Ever found yourself questioning the current state of feminism? As a long-time feminist, that was me, too. But then “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus happened. It was everywhere – on “best” and “favourite” lists – and I needed to know why.
Let it be clear – chemistry isn’t my thing, and lessons in it? It’s even less exciting. Yet, here I am, thanking my lucky stars I didn’t let my indifference to chemistry rob me of an incredible read.
The book should have a warning sign on it in the direction of – “The author assumes no liability for readers who lost sleep, skipped work, forgot to eat, or neglected childcare duties because they felt compelled to continue reading nonstop”. All the above happened to me (except childcare). When I finished reading, I knew it was too good of a book not to be turned into a script. My only question was, will it be a TV show or a feature? I was happy it was turned into a TV miniseries because making it into a feature would have to cut too much of the good stuff that is in the book.
After watching the fantastic Apple TV show, I just had to dive into “Books vs TV Show” segment. So here it is for your verdict.
Meet Elizabeth Zott, the culinary powerhouse at the heart of “Lessons in Chemistry.” Before gracing television screens as a charismatic chef who transforms 1950s-era America’s cooking habits, she wore the lab coat of an underappreciated chemist. And why was she undervalued? Not for any lack of chemistry prowess but simply because she dared to be a woman in a less-than-empowering 1950s America.
The Hastings Research Institute, her workplace, isn’t exactly a feminist utopia. It thrusts Elizabeth into a world of minor lab projects, pitiful pay compared to her male counterparts, and the unsolicited expectation that she’d play secretary instead of a serious scientist. Miss Frask, the living embodiment of outdated stereotypes, scolds Elizabeth for being “unladylike,” oblivious to concepts like feminism and sisterhood.
Enter Calvin Evans, the institute’s golden boy. Initially, their relationship kicks off with a beaker-based misunderstanding, but Calvin swiftly recognises Elizabeth’s talent and ambition. Love blooms in an unexpected chemical reaction, literally, as Calvin crashes into her life,
spewing vomit on her shoes. What follows is a love story that transcends the lab, but tragedy strikes when Calvin dies, leaving Elizabeth with a broken heart and a burgeoning belly.
Against the backdrop of the 1960s, Elizabeth, refusing to tie her work to Calvin’s name, faces the complexities of single motherhood and societal judgment. A lunchbox-stealing incident catapults her into the world of television, where Walter Pine, captivated by her brilliance and culinary skills, pitches the idea of a cooking show. Reluctantly accepting due to financial pressures, Elizabeth unknowingly sets in motion a sizzling sensation, inspiring women to dream big in her show “Supper at Six”. However, at heart, she is still a chemist, and she continues with her efforts at home, where she has turned her kitchen into a lab. As the story continues and her daughter Mad insists on discovering more about her unknown father (Calvin), she leads the readers and Elizabeth to a “happy ending” where Elizabeth returns to her true role as a chemist.
Expressing love for a book can be a delightful challenge, and “Lessons in Chemistry” has me grappling with the sheer joy it brought me.
First, let’s dispel any misconceptions – “Lessons in Chemistry” isn’t your typical romance novel. If you’re seeking that, you might be tempted to walk away but trust me, you’d be missing out on a phenomenal story.
Here’s why “Lessons in Chemistry” is an absolute gem:
The Plot: As I mentioned above there should be a warning sign on the book on how gripping the story is. I was swept away by the unexpected twists and turns and couldn’t put down the book. Some moments were horrifying, others delightful, and I found myself utterly unprepared for the rollercoaster ride the plot took me on. You know those books that you keep telling yourself “One more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep” only to find that it’s already 6:00 am and you need to start your day?… That kind of story!
The Writing: This is the kind of book that makes me “hate” the author, or tell myself “When I grow up I want to write like that”. The writing is sharp, clever, layered, and absolutely riveting. It weaves a narrative filled with unexpected perspectives, offering insight into characters’ lives, thoughts, and emotions.
The Characters: Elizabeth is a force to be reckoned with – fiercely intelligent, determined, pragmatic, and unflappable. Her refusal to conform to societal expectations regarding her gender is not only empowering but deeply inspiring. The other characters are equally compelling, ranging from quirky and lovable to surprisingly endearing, and yes, a few consistently evil ones that fuel the reader’s righteous rage.
