What are the differences between Elizabeth Is Missing the book and the BBC One TV drama?

Five differences between Emma Healey's bestselling book and BBC1's 90-minute adaptation, starring Oscar winner Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth Is Missing

Oscar winner and former Labour minister Glenda Jackson returns to television for the first time in 25 years to play Alzheimer’s sufferer Maud in BBC One drama Elizabeth Is Missing, adapted from Emma Healey’s bestselling book of the same name.


The 90-minute drama and the book both follow Maud as she attempts to solve the mystery of where her best friend Elizabeth has gone — while memories of her sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle), missing for the past 70 years, begin flooding back as her condition worsens. But what changes have been made, and what was cut from the book? Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between Elizabeth Is Missing the book and the BBC One drama…

1. Does Maud have Alzheimer’s in the book?

Throughout Emma Healey’s novel, it’s left unclear what Maud’s degenerative condition is, as the reader is only left with clues and her various symptoms (her forgetfulness, her outbursts of violence).

However, in the series it’s specified that Maud has Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia), a deliberate choice made by the show’s creative team, including screenwriter Andrea Gibb and executive producer Sarah Brown, who revealed during the BBC screening that they consulted with dementia charities about what Maud’s specific condition could be — and that her aggression was key in diagnosing her.

Many Alzheimer’s sufferers “start to behave in ways that aren’t normal for them. These might include becoming agitated (for example, being very restless or pacing up and down), calling out, repeating the same question, having disturbed sleep patterns or reacting aggressively,” according to the Alzheimer’s Society page.

2. Who is the “mad woman” that Maud remembers?

Cara Kelly as
Cara Kelly as “The Mad Woman” (BBC Pictures)

In the television series, Maud remembers the local “mad woman” who appeared to have witnessed key events around her sister’s disappearance in 1949.

In the book, however, the mad woman takes on greater emotional significance as (spoiler alert for readers!) she’s revealed to be the traumatised mother of Douglas, the lodger living with Maud’s family and who has inexplicably been sneaking off to feed someone — not Sukey, as Young Maud initially suspects, but the mad woman. It’s only when the mad woman dies in an accident that Douglas reveals his true parentage.

3. Is Maud attracted to her brother-in-law Frank?

Young Maud and Frank (BBC Pictures)
Liv Hill as Young Maud and Mark Stanley as Frank (BBC Pictures)

In the BBC adaptation, Young Maud begins dressing up in her elder sister’s more grown-up outfits after Sukey’s disappearance, before sharing a tense moment with her brother-in-law and black-market dealer, Frank, when he almost pushes her off a staircase — before grabbing her at the last moment.

They’re both scenes which hint to a strange relationship between Maud and Frank in the books, which begins after Sukey goes missing. Frank pays frequent visits to Maud, begging her to recall memories with Sukey, before he begins to turn his attention to Maud herself, often referring to the two sisters’ similar looks. In the end, she marries someone else, but in the book she admits that she was tempted at one stage to begin a romantic relationship with Frank.

4. Maud and her family’s search for missing sister Sukey

Young Maud and her parents (BBC Pictures)
Young Maud and her parents the night Sukey goes missing (BBC Pictures)

In the book, we see far more of Maud and her family’s search for Sukey after she went missing in 1949, particularly her father’s, who goes round all the neighbour’s houses, begging them to re-remember the events that led up to his daughter’s disappearance. In the show, we only see Maud and Sukey’s parents in brief flashbacks.

5. Comedic moments are turned into tragic ones

There’s a comic moment in Healey’s book where Maud mistakes her granddaughter, Katy, for her daughter Helen’s lazy employee, pointing out that she never does any housework, which Helen finds hilarious. 

However, in the television series the moment of forgetfulness is turned into one of the drama’s most upsetting and memorable scenes. While in the book, it’s just an exchange between mother and daughter, in the onscreen drama Katy is present when her grandmother forgets who she is, and becomes tearful, while Maud lashes out and finally Helen shouts at her mother, defending Katy.

Elizabeth Is Missing airs at 9/8c on Sunday 3rd January 2021 on PBS Masterpiece in the US


Elizabeth Is Missing aired on Sunday 8th December 2019 on BBC One in the UK