Play starts in 20 minutes. What's your rating?

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) I don't have a rating.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Have you ever played in a tournament before?

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you sure you want to do this?

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) I'm sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We don't have a women's section. I'll put you in beginners.

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) I'm not a beginner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Doesn't matter. If you're an unrated player, you go in beginners with the people under 1600.

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) What's the prize for beginners?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Twenty.

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) And what about the other section?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) First prize in the open is 100.

TAYLOR-JOY: (Beth) Is it against any rule for me to be in the open?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Not exactly.

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) Put me in the open.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There are three guys in there with ratings over 1800, and Beltik may show up. They will eat you alive.

POWERS: I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Beth is smarter than those guys. Now, Tevis tells this story with a bristling economy that mirrors Beth's attacking chess style. To make it work on screen, you must either make a stylistically compressed art movie or play everything out. Frank does the latter. And while I kept wishing the series moved faster - seven episodes is too many - I admire how he pulls off the trick of portraying chess, the most internal of games, by cooking up ever-changing styles to make each match feel different and fresh.

Frank enriches Beth's relationship to her mom, transcending stage mother cliches to help us see how Mrs. Wheatley is just one of the millions of smart, frustrated women back in the pre-feminist days. And he wins nifty turns from the men in Beth's life, most notably Benny, the cocky young U.S. champion who carries himself like a gunslinger. He's played by the sensational Thomas Brodie-Sangster.

With her wide-set eyes and mask-like features, Taylor-Joy is one of those actors, like Keanu Reeves, who was born to play other worldly characters. Here, she's a double outsider. For starters, she's a female chess mastermind, which makes her a unicorn in a subculture dominated by strutting male egos. Beth hates being called a great woman chess player. She wants to be the best player, period. She's also a flat-out genius. This makes her a rarity in our storytelling. It's not that there aren't as many intelligent women as men. Heck, Oprah is as much a genius as Steve Jobs ever was. But our ideas about genius are gendered or, more bluntly, sexist. Even as our pop culture is overstuffed with stories about men celebrated as geniuses, be it Van Gogh, Ray Charles or Stephen Hawking, plus fictional dudes like Sherlock Holmes, there are almost none about women. You have Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," Katherine Johnson in "Hidden Figures," maybe "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." We can add Beth Harmon to this short list.

Although her story doesn't escape the usual trajectory of on-screen geniuses to triumph over the psychic costs imposed by one's great gifts, "The Queen's Gambit" does offer something exciting. What makes the heroine the heroine isn't that she's lovely, charming or likeable. It's that whatever room she walks into, she's always the most brilliant person there.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The Queen's Gambit," the new Netflix series that drops Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. We'll talk about the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings, how Trump has transformed the Supreme Court and the federal appeals courts, Nina's longtime friendship with RBG and being a founding mother of NPR. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADRE VACA'S "LONELINESS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADRE VACA'S "LONELINESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.