Heath Ledger’s Cancelled Queen’s Gambit Plan Changes His “Joker Tragedy”


Netflix’s adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit has renewed interest in Heath Ledger’s tragically abandoned adaptation – which changes his legacy.

Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is the first adaptation of the 1983 novel and has reignited interest in Heath Ledger’s tragically abandoned plans for a feature film that would have been his directorial debut. The Queen’s Gambit explores the life of female chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she tries to become a Grandmaster while battling alcoholism and a tranquilizer addiction. A film adaptation has actually been in the works in 1983, with a high-profile collaboration between Heath Ledger and Allan Schiach coming closest to realization before it was canceled in 2008.

Allan Schiach first acquired the rights to The Queen’s Gambit in 1992, with plans to adapt the novel into an art-house film. Several directors were involved before moving on, and Schiach was close to abandoning the project before Heath Ledger contacted him with an interest in directing the film. Ledger had a significant role in reshaping the script, and was set to star alongside Ellen Page – but production on his adaptation on The Queen’s Gambit was canceled when he tragically died in 2008. If Heath Ledger’s version of The Queen’s Gambit had happened, it would have challenged the longstanding idea that his role in The Dark Knight as the Joker led to his death, and would have been his most personal project to date.

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The Queen’s Gambit heavily features Beth’s struggle with addiction to tranquilizers and alcoholism. Heath Ledger drew on his personal experience to reshape the script from Allan Schiach’s original draft and turned the film into a more nuanced project. The Queen’s Gambit was shaping up to be an intimate, personal project for Ledger, with the actor’s own struggles with addiction playing out via Beth Harmon’s. An article in The Independent describes the script as, “vastly nuanced and enjoyable… it would have been a script with which Ledger would have been intimately connected at the time of his death.” If The Queen’s Gambit had been Heath Ledger’s last project instead of The Dark Knight, then the perception of his death and the supposed “Joker tragedy” would have been very different.

The idea that Ledger’s role as the Joker contributed to his mental health and eventual death has persisted despite evidence to the contrary and the testament of his sister. That explanation was always sensationalist and tabloid-friendly, so it was natural that it was picked up, but it fundamentally ignored his lifelong struggle with substance abuse – something that Ledger never had the opportunity to grapple with in his tragically short life. Or at least which was never a known part of his public persona.  Ledger’s work on The Queen’s Gambit would have been more than just his directorial debut, it was a way for him to use his experiences to create an intimate and personal work of art. Revelations about the abandoned screenplay also further reveal how talented Heath Ledger was, and how much potential the actor had.

It’s no secret that Heath Ledger’s tragic death meant the loss of an enormous talent, but renewed interest in his version of The Queen’s Gambit reveals a glimpse of what might have been. Instead of The Dark Knight, his last project and the one he is most associated with, this adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit could have provided insight into his talent and his trauma and the direction his career might have taken in the future. In another world, perhaps Heath Ledger’s legacy would have been associated with his more intimate, insightful work and directorial debut with The Queen’s Gambit.

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Updated: November 5, 2020 — 1:37 pm

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