The Message: This book feels like a heartfelt thank-you to the trailblazing women of the ’50s and ’60s, a rallying cry for anyone who’s felt undervalued and confined to roles they never wanted. Themes of love, resilience, loss, family, and friendship make it a perfect candidate for a book club discussion. It’s a story that evokes both frustration and upliftment, resonating deeply with women who’ve felt unseen and unheard.
“Lessons in Chemistry” is more than a story; it’s a personal journey. It reminded me of the core reasons I embraced feminism. Elizabeth’s strength, the quirks of those around her, and the triumphs of chemistry beyond the lab make this book a fantastic celebration of feminist strides.
Book lovers often squabble over adaptations, but Apple TV+’s take on “Lessons in Chemistry” is like a glamorous makeover for your beloved story! Showrunner Lee Eisenberg steps in to fix plot holes and sprinkles in some extra flavour to demystify those head-scratching twists and delve deeper into the era’s politics.
The show stays true to the book’s journey, whisking us back to the 1950s and 1960s alongside the fabulous Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott. She’s on a mission to conquer the scientific realm, battling systemic sexism and giving a piece of her mind to some seriously misogynistic bosses. And did I mention the delightful rom-com vibe, heartstring-tugging moments, and a dash of historical fiction? Oh, and there’s a talking dog—or a dog with a chatty inner monologue.
The cast gets a diversity boost to keep up with the times, and secondary characters get their chance in the limelight. Harriet, Elizabeth’s neighbour (played by the amazing Aja Naomi King), isn’t just a nosy neighbour anymore; she’s a true friend, an attorney, and a Civil Rights advocate. Minister Wakely (portrayed by Patrick Walker), Calvin’s pen pal, takes centre stage, injecting depth into discussions on faith and science.
As for the romance! The small-screen adaptation spices up the central love story with subtle changes. While the book’s feminist lessons sometimes felt like a refresher course, Brie Larson brings the no-nonsense scientist Elizabeth Zott to life with impeccable precision. Lewis Pullman, as Calvin, adds an extra layer of charm to the romance. These tweaks make the romantic duo even more captivating on screen.
So, it’s time to take a peek at the changes and decide whether the book or the TV show takes the crown.
The Love Story – Elizabeth and Calvin’s courtship starts on a fiery note.
Do you know that classic “enemies-to-lovers” trope we all secretly adore? Well, both Bonnie Garmus and Lee Eisenberg nailed it in their own unique ways.
In the novel, Elizabeth kicks off their dynamic by snagging beakers from Calvin’s lab, leading to an intense war of words. But the TV show takes it up a notch with Elizabeth’s sneaky move involving ribose for her late-night experiments. However, Elizabeth, with her determined spirit, is unknowingly caught in the crosshairs of the ultimate busybody, Fran Frask ( Stephanie Koenig).
That leads Elizabeth to be forced to participate in the cringe-worthy “Little Miss Hastings” pageant, all in the name of team spirit. It’s another great example of the life women in the workforce in the 50s had to suffer. The pageant is the scene for the great vomit incident. It’s a hilarious twist that replaces the book’s Mikado performance, shedding light on their isolation within the Hastings community. Let’s say it’s a moment that had me cringing and laughing all at once
Harriet’s character undergoes one of the biggest changes.
Let’s talk about Harriet from “Lessons in Chemistry”! In the book, Harriet is portrayed as a middle-aged Catholic white woman with a tough situation – an abusive husband and kids who’ve flown the coop, leaving her feeling lonely and stuck in a marriage she doesn’t cherish.
Fast forward to the TV adaptation, and we meet a whole new Harriet, played brilliantly by Aja Naomi King. Here’s the twist: Harriet is now portrayed as a Black woman, but the changes don’t stop there. The show takes Harriet’s character to a whole new level, giving her a fresh backstory and personality that goes beyond her name and role as Elizabeth’s neighbour.
