My wife and I blazed through The Queen’s Gambit last week and loved every minute of it. Netflix’s chess drama limited series, which sees Anya Taylor-Joy as an orphan-turned-genius chess prodigy who has struggled with substance abuse issues since childhood, is brilliant and utterly engrossing, turning games of chess into thrilling edge-of-your-seat nailbiters while also delving deep into human drama and the cost that the truly gifted pay for their talents. And with that, it’s no wonder that the show has quickly become a breakout sensation for Netflix, taking the top spot on the streamer’s charts in several countries. But The Queen’s Gambit wasn’t originally supposed to be a series as it was going to be made as a feature film more than a decade ago before tragedy struck.
The show is adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel by writer/director/producer Scott Frank (Logan, Minority Report, Out of Sight) and Allan Scott, the professional pseudonym of Scottish writer Allan Shiach (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). It was back in 1992 that the latter first optioned Tevis’ novel with the intention of making it into a feature film. In the ensuing years, veteran filmmakers Michael Apted (The Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Bernado Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) were both attached at various points but left again for different reasons. Eventually though, Shiach found an unconventional but thematically perfect choice to direct the film: Heath Ledger.
The talented young actor had never sat in the director’s chair before (outside of some music videos), but as Shiach said in 2008 (via Moviemaker), “Everyone knows Heath was a user of prescription drugs; and that he had addiction issues when he was a young man.” The similarity between Ledger and Beth Harmon, the lead character in The Queen’s Gambit, was incredibly fitting. And it was Ledger who pursued the gig for his feature film directorial debut.
He was passionate about it; he was an intense, interested young man and I was drawn to him immediately. We spoke and spoke about the project over the phone, and then eventually got round to meeting up over it towards the end of last year.
Ledger reportedly wanted Ellen Page – who had just come off a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Juno in 2007 – to star as Harmon and was lining up the rest of the cast as Shiach polished the script.
We spent a lot of time over the last three months working on his vision. 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 Ellen. 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.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2008 when the very thing that made Ledger so good for The Queen’s Gambit claimed his life as the actor passed away from an accidental drug overdose. While Ledger would go on to win a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his iconic work in The Dark Knight, Shiach never got to help him realize his dream of directing a feature film.
On a personal level I am incredibly sad. One is always sad to lose someone as a friend. But, what is more, the movie business lost a real talent. I think he would have been an extraordinary director.
Luckily, over a decade later, The Queen’s Gambit found another extraordinary filmmaker in Frank. After wowing Netflix with western drama Godless, he adapted Shiach’s feature film idea into a seven-part series, directing all episodes, and the results have been spectacular. But it’s still intriguing to think back on what could have been.
The Queen’s Gambit is streaming on Netflix right now.
Last Updated: November 3, 2020