Books Into Movies – Searching for Bobby Fischer
I couldn’t be more thankful to HBO for allowing me to discover many different films that I neglected to notice during their short run in theaters. Among them is the 1993 Steven Zaillian film Searching for Bobby Fischer. For those who have yet to discover this magnificent piece of work, it is based on the book of the same name by Fred Waitzkin, a New York sportswriter who watched his son Josh develop a passion – and eventual mastery – of chess; a passion that turned Josh into the top player in the country under the age of 18.
This film has stayed a favorite of mine for over fifteen years, and recently I took it upon myself to find a copy of Fred Waitzkin’s original book: Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess. Now, I’m only several pages into the book, but what I’ve already read has reminded me of how people often forget about the phrase: “Based on a True Story.” They’re not saying “A True Story,” these biopics aren’t documentaries. Once dramatic license is involved, you can pretty much guarantee that whatever occurs on the screen isn’t exactly how it happened.
I didn’t realize how much dramatic license was used until I came across a major scene that takes place early in the film. After Josh (played by Max Pomeranc) shows Fred (played by Joe Mantegna) just how much he knows about chess, Fred takes Josh to see instructor Bruce Pandolfini (played by Ben Kingsley) at the Manhattan Chess Club. The goal is to have Bruce teach Josh the fundamentals of the game and see how far he can take his newfound gift. While Fred talks with Bruce, Josh quietly walks over to a player at the club and asks if he wants to play. The member (Tony Shalhoub) and Josh play a fast and intense game, with Josh keeping his eyes on the board and concentrating on his game, not getting under his opponent’s skin by reminding him that he’s being outplayed by a boy. When the game ends, Josh simply says, “Good game” and even gives him the rest of the candy he was eating before.
That’s how it is in the movie. But in the book, when we see Josh in the club, he is watching various games as they develop and giggling at the moves the players make. When he comes across the player sitting by himself and invites him to play, he quickly defeats him and with a big smile, exclaims, “Trick or treat!” Pandolfini also recommends that Josh come back in about 7 or 8 years, when he’s more mature and able to play without this childish grandstanding.
Obviously, this is a young kid who is excited about he can do and it’s great to see that kind of enthusiasm, but it’d drive me nuts to see him acting like that on the screen and an extra scene would have to be added to show Josh learning to be a good winner. So it makes perfect sense to establish his easy-going attitude and grace in victory from the start of the film.
As the film unfolds and we see Josh’s playing and winning increase, we are eventually introduced to a boy about two years younger than Josh, Jonathan Poe (who is based on the chess player Jeff Sarwer). This kid is just as good as Josh, if not better, but a little more menacing (if a boy not in a horror film can be that). His first appearance is in Washington Square Park, where Josh first showed his skills against a player over sixty years older than him. Josh lost that game, but when Jonathan plays him, he swiftly defeats him and, in a cocky tone, says, “Trick or treat.” A short time later, Poe and his teacher go to the Manhattan Chess Club to approach Bruce for membership. Poe walks around, giggles at the moves the other players are making in their games and Bruce recommends Jonathan come back when he is 10 years older.
So this is where all of the less-endearing qualities about Josh have gone, into this Jonathan character. I assume this is the main reason why a new name had to be given to Josh’s big opponent that he would face in the climactic tournament, but I also find it fascinating that the traits that make Jonathan easy to root against were originally in Josh. Zaillian could have easily made Jonathan say or do something else after we see his first big win. Is the writer/director saying that Josh’s biggest opponent that he had to defeat was himself?
I’m fascinated by this possibility and I’m looking forward to reading more of Fred’s book, but even though I’m only one chapter in, it’s safe that to say that the film Searching for Bobby Fischer has become even more interesting to me. And it also reminds me of the difference between a true-to-life documentary and a film that is “Based on a True Story.”