The popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon, a fictional teenage chess prodigy turned international Grand Master. Although the show is based on The Queen’s Gambit: A Novel, written by Walter Tevis and published in 1983, its writer and director Frank Scott altered the plot in ways that significantly changed the portrayal of the protagonist.
This divergence fits a pattern one could call the Netflix Effect: rather than telling stories that reflect the human capacity to be better than we might be, Netflix original programming tends to display humans as enslaved to our passions. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes that poetry (from poesis, making, applying to the act of creating fiction) describes what “might be,” as opposed to what is. These darker narratives illustrate a problem: one of the leading content creators of the twenty-first century corrodes the way we imagine ourselves as human beings; the kind of “thing” we “might be” is, in this narrative universe, a creature unable to transcend our basest desires.
Shows that exhibit the Netflix Effect tell a story through excellent attention to plot, characterization, setting, costuming—all the elements of contemporary storycraft—but they shape that story into a darker version of itself. Please note: by analyzing this effect, I do not seek to deny the validity of tragic stories. Instead, I want to draw attention to a persistent attempt to revise existing stories, tapping into viewers’ nostalgia while adding in identity politics through pornographic interludes or story arcs centered on sexual identity.
This kind of storytelling creates a specific imaginative effect through repetition across different shows. It normalizes elements older generations termed sin, vice, or obscenity. The thematic unity found in Netflix original programming gives rise to an imaginative perception that homosexuality, transgender, and pornography-inspired sexual acts are normal, and the viewer should expect such patterns in human life. At the same time, reaching only for the dark, the obscene, and the perverse limits the craft of storytelling. It is, like Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism, a dead end for fruitful creativity.
An Artistic Trap
This Effect is most evident in Netflix original programming. I’ve written elsewhere about this problem in House of Cards season five; the depths to which Frank Underwood sinks leave nowhere for his character to go, persuading the viewer that the world is a pessimistic place defined by power relations. Anne with an E also reflects a pessimistic modality. It takes a beloved children’s classic, renowned for expressing quintessential girlhood, an enchanted imagination, and innocence maturing into adulthood, and adds in an oppressed homosexual teacher/student subplot.
Part of the problem lies in the freedom that Netflix enjoys. As an internet-based streaming company, Netflix is freed from the constraints of public decency laws. This freedom has become an artistic trap. Freed from the requirements to limit nudity, obscenity, and profanity, Netflix now has a proven pattern of adapting stories into darker, cruder versions of themselves.
In many ways, Netflix is an experiment. What would visual media look like without moral restrictions? Does the removal of such requirements unleash an unforeseen level of artistic creativity? My Netflix watching suggests the answer is no. Netflix has gone to the shock level too often. What is left to be avant-garde? A transgender character? A homosexual character who comes out only to find (subplot A) that the family is far more accepting than expected, or (subplot B) he or she was right, and is now to be castigated? Nudity, sex scenes, children spewing explicit words—these are all now passé.
It recalls the distinction between free verse and haiku. A few poets, like T. S. Elliot and Wallace Stevens, write exceptional free verse poetry, but most poets need structure to create comprehensible art. The majority of outstanding poets, such as Richard Wilbur and James Matthew Wilson, find that structure propels them to higher themes and deeper meanings. Operating within a structure marries innate skill and learned craft. The requirements of telling a love story without the ability to be explicit result in better romance; displaying anger without profanity requires better acting and vocabulary. The removal of moral guidelines from Netflix’s content results in the Cuties controversy, and an endless stream of faux-transgressive original content. In the absence of a moral universe, what’s left to transgress?
The Queen’s Gambit
In The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix Effect is subtle, in part because the original storyline already contains dark elements. Beth begins drinking at age 16 and has her first binge at 18. She is no prude, beginning sexual relationships at age 17. These decisions complement a lifelong addiction to tranquilizer pills.
In the novel, however, Beth’s use of drugs is immediately shown to cloud her mind. She knows that she must decide when she can afford to take a pill and when it will cost her mental clarity. By contrast, the Netflix version portrays a direct causal connection between the tranquilizers and her ability to create a mental chess board on the ceiling. Rather than its being harmful to her developing skills, the Netflix version implies that her drug use actually enhances those skills. In her match against Beltik at her first tournament, Netflix has Beth take a tranquilizer to unlock her ability to better visualize the game. In the novel, she sits in a bathroom stall and visualizes the game, no drugs required. Through Netflix’s depiction, the viewer is shown the message repeatedly: tranquilizers unlock hidden levels of the mind without cost.
The Netflix version also weakens Beth’s determination to achieve high levels of chess success. The first episode opens with Beth rushing to her Paris match against Borgov. We see her roll out of bed, with a slight glimpse of her lover; we see her take tranquilizers, washing them down with alcohol. As she puts her heels on in the hallway, she appears highly unstable. She loses that match. The initial structure of the show is a flashback leading up to that moment, as we see Beth’s development up to her Paris tournament in 1967. We learn that her lover is Cleo, a friend Beth meets through US co-champion Benny Watts. Beth sees in Cleo a woman of complete freedom who lives as she pleases. The night before her match against Borgov, Cleo breaks Beth’s dry streak. Five months of abstention are washed away in a sea of Gibsons, and Cleo becomes Beth’s lesbian experiment.
