WARNING! This article contains SPOILERS for Lessons in Chemistry episode 7 and the book Lessons in Chemistry.
- Elizabeth’s role as a chemist is changed to a lab tech in the miniseries, highlighting the challenges she faces in a male-dominated field.
- The romantic relationship between Elizabeth and Calvin progresses at a slower pace in the miniseries, with both versions ultimately ending tragically.
- The introduction of Harriet as a Black woman and Reverend Wakely as a Black man promise interesting changes to the story.
Many changes were made to Lessons in Chemistry when bringing Elizabeth Zott’s story from book pages to the silver screen, as shown throughout the series. The Apple TV+ miniseries is adapted from the hit debut novel Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, who serves as a co-executive producer on the series but didn’t write any of the episodes. The Lessons in Chemistry cast is led by actress and co-executive producer Brie Larson, who puts her own spin on the zany, inspiring, and complex Zott, making and taking any changes to the book in stride.
The differences between the Lessons in Chemistry book and the miniseries it inspired are both minor and major all at once. The Lessons in Chemistry trailer shows that, with 8 episodes in total, it becomes clearer over time that seemingly trivial changes can have a big impact. Adapting books, especially beloved ones, can be a tricky business, as there’s always going to be something left on the cutting room floor that disappoints devoted readers. Fortunately, Lessons in Chemistry also has the opportunity to make changes that build upon and enhance the existing story.
1 Elizabeth Is A Lab Tech, Not A Chemist
Elizabeth’s position is a major change
One of the most notable and curious changes made in Lessons in Chemistry’s first two episodes is the decision to have Elizabeth work as a lab tech. In the book, Elizabeth is a chemist who has her own lab techs and a team who hold varying degrees of respect towards her. Zott has a master’s in chemistry but not a PhD, which makes it easy for some of her sexist colleagues and superiors to dismiss her work as lesser. In the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries, Elizabeth still has a degree in chemistry, but she’s hired to be a lab tech, not a chemist, limiting her capacity to work.
Zott’s underemployment in the 1950s and her feelings about being perceived by her male colleagues as just another pretty face and a glorified secretary were exemplified in Lessons in Chemistry episode 1 at the Little Miss Hastings Pageant. This pageant didn’t exist in the book and was telling of the way Zott’s position as a lab tech complicates her dynamics with her coworkers and superiors. In particular, it makes her work and relationship with Calvin in Lessons in Chemistry appear extremely unbalanced from the outside despite her having the qualifications to be a chemist.
2 How Elizabeth & Calvin Got Together
The couple have a much slower burn in the miniseries
Calvin and Elizabeth’s romantic relationship progresses much quicker in the Lessons in Chemistry book despite having similar origins. In the book, Zott agrees to work with Calvin a week after meeting him under the agreement that they would never date, and that it was just work. Three weeks after that, following one of their disagreements, they shared their first kiss in an explosive moment that, as the book says, cemented “a permanent bond that even chemistry could not explain.” They may have a much slower, more cinematic buildup in the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries, but both relationships tragically end the same way.
3 Harriet’s Introduction
Harriet’s character undergoes one of the biggest changes
In the Lessons of Chemistry book, Calvin and Elizabeth’s neighbor, Harriet, is an older white woman and housewife whose kids have left the nest, leaving her lonely with a sexist husband she doesn’t love. In the Lessons in Chemistry show, Harriet is a Black woman who has two young children with her husband, who is serving overseas in the Korean War. She also works as a legal aide, environmentalist, and civil rights activist. In the book, Harriet isn’t even introduced until after Evans dies, though she’s a main character from the beginning of the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries. This promises some interesting shakeups to the world readers are familiar with.
