If there’s one universal truth for a book-to-TV (or film) adaptation, it’s that it’s impossible to go from page to screen without some changes. In the case of the highly anticipated AppleTV+ adaptation of beloved bestseller Lessons in Chemistry, the onscreen “magic” between stars Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman led to more episode appearances for Pullman than originally scripted.
“We realized we had something magic there between them,” said director Sarah Adina Smith (Birds of Paradise) during a Vanity Fair-hosted discussion on Tuesday night, which followed a screening of the show’s first two episodes. “Lewis was only supposed to be in I think two or three episodes, but because he was so magnetic and watchable, we felt like this was the heart of the show. Lee [Eisenberg], being the really smart showrunner and flexible writer that he is, saw what the universe was giving him and pivoted to make sure that we could keep him longer.”
In the adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’s novel, Pullman plays Calvin Evans, a renowned scientist who sparks an inter-office romance with Larson’s Elizabeth Zott, a non-nonsense chemist constantly pushing up against the sexist standards of her 1950s workplace. Elizabeth is the story’s focus, going on to host a chemistry-laden cooking show after Calvin exits her life. But as editor Matthew Barbato (Only Murders in the Building) revealed during the panel, the team was inspired to build a later episode around Pullman’s character Calvin Evans, without impacting his story’s major plot points.
“There’s an episode that we do later in the series that tells you about his backstory. And it’s kind of an outside episode because we’re mostly just telling the story of Calvin and how he and Elizabeth Zott met,” he explained. “It’s a really wonderful episode because you kind of see everything from the other side, not from Elizabeth’s perspective, but from Calvin’s perspective.”
He continued: ““heir [onscreen chemistry] actually changed how we structured the first episode a bit. We wanted to bring that up a little bit closer to [the beginning] so that we could experience it sooner.”
Joining Smith and Barbato on the panel, moderated by Vanity Fair‘s Rebecca Ford, were cinematographer Zach Galler (The Act); costume designer Mirren Gordon Crozier (Where the Crawdads Sing); and hair department head Teressa Hill (Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves).
Smith said everyone involved on Lessons in Chemistry has great respect for Garmus’s novel, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for a whopping 68 weeks, and they did their best to maintain the integrity of her work while also making it their own. “I knew that this was a really beloved book and when I read it, I could see why. It meant that the bar was set really high,” Smith said. “I tried to put it out of my mind and look at everything with fresh eyes, which is, I feel like kind of what you need to do as a director is discover it anew.”