Fans rarely take kindly to changes made to their favorite books in the adaptation process. But in bringing Lessons in Chemistry to Apple TV+, showrunner Lee Eisenberg smoothes some plot holes, explains some inexplicable twists, and takes the politics of the era more seriously than the book did.
The show follows the same trajectory as the book: In the 1950s and 1960s, a woman named Elizabeth Zott aspires to be a scientist but faces barriers in the form of both systemic sexism and, in particular, misogynistic and abusive bosses. But she finds an ally in a fellow scientist named Calvin, and eventually the two become romantically involved. The book blends genres: It’s a rom-com with weepy elements but also historical fiction with a mystery thrown in. Oh, and there’s a talking dog—or, at least, a dog with an inner monologue. The debut novel by Bonnie Garmus was an instant bestseller.
The cast of the show is much more diverse than that of the book, and secondary characters thankfully get beefed-up storylines. Calvin and Elizabeth’s neighbor Harriet, for instance, is no longer a nosy neighbor spying on Elizabeth out of boredom. Instead, she’s Calvin’s true friend with her own independent life as an attorney and Civil Rights advocate. And Calvin’s pen pal, Minister Wakely, gets substantial screentime with Elizabeth to ruminate on clashes between faith and science.
But some of the best book-to-television changes are small alterations to the central romantic relationship. Though Lessons in Chemistry‘s lessons in feminism can feel remedial at times, Brie Larson is pitch perfect as the no-nonsense scientist Elizabeth Zott. Lewis Pullman serves as a compelling counterbalance with his portrayal of Calvin. Here are the major book-to-show changes from the first two episodes of the series, with a focus on their love story. Maybe there are lessons here for other book adaptations not to stay too faithful to the source material.
Calvin and Elizabeth meet at a pageant, not a play
Calvin and Elizabeth’s meet-cute is similar in the book and the TV show. The two come into conflict when Elizabeth steals a few of Calvin’s supplies for her lab, reasoning that he doesn’t use all his equipment anyway. And Calvin assumes that Elizabeth is a secretary, not a scientist. But the two cross paths again when Calvin accidentally throws up on Elizabeth, and she takes him home to care for him.
In the book, the notorious throw-up encounter takes place at a play. The TV show invents a new setting: A Little Miss Hastings pageant held by Elizabeth’s employer, Hastings Lab. Elizabeth is forced to participate just because she is a woman. The addition of the pageant offers the show’s writers an opportunity to not only highlight the myriad sexist demands of Elizabeth’s job that get in the way of her conducting actual research, but also allow Calvin the opportunity to take notice of Elizabeth because she seems to be the only disgruntled woman at the event, a fact that immediately charms him. Quickly, the audience learns that Elizabeth is not like other women at the lab—and Calvin isn’t like the other men. You can see where this is headed.
Calvin and Elizabeth are able to develop actual chemistry
In the book, the romance between Calvin and Elizabeth can feel a little stunted. After all, they’re both hyper-logical people. Their conversations about protons and neutrons do not the stuff of passion make. When the two do open up to each other, like in a bedtime conversation about how they’re both (essentially) orphans, the moments can feel forced or out of character.
The show takes its time to develop the flirtation between Calvin and Elizabeth and finds moments for them to bond. The scene, for instance, of Calvin teaching Elizabeth how to swim doesn’t exist in the book but it does capture their courtship and (yes) chemistry in a succinct way. They can be intimate in this empty pool in a way they cannot in other settings given the time period. It’s hard not to be charmed watching them fall in love as they kiss chastely in period-appropriate bathing suits.
Calvin doesn’t propose to Elizabeth
In the book, Calvin proposes to Elizabeth in their workplace cafeteria—a curious choice given Elizabeth’s staunch stance that she does not want to get married. They are both fully isolated from their coworkers in all other aspects of their lives. Given that Calvin is aloof and socially awkward, it never made sense that he would choose to propose to Elizabeth in such a public setting, even if he stumbled into the decision. It leads to one of their biggest fights, quickly settled when they agree to move in together.
In the adaptation, Calvin does buy an engagement ring, but he never actually gets up the courage to show it to Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth tells him she does not want marriage or children—she believes it will mean the end of her career, and she’s not wrong—he finds a way to make peace with her choice, and finds contentment in it. Rather than fighting over her seeming rejection, as they do in the book, Calvin happily agrees that as long as they’re together they will be happy.
It’s a bit feminist pixie dream husband for the 1950s, but it certainly renders Calvin more likable. That’s important part of the story, so that the audience understands the depth of Elizabeth’s loss when Calvin dies in an accident while running with their dog.
Calvin’s friendship with Harriet sets up a bond between Elizabeth and Harriet
To help mitigate this fantasy of Calvin as a fully liberal partner in the 1950s, the show gives Calvin friendships outside of his relationship with Elizabeth—and shows him to be a flawed companion. In the book, Calvin is a complete loner. But in the show, we see Calvin bond with his neighbor Harriet and even help care for her kids. But he also fails her after agreeing to help with her advocacy work. He has the blind spots even a well-meaning white man of that era would have. Through that friendship, we learn more about Calvin as a potential partner for Elizabeth.
The preexisting friendship also folds Harriet into the story. Harriet will play an important role in Elizabeth’s life later on. Given that Calvin dies at the end of Episode 2, it would make sense that Harriet would check in on her neighbor’s grieving partner rather than just show up out of the blue because of pure nosiness.