4 Elizabeth Burning The Lasagna
Elizabeth’s perfectionism has a deeper meaning
The Lessons in Chemistry book frequently weaves its way through different timelines and points of view in ways the miniseries can’t entirely imitate. Interestingly, cuts to flash-forwards of Zott hosting her cooking show, Supper at Six, are used to show parallels between herself at different stages in her life. In the Lessons in Chemistry book, Zott never burns her food because cooking is a precise chemistry, and she is a gifted chemist and perfectionist who is held to impossibly high standards as a woman. In the screen adaptation, she accidentally burns the lasagna she’s making at two different key moments.
The first time she does this is because she is distracted talking on the phone to Evans while she cooks. He tells her it’s okay, and she says it’s not because she’s never burnt anything, clearly suggesting that Evans is a distraction she cannot afford. In the future, she burns the lasagna in front of a live studio audience, shocking everyone but no more than herself. She is briefly emotional before she delivers a moving speech in Lessons in Chemistry episode 2 about the messiness and unpredictability of life and science, clearly inspired by one of her last conversations with Calvin before his untimely death.
5 Calvin Proposes To Elizabeth & She Says No
Calvin is less traditionally minded in the miniseries
Zott and Evans fall in love with each other deeply and quickly, and given the time period, it’s not exactly surprising that it doesn’t take long for Evans to propose marriage in the Lessons in Chemistry book. He begs her to say yes, even doing it in front of the entire cafeteria, taking out the ring box he said he’d been carrying around for months. In Lessons in Chemistry episode 2, Evans and Elizabeth simply have a calm conversation where she says she never wants to get married or have children, which he almost immediately accepts in turn, all in the comfort of their own bed.
When Zott rejects his proposal in the Lessons in Chemistry book because she wants her work to stand alone, he basically throws a tantrum. As Calvin often did in the book, he made assumptions and took actions blinded by love and his belief in what love should look like, not considering Elizabeth’s feelings as much as he should have. The Calvin of the Lessons in Chemistry book had a much harder time than the Calvin in the series when it came to letting go of the idea of having a traditional family with the love of his life.
In some ways, this could make the book more realistic, as Calvin’s love and respect for Zott consistently force him to unlearn what he hadn’t even begun to think of as sexist ideology. This takes time, but he is always striving to grow and follow Elizabeth’s example. Fortunately, they managed to resolve their argument in the Lessons in Chemistry book by the end of lunch.
6 The Introduction of Six-Thirty
The beloved dog is not your average pet
After rejecting his marriage proposal in the Lessons in Chemistry book, Elizabeth agrees to get a dog with him to help Calvin build the family that he so longed for. About a month later, they still hadn’t found a dog, but Six-Thirty managed to find them. While walking back from the deli one day, a “mangy, smelly dog” saw her walking by and moved for the first time in five hours to follow her home. Evans, amused at seeing the odd couple together for the first time, asked, “Who’s your friend?” Elizabeth then replied, “It’s six thirty,” clearly mishearing him and giving their dog his unique name.
7 Calvin’s Accident
Calvin’s death was written differently in the book
In Lessons in Chemistry, both Zott and Calvin have peculiar habits, with jogging being one of Calvin’s. His death precluded the start of the jogging craze in the 1970s, meaning the fact that he would run and jog outside was seen as odd. In the book, Zott didn’t exactly approve of it, especially when it rained. Elizabeth didn’t get Six-Thirty a leash until the city passed its first leash law, and she became unexpectedly concerned about wanting him attached to her and keeping him safe. She then asked Calvin to use the leash when they went on runs together.
Calvin didn’t want to be tethered by a leash, but he saw a “mothering instinct” in Elizabeth when she talked about keeping Six-Thirty safe, so he obliged. In the Lessons in Chemistry television series, Elizabeth gifts Calvin a leash on Christmas, so he can have a running buddy in Six-Thirty. This removes the context of the time period for viewers and Calvin’s reticence. Instead, it’s the dog who doesn’t like the leash, and Six-Thirty’s stubborn behavior on a run is shown in Lessons in Chemistry episode 2’s ending when Calvin is suddenly hit by a huge bus rather than run over by a police car as he was in the book.
