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How Apple TV’s ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ compares to the novel

Brie Larson stars as Elizabeth Zott in “Lessons in Chemistry,” based on the novel by Bonnie Garmus.  (Michael Becker/Apple TV)
By Sophia Nguyen Washington Post

Lots of books are declared “unfilmable.” There are the big, tentacular genre epics, where the problem is scale and expense, like “Sandman” or “Dune.” There are your high-literary properties, whose tone feels too elusive (most of Don DeLillo, though people keep trying) or whose form is too baroque (“Infinite Jest”) to carry well into another medium. Then there’s the stuff that’s just too bleak to be commercially viable, at least in theory (“The Road”).

“Lessons in Chemistry” is none of those things. Well before Bonnie Garmus’s debut landed on shelves, Apple TV+ gave the adaptation, starring Brie Larson, a straight-to-series order. The premise feels laser-targeted at the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fandom. It’s a pop-feminist period piece about a chemist, Elizabeth Zott, whose scientific career is tanked by 1960s sexism, leading her to become an unexpected celebrity by hosting a nerdy cooking show.

But the novel has a few defining quirks that, while charming millions of readers on the page, seem challenging to render on-screen. Here’s a rundown of how the show handles them:

First things first: What about the precocious kid?

In the novel, Elizabeth’s daughter, Mad, is not your basic “wise beyond her years” type. She starts school at “almost four” and can read “better than many sixth graders.” (Many sixth graders: What follows is a running gag about her getting in trouble for requesting that the librarian acquire books by Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov.) The trope of the adorably, disconcertingly advanced child has been a rom-com scourge since at least the 1990s – so it was hard to picture the show pulling off incidents like Mad writing “3.1415” in the dirt with a stick when asked to make “mud pies.”

Some oddly adult locutions aside, the show dials this stuff way, way back – though there is a bedtime scene where Mad pipes up, “Did you know that the line between the numerator and the denominator is called the vinculum?” In the final analysis, there’s no avoiding her plot arc, in which she pluckily investigates her late father’s background, calling up various Catholic boys’ homes and marching to the library to obtain their records.

OK, but is there a talking dog?

One of the book’s most divisive characters is Six-Thirty, Elizabeth’s loyal pup, who like her daughter is extraordinarily verbally advanced. To be clear, he doesn’t exactly, literally talk out loud. But whole scenes are narrated from his perspective, which, like Mad’s, displays a mix of sophisticated rationalism and aww-inducing naiveté. It’s implied that he articulates his thoughts this way in part because Elizabeth was determined to teach him the English language, starting with picture books and then advancing to issues of Popular Mechanics. (At some point, he even reads a gravestone?)

In the show, Six-Thirty talks – not literally but via first-person voice-over. In one of the early episodes, he recounts how he failed out of bomb-sniffing school – “I was a coward, and I hated myself for it” – and was eventually adopted by Elizabeth. The screenwriters wisely jettison the backstory explaining how he acquired his vocabulary, and he speaks simply and with more feeling than in the book. The character winds up feeling more plausibly dog-like but also more treacly. And we’ve already got a Dickensian orphan subplot to deal with.

What’s up with the neighbor, Harriet?

The book’s Harriet Sloane, the gray-haired woman who takes care of Mad, is portrayed as kindly but simple, preferring Reader’s Digest to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” She’s also saddled with a cartoonishly boorish husband, which ramps up her general saintliness.

The show makes her more of a peer to Elizabeth. Here she’s a young Black mother and an activist against a freeway project that would destroy her neighborhood. When her husband, a surgeon, returns from the Korean War, they struggle to balance his work, her desire to resume her legal career and their parental obligations. So Harriet has a lot more to do – but her subplot still feels schematic, not quite lived-in. It functions as a way to open up the series’s universe of concerns, so it can take in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and avoid seeming stiflingly oblivious to the events of the era. “The freeway here is just one version of what they’re doing to communities like ours all over this country,” Harriet explains to Elizabeth in a typical scene, drawing her into taking a public stand.

I’ve been wondering about the book’s more violent scenes …

Given all of the above, “Lessons in Chemistry” might seem like pure escapism: Sure, Elizabeth’s swimming in casual misogyny, but she cuts through it with sheer will. So some readers were jarred by the novel’s vividly ugly moments: Online reviews frequently cite one within the first few pages, when a tenured professor in the chemistry department sexually assaults Elizabeth, a graduate student at the time. The show includes that graphic scene, then lurches away from the incident by cutting to the jazzy title sequence. Not dissimilar to the book, the series’s tonal swings never quite settle (there’s also an off-screen suicide and on-screen police brutality). That sharp contrast works for some people: Laura Miller at Slate praised the source material’s “Campari-like balance of the bitter and the sugary.” Others might want a narrative cocktail whose ingredients meld more smoothly.