This scene could not be more different from its depiction in the novel. Tevis’s Beth determines that she will play seriously in Paris, and she refuses to allow anything to distract her. There is no sexual experimentation, no drinking, no clouding her mind before she faces her Russian nemesis. Instead, we see her ambition and determination to succeed. She loses that match not because she is a doped-up wino, but because at that stage of the novel Borgov is a better player than Beth is. While her Paris tournament results in a second-place finish, it is a triumph of her will over vice.
Both versions are effective stories, and the fact that Tevis’s novel is the source material for Frank Scott’s adaptation does not establish its superiority. As Gadamer contends, after publication, the text takes on a life of its own, independent of its author. In this case, that life has resulted in a layering of narratives. Distinguishing between the layers of the novel and the Netflix adaptation allows for evaluation on grounds of human dignity.
Tevis shows a flawed protagonist who discovers the necessity of becoming better. Netflix Beth is instead a victim of her faults, dependent on others to help her overcome her weaknesses. In the show, Beth receives significant help from Benny and two other chess masters. Where Netflix emphasizes an American team opposed to a Russian team of chess strategists, Tevis locates Beth’s triumph in isolation. During her final game, Beth reaches an impasse: “Borgov had started a line of play for which she had no continuation ready. She was alone again.” Beth’s victory over Borgov, in Tevis’s version, is a function of her mental discipline, accessible because of the previous five months of physical discipline. She “allowed herself only the chessboard of her imagination with its intricate deadlock. It did not really matter who was playing the black pieces or whether the material board sat in Moscow or New York or in the basement of an orphanage; this eidetic image was her proper domain.” As she played the final sequence in her match against Borgov, “The tightness of her body began to loosen, and over the next moves there began to spread a fine sense of calm.”
It is no accident that Tevis returns to the motif of tension and calm; the quest to relieve her inner tension is what drives Beth to alcohol, marijuana, and Librium. By the denouement, she finds her calm in personal excellence executed at the highest levels of international competition. If the novel is a genre of transformation, Tevis closes his story with Beth’s metamorphosis into a woman of excellence whose self-discipline has allowed her to transcend her inner faults.
What It Means to Be Human
Greek literature highlights the limitations of humanity. Often, humans resemble Achilles, giving in to our passions and creating destruction. Other times, people resemble Odysseus, whose long journey home is fraught with distractions, dangers, and delusions.
Aristotle calls the goal of human existence eudaimonia: the ultimate blessedness that all humans desire. He contends that the path that best leads to that blessed life is the path of virtue. In the Ethics, he argues that each individual has the responsibility to determine the course of his life through the choices he makes to live virtuously or unvirtuously. Humans, Aristotle concludes, have moral responsibility because we possess moral agency. Aristotle, as Luc Ferry shows, expresses philosophically what Homer expressed poetically. Achilles is responsible for his rage—and its consequences. Odysseus is heroic because he continues to strive for home, despite his circumstances. The ability to make choices, and take responsibility for those choices, is at the core of what it means to be a human person.
These stories stand in opposition to the Netflix Effect. The “secondary reality” of Netflix original programming celebrates either the development of a perverse desire or the tragic finitude of a protagonist without hope. To the extent that Netflix creates excellent stories that shape the way viewers perceive the world, the negative bent of its storytelling merits concern. The Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit brought Tevis’s novel to more than 62 million people who otherwise would not have experienced this story. But it did so at the cost of shifting Beth Harmon’s story from one of human triumph over her temptations to a story about her inability to transcend vice.
Netflix takes the viewer into a world where drugs are beneficial, available, and have minimal harms. In such a world, those who indulge in chemical abuse lack the will to envision and choose a better life for themselves.
Such a vision contrasts sharply with Tevis’s narrative universe. His story highlights a flawed character with understandable attractions to harmful substances. Substance abuse does not lead to the degradation of her will; instead, it forces Beth to choose what she will make of her life and her gift. She cannot escape the nagging conviction that with every shot she harms her gift. In showing Beth reaching out for help and overcoming her predilection for alcohol, Tevis displays a positive ability of humans to exercise their will and make better choices, transforming themselves in the process. Tevis has a profound respect for the human person, and the way the will enables us to take action and change the trajectory of our lives.
These two visions of the human person bring the reader or viewer to one of two endpoints: either we recognize the importance of making the best choices and inherit a position of moral responsibility, or we face the despair of living in a world without moral agency. As captivating at the Netflix version is, the novel upholds a higher view of the human person, summoning the reader to embrace the ability of each human being to rise above circumstances through moral agency and responsibility.