In 1993, a screenwriter staked his burgeoning career on a movie about chess. His name was Steven Zaillian, and he might be the most important man in Hollywood you’ve never heard of: In the two decades since, he’s written (or co-written) adapted screenplays for Schindler’s List and Clear and Present Danger and A Civil Action and Gangs of New York and Moneyball and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. His track record is not perfect (his adaptation of All The King’s Men, which he also directed, is considered a Heaven’s Gate-level Hollywood failure), but he is one of the few screenwriters capable of freeing a film from the shackles of literary tyranny — a reasonable case could be made that at least two of Zaillian’s screenplays defy the cliché and are actually better than the book (exactly which two is an argument for another day).
That film Zaillian wrote and directed, Searching for Bobby Fischer, is one of the best sports movies of the past 20 years. It doesn’t matter if you want to engage in the facile (and ultimately useless) argument that chess is or is not a sport: Searching for Bobby Fischer quietly captures the rhythm of competition and the rigors of children living up to “adult” expectations as well as any film I’ve ever seen. It was a critical success (if not a commercial one), and it has become something of a cult classic, and for many people it is the only interaction they’ve had with competitive chess. It is such a good movie, in fact, that it has managed to obscure the book it is based upon, and this is a shame, because Fred Waitzkin’s version of Searching for Bobby Fischer is a quiet little masterpiece of its own.
I don’t know if Searching for Bobby Fischer was ever a bestseller, despite the film’s rave reviews; if it was, I can’t find any record of it. But I do know that Waitzkin’s book deserves to be reissued in something other than one of those cheap Hollywood tie-in covers featuring the skilled young actor who played Waitzkin’s son (Max Pomeranc, who dropped out of movies after 1995) hiding his face; it deserves its own identity as something other than fodder for a screenplay.
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