In the show, Harriet is a dynamic character with two young children closer in age to Elizabeth. Her husband is away serving as a military surgeon in the Korean War, which adds a unique dynamic to her story. And guess who steps in to help when Harriet needs a hand? None other than Calvin himself offers to babysit and solidify their bond even before Elizabeth enters the picture.
But that’s not all. Harriet isn’t just a supportive neighbour in the show; she’s an ambitious woman using her legal aid expertise to fight for her community. The storyline involving plans to expand the freeway adds depth and relevance, drawing from real-life historical injustices faced by communities like hers in states like California.
This transformation of Harriet from page to screen is significant because it shows that she’s not just a side character there to support Elizabeth. Her story is rich and impactful in its own right, highlighting themes of community, resilience, and the power of friendship that are central to the series.
Calvin Proposes To Elizabeth & She Says No – Calvin is less traditionally minded in the miniseries.
In the book, Calvin’s proposal is a big public affair. Picture this: he gets down on one knee in the middle of the cafeteria, ring box in hand, pouring his heart out for all to see. It’s quite the spectacle, but Calvin doesn’t take it well when Elizabeth turns him down because she wants her work to speak for itself. He throws a bit of a tantrum, and I must admit, it felt a bit out of character for him. Calvin, being mostly an introvert, displaying such emotions in a public place seemed a bit far-fetched to me. However, it also shows how much Elizabeth has changed him and his willingness to express his feelings boldly.
Now, in the miniseries, things take a different turn. Calvin and Elizabeth have a calm conversation about marriage and children in the comfort of their own bed. Elizabeth makes it clear that she never wants to get married or have kids, and surprisingly, Calvin accepts her decision without any drama. It’s a quieter, more intimate moment that showcases mutual respect for each other’s wishes. However, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a bit too modern for the 50s as if Calvin was conforming to the standards of “well-behaved men” of the 21st century rather than the societal norms of the time.
While Calvin’s reaction in the book may seem more dramatic, it adds a layer of realism to his character. He’s grappling with his own beliefs about relationships and gender roles, but ultimately, his love and respect for Elizabeth drive him to grow and learn, regardless of the era’s expectations.
Calvin had this peculiar habit of jogging, which was quite unusual back in the 1950s and 1960s. It was like he was ahead of his time, considering the jogging craze didn’t kick off until the 1970s. Elizabeth wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, especially when it rained. But when the city passed its first leash law, Elizabeth suddenly became concerned about Six-Thirty’s safety and wanted him tethered to her during their runs. Despite his initial reluctance, Calvin saw Elizabeth’s nurturing side and agreed to use the leash.
Now, in the TV series, things take a slightly different turn. Elizabeth surprises Calvin with a leash for Christmas so that he can have Six-Thirty as a running buddy. It’s a sweet gesture but removes the context of the time period and Calvin’s reservations about being tethered. Instead, it’s Six-Thirty who doesn’t take well to the leash, and his stubborn behaviour is showcased in a dramatic scene in episode 2, where Calvin is almost hit by a bus.
While it may seem like a small detail, these little quirks are what make “Lessons in Chemistry” so captivating. Garmus cleverly weaves in these details to foreshadow events and add depth to the story. In the book, Elizabeth feels a profound sense of guilt over Calvin’s death, partly because of the leash, which adds emotional weight to the narrative. However, in the TV series, some of these nuances are inevitably lost in translation, resulting in a slightly different emotional and logical depth.
When Hastings Fired Zott – The book made this scene even crueller.
In both versions, Elizabeth faces the devastating blow of being fired for being unwed and pregnant. However, the timing differs slightly between the two. In the book, this unjust termination happens almost immediately after Calvin’s funeral, thanks to Frask’s discovery. This meant Elizabeth didn’t have to deal with Mr. Astor’s correspondence in the months following Calvin’s passing, unlike in the miniseries.
Just like in the miniseries, Elizabeth fiercely protests against this unfair treatment, but Donatti, the antagonist in this scenario, refuses to let her walk away easily. In the book, Donatti drops a bombshell revelation that Evans had threatened to leave Hastings if he didn’t fund Elizabeth’s research independently of Calvin’s. This revelation shocks Elizabeth, who had believed she had succeeded on her own merit despite facing sexism in her field.