Though it might seem like a lot of minutiae being removed, this is what the Lessons in Chemistry book thrives on. Garmus is able to throw in little pieces of information to both foreshadow events and make them even more tragic. Zott feels an immense sense of guilt for Calvin’s death because of the role the leash played in it, which is still there in the miniseries, but Lessons in Chemistry naturally loses a certain degree of emotional and logical depth when adapted.
8 Calvin’s Funeral
Elizabeth was overwhelmed in her grief
Calvin’s funeral in Lessons in Chemistry episode 3 featured just a few changes made from the book. Just like in the show, Elizabeth spoke to an interviewer from the LA Times, but in the book, he approached before she’d taken her seat. After seeing Six-Thirty with her, he assumed that Elizabeth was blind, which he then published in his article. Additionally, Elizabeth left his funeral mid-ceremony in both iterations of the story, but in the book, she told everyone she needed to go on a walk before leaving rather than just walking out silently. This drew further attention to her and highlighted just how disconnected Zott felt from her surroundings.
9 Frask’s Treatment Of Zott
The miniseries makes Fran more openly sympathetic
Fran Frask, head of Personnel at the Hastings Research Institute, is another character who underwent a great deal of change in adapting Lessons in Chemistry. She is much more sympathetic towards Zott in the miniseries, whereas in the book she is almost delighted at seeing Elizabeth so torn apart by grief. Frask, fueled by jealousy, had wrongly assumed in the book that Elizabeth was only with Calvin for his success and money and didn’t actually love him.
One of Frask’s cruelest moments is when she realizes Elizabeth is pregnant before Elizabeth is even aware of the fact. It is one of Lessons in Chemistry’s biggest book reveals, and she used it against Zott to get her fired. Frask has great character development in the book, but if she starts out already treating Zott with care and sympathy, her change can’t be as great in the miniseries.
10 How Elizabeth & Harriet Meet
Their friendship is a bit different in the miniseries
With all the changes to Harriet’s character in Lessons in Chemistry, it’s unsurprising that Harriet and Elizabeth meet much earlier in the series than in the book. In the book, they meet when Harriet comes to Elizabeth’s house to help her with her crying newborn. In the show, Harriet comes over shortly after Calvin’s funeral to ask for help protesting the LA Times article.
Though Elizabeth wasn’t in the right emotional space to help Harriet at that moment, it did lead to the start of a friendship. As Calvin’s friend and now Elizabeth’s neighbor, when Harriet found out Elizabeth was pregnant, she promised to support her. They may have met in different ways in the Lessons in Chemistry book and miniseries, but their bond remains strong in both.
11 When Hastings Fired Zott
The book made this scene even crueler
In both the Lessons in Chemistry book and miniseries, Elizabeth is fired for being unwed and pregnant. However, in the book, this happens almost immediately after Calvin’s funeral due to Frask’s discovery. This, in addition to her being a chemist in the book, meant she never had to do Mr. Astor’s correspondence in the months following Calvin’s passing. Just as she had in the miniseries, Zott initially protested the unjust, illegal termination, but Donatti wouldn’t let her walk out.
Donatti revealed that Evans had threatened to leave Hastings if he didn’t fund Zott’s research, which was independent of Calvin’s in the Lessons in Chemistry book. This shocked Elizabeth, who had believed that, despite the sexism she faced, she’d managed to find success on her own merit. Donatti then forced her to leave and sign a termination form that said she couldn’t discuss the reasons for her leaving with anyone and stripped her of her salary and healthcare. The scene was still harsh in the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries, but the book highlighted just how awful Donatti and Frask could be towards Elizabeth.
12 Mad’s Timeline (Including How She Got Her Name)
The Lessons in Chemistry time jump change makes a difference
Mad Zott is introduced in Lessons in Chemistry episode 4, first as a baby and then again seven years later as a schoolchild. Though the outcome is the same, how she got her name differs slightly between the book and the miniseries. In the book, an exhausted, frustrated, grieving Elizabeth thought the nurse was asking her how she was feeling after giving birth, but she was actually asking what the baby’s name was. In the show, the nurse told Elizabeth to name her daughter after how she was feeling at the moment, which is how the name Mad came to be.
