Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit has been one of the biggest hits for the streaming service in 2020. It’s a madly addictive television show (that even a chess idiot would appreciate), but before Netflix came along, it was originally envisioned as a movie based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name.
Scott Frank — who created, wrote, and directed the Netflix series — revealed on NPR’s Fresh Air that the project took decades to make. Heath Ledger had originally been attached to the film and was going to make it as his directorial debut, but unfortunately, he passed away before he could bring it to the screen. The material would have been a natural fit for the Oscar-winning actor who — like the series’ lead, Beth Harmon — also struggled with addiction. A number of others have come close to directing it, as well, including Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris).
The problem with a film adaptation, as Frank explains, is that “when you reduce the novel to a screenplay, just an hour and a half or two-hour movie, it really becomes a sports movie. Period. Is she going to win? Is she not going to win?”
Frank ultimately cast Anya Taylor Joy in the lead role as Beth Harmon, in part because “she had [big eyes] and such an amazing face. It’s just so expressive, and you can read so much into her eyes.” Interestingly, Heath Ledger had envisioned the similarly expressive Elliot Page in the role of Harmon. Page would have just come off his Oscar-nominated role in Juno, which interestingly came in the year before Ledger posthumously won his Oscar for The Dark Knight.
Scott Frank co-created The Queen’s Gambit with Scottish writer Allan Shiach, who has been attached to the property for years and spoke with The Independent in 2008 about Ledger’s version:
“We spent a lot of time over the last three months working on his vision,” Shiach said. “I did draft after draft and he gave his input and we met several times in New York and here, where he was spending a lot of his time. We had got to the stage where we had sent the script to [Elliot]. Heath was full of ideas for the other cast, mainly from his list of acting friends. We were planning to make a movie at the end of 2008.”
Frank is right that The Queen’s Gambit would not have worked as well as a movie, although it would have been amazing to see Ledger take a stab at it with Elliot Page, who could have been a very successful Beth Harmon.
In the Fresh Air interview, Frank also did suggest that he could not see a second season of the series, at least “not without ruining the first season.” Netflix viewers, alas, will have to settle for seven terrific episodes.
Source: Fresh Air