Donatti then cruelly forces Elizabeth to sign a termination form that prohibits her from discussing the reasons for her departure with anyone and strips her of her salary and healthcare. The scene in the miniseries is undoubtedly harsh. Still, the book truly emphasises the extent of Donatti and Frask’s cruelty towards Elizabeth, highlighting the stark realities of sexism and discrimination she faces.
Elizabeth Is A Lab Tech, Not A Chemist
In the book, Elizabeth is depicted as a chemist with her own team and lab techs, each with their own levels of respect towards her. However, the TV show takes a different route by portraying Elizabeth as a lab tech rather than a chemist. This change limits her professional capacity and adds an interesting layer to her character dynamics.
Despite having a master’s degree in chemistry (no PhD), Elizabeth faces dismissive attitudes from some of her male colleagues and superiors. This underemployment in the 1950s reflects her challenges in being perceived as just another pretty face and a glorified secretary. The addition of the “Little Miss Hastings Pageant” in the TV show further highlights these dynamics, showcasing how Elizabeth’s position as a lab tech complicates her relationships in the workplace, especially with Calvin.
This change also impacts the ending of the story. While the book concludes with Elizabeth being offered a prestigious position at Hastings Research Institute after Donatti’s dismissal, the TV show takes a different route. The miniseries’ final episode sees Elizabeth teaching Introduction to Chemistry, a subtle nod to the show’s title. This alteration likely stems from the decision to portray Elizabeth as a lab tech rather than a chemist, shaping the trajectory of her professional journey.
These changes add depth and complexity to Elizabeth’s character arc, offering viewers a fresh perspective on her struggles and triumphs in a male-dominated field.
Turning Harriet into a black activist brings a whole new layer of depth to the story that wasn’t present in the book. The fight against the highway construction in their neighbourhood, culminating in the freeway protest, is a significant addition that amplifies the civil rights storyline and adds a powerful dimension to Harriet’s character.
In the book, Harriet’s character remains relatively unchanged. The changes she finally makes directly result from Elizabeth’s empowerment lessons through her TV show. But the miniseries takes the opportunity to delve into her activism and her challenges as a black woman in the 1950s/60s. The freeway protest, a pivotal moment in the series, highlights Harriet’s resilience and determination to fight for her community’s rights.
Moreover, the inclusion of diverse characters like Harriet, her husband, children, and Reverend Wakely enriches the miniseries and addresses a notable critique of the book’s lack of racial diversity. These characters aren’t just added for the sake of diversity; they are integral to portraying the realities of life for black individuals during that era.
By exploring the lived experiences of these characters, the “Lessons in Chemistry” miniseries goes above and beyond the source material, offering viewers a more nuanced and inclusive portrayal of the 1950s/60s society. It prompts us to reflect on our own views on progressiveness and the importance of standing up for what’s right, even in the face of adversity.
Making a choice between the book and the TV show of “Lessons in Chemistry” was tough. Both had me rooting for the characters, but ultimately, the book left a more powerful impact on me.
For me, the heart of this story is all about feminism and empowerment. The book captured this theme so beautifully, focusing on Elizabeth Zott’s journey in a way that felt authentic and impactful. However, I felt that the TV show tried to tackle too many additional topics, which diluted the core message.
While I appreciate the effort to introduce more diversity, especially with the addition of a POC storyline, it sometimes felt like it took away from Elizabeth’s unique and captivating narrative. The quirky charm of Elizabeth’s story seemed to get lost amidst the various subplots introduced in the show.
In the book, we hear the story primarily through Elizabeth’s perspective, with the hilarious addition of Six-Thirty’s inner thoughts. This dynamic kept the narrative focused and engaging. However, in the TV show, they dedicated entire episodes to side characters like Six-Thirty, which, while enjoyable, didn’t necessarily add much to the main storyline.
Ultimately, while I appreciated certain aspects of the TV show, including the exploration of additional voices, I found that the book stayed true to the essence of Elizabeth’s journey, making it a more impactful and memorable experience for me.
Now it’s YOUR turn – Tell us what you think about the adaptation of the book to the TV Show in the comment box below.