A larger change in Mad’s character is with the Lessons in Chemistry timeline. Lessons in Chemistry episode 4 included a 7-year time jump, where the book jumped just under four years. Rather than Mad being school-aged in the book, Elizabeth sent her to school when she was almost four (changing her birth certificate), so she could go back to work. Her younger age in the book emphasizes just how unique and brilliant Mad is, though she’s still well beyond her years in the miniseries for a 7-year-old.
13 How Elizabeth Finds Out About Her Stolen Research
Elizabeth has a completely different journey with Hastings
A likely explanation as to why Mad’s age was changed in Lessons in Chemistry is that Elizabeth never returned to Hastings in the show. This meant the miniseries also changed how she found out about Donatti stealing her research. Rather than having her discover the truth years later while working at Hastings as she did in the book, Elizabeth became suspicious when one of the chemists she secretly worked with told her that Donatti and Boryweitz had been doing DNA research in Calvin’s old lab.
Zott went to Hastings–in a passionate, moving performance by Larson–to angrily confront the men when Mad was a baby. Thus, she’d been far removed from the Institute for years before Walter’s job offer came along in Lessons in Chemistry episode 4. Elizabeth also never had to impersonate Fran in the book because she’d been able to return to work at Hastings, albeit briefly, before Supper at Six began.
14 Reverend Wakely’s Introduction
The minister’s first appearance came earlier than expected
Reverend Wakely is another character who made his first real appearance in Lessons in Chemistry episode 4 in a big departure from the book. In the miniseries, he attended a cookout hosted by Harriet and her husband, Charlie, where he met Elizabeth and her infant daughter. In the novel, he meets Mad at the library while she’s researching Calvin’s orphanage for her family tree school project, and doesn’t meet Elizabeth until much later on. His time in episode 4 was short, but he goes on to play a much larger role in the later episodes of Lessons in Chemistry.
15 Dr. Boryweitz Taking Over At Hastings
Donatti unfortunately kept his position much longer in the book
Dr. Boryweitz played a much smaller role in the Lessons in Chemistry book, and he never took over the head of Chemistry position at Hastings. Instead, Boryweitz is portrayed as an arrogant chemist who isn’t nearly as knowledgeable as he pretends to be and relies on Elizabeth for help. While Donatti did get fired in the novel, it didn’t happen until the end, and he was replaced by Elizabeth, not Boryweitz. Since Elizabeth had already gone back to Hastings briefly in the book, there was no offer to be a junior chemist like in Lessons in Chemistry episode 5.
16 Mad Going To Private School
Why Elizabeth accepted the Supper at Six job
Lessons in Chemistry already changed Mad’s age, and in episode 5, another change was made to her character. In the book, Mad’s teacher is consistently awful to her because of how smart she is. Rather than keeping Mad where she clearly doesn’t belong, her teacher recommends private school in the show. This change, like many others, had a ripple effect. Elizabeth accepted the Supper at Six job in the miniseries because she needed to pay Mad’s tuition, while in the Lessons in Chemistry book, a guilt-ridden Elizabeth felt she had no other option financially after she quit Hastings and one of Mad’s classmates told her they were poor.
17 The Freeway Protest
The miniseries makes a powerful change
Most of Harriet’s character has been changed from the Lessons in Chemistry book, which in turn allows powerful moments like the freeway protest in episode 6 to be created for the miniseries. The freeway protest didn’t exist in the book, but its inclusion in the miniseries adds to the civil rights storyline, Harriet’s character, and Elizabeth’s dilemma, forcing her to confront just how progressive she is willing to be in front of a massive live audience.
One of the biggest, most common critiques made of the Lessons in Chemistry book is its lack of racial diversity. Through Harriet, her husband, children, Reverend Wakely, and more, the miniseries has elevated the source material above and beyond. Instead of just adding these Black characters for the sake of diversity, the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries works to portray what their lived experiences might have been in the 1950s/60s.
18 Elizabeth’s Suspension From Supper At Six
Elizabeth’s rebellion had different consequences
Lessons in Chemistry episode 6 paralleled Elizabeth’s growing fame with her father’s manipulated following, but this section of the book included another dark parallel absent in the miniseries. In both stories, Elizabeth is asked to endorse a product she finds unhealthy and immoral, but she rebels more dramatically in the book, not just refusing to endorse them but also going out of her way to discourage viewers from purchasing their products. In the miniseries, this gets her suspended, but there are different consequences in the book.
After the sponsorship incident in the Lessons in Chemistry book, Phil called Elizabeth to his office for a private meeting. When she didn’t back down as he’d hoped and expected, he said he was going to teach her a lesson with the intent of sexually assaulting her. Prepared, Elizabeth took a long, sharp kitchen knife out of her bag, and he fainted on the spot and had a heart attack. This kept him from working and gave Walter his job, but as Lessons in Chemistry episode 6 stands, Phil is still the boss; though Elizabeth is fortunately aware of her power at Supper at Six.
19 Fran Becoming Elizabeth’s Chief Of Staff
The duo form a partnership in another way
Just as the changes to Harriet in Lessons in Chemistry have altered major details in the story, the same can be said for Fran’s character. Though she does leave Hastings in the book, Miss Frask becomes Reverend Wakely’s secretary in a somewhat fated move that isn’t discovered until much later. Elizabeth making Fran her chief of staff in Lessons in Chemistry episode 6 is an interesting choice, especially as it seems to be leading to a romance between Walter and Fran, where the book saw Walter and an unhappily married Harriet fall in love.
20 Wakely & Calvin’s Friendship
It ended differently in the book
Following the cliffhanger at the end of episode 6, Lessons in Chemistry episode 7 explored Calvin’s character history, notably his friendship with Wakely. Their friendship started out similarly in both the book and the miniseries, with the two of them becoming pen pals after Wakely attended a lecture Calvin gave at his university. They discussed their lives, debated the existence of God, and created a genuine friendship, but it ended differently in the book.
Wakely had a profound influence on Calvin’s life in the Lessons in Chemistry book, unknowingly influencing Calvin’s decision to work at Hastings Research Institute. At the time, Calvin’s scientific discoveries offered him the choice of working anywhere he wanted, and Hastings wasn’t as renowned as others. What sealed the decision for him was Wakely mentioning the area had good weather in a letter to Calvin, which he was looking for as a rower. This changed everything for Calvin, as it eventually led him to Elizabeth.
Sadly, the connection between Wakely and Calvin ended abruptly in the Lessons in Chemistry book when Calvin wrote that he wished his own father was dead, unaware that Wakely’s father was critically ill at the time. When Wakely learned of Calvin’s death a while later, the guilt inspired him to preach at Calvin’s funeral. In contrast, in the Lessons in Chemistry miniseries, Wakely and Calvin remained pen pals until Calvin’s death, sadly never getting the chance to meet again in person due to the chemist’s sudden passing.
Where To Watch Lessons In Chemistry
Lessons In Chemistry
- Release Date:
- Brie Larson, Lewis Pullman, Aja Naomi King, Stephanie Koenig, Patrick Walker, Thomas Mann, Kevin Sussman, Beau Bridges
Based on the novel by Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry is set in the 1960s and follows Elizabeth Zott, whose dream of being a scientist because society demands a woman remain at home and not work. When Elizabeth finds herself pregnant, alone, and fired from her lab, she accepts a job as a host on a TV cooking show. She sets out to teach a nation of overlooked homemakers — and the men suddenly listening — about food and chemistry.
- Story By:
- Bonnie Garmus
- Lee Eisenberg, Susannah Grant
- Streaming Service(s):
- Apple TV+
- Sarah Adina Smith
- Lee Eisenberg