Harriet the Spy was optioned for movies as early as 1966. Herbert B. Swope Jr., a television producer, acquired the rights to the book and went as far as hiring a television writer, Ronald Alexander, to adapt the book for the screen (Weiler). But the project didn’t go any further, and a movie was not made until 1996. By that time it seemed necessary to the producers to update the story and setting, and the movie shows Harriet in a racially-integrated, upper-middle-class New York neighbourhood, with little of the grittiness and poverty that Harriet observes in the book. The character of Harriet, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, is no longer a tomboy, just a girl with a lot of energy. Ole Golly, played by Rosie O’Donnell, is also more attractive and more conventional than she is in the book. Several major plot points are also changed. Instead of going to visit Ole Golly’s dependent, physically repulsive mother (which, early in the book, gives Harriet insight into the vast variety of life she can expect to encounter), Old Golly takes Harriet and her friends to an outdoor art installation in the back yard of a friend. Here the children take part in a belching contest and do other ill-mannered things that the Ole Golly in the book would not tolerate. Ole Golly, in the book the source of the knowledge Harriet will need to grow into a writer, is in the movie simply a very good nanny.
Other plot points are muted or changed. The tomato sandwiches are there in a single scene, showing only that Harriet knows her mind. In the book, they also showed her as dangerously rigid, unable to change her routine when circumstances required it. Ole Golly departs early in the movie, whereas in the book her departure marks the end of the first half. Harriet’s friends Janie and Sport are, in the book, central to the finding and reading of the notebook, making their transgression of her private space more cutting. In the movie, it is the stereotypical “mean girl” who decides to read Harriet’s notebook, and Janie and Sport only reluctantly side with them. In the book, Harriet describes Sport as a fussy old woman, and this is the comment which so wounds him when her notebook is read. In the movie, though, Harriet’s comments are about his poverty. Ole Golly returns to give Harriet her final lesson, whereas in the book this advice is delivered in a letter: the book is about the power of writing, in fact. In the movie Harriet rips up her notebooks after being tormented at school. In the book, she retreats yet further into the world of her writing. Finally, the school pageant, which provided much torture for Harriet in the book, is the happy ending, showing a reunited class dancing happily around in their onion costumes.
Part of the impetus for these changes surely is the fact that Harriet the Spy is a deeply uncinematic book. Harriet hides and watches. Listens and writes. Eats tomato sandwiches. There just is not that much action. Movies also shy away from physically unattractive characters, or even ordinary ones, and thus the iconography associated with this book is problematic to incorporate into a mainstream movie. Gender differences are explored only tentatively in major movies, particularly those aimed at children. It is perhaps already daring enough for the film industry to show an 11-year-old girl who is smart, creative, and adventurous: to make her a tomboy would push her over the edge of acceptability.
In general the reviews were good, and a story in the Christian Science Monitor noted the importance of the strong female characters of both Harriet and Ole Golly. People Magazine considered it “a movie for smart kids,” and Entertainment Weekly, though noting some disappointments in how the film altered the original story, said “What Fitzhugh’s book had, and what the movie gets, is the glee and neurotic terror of a kid lurching into adult consciousness, learning just how dangerous that notebook we all carry around in our heads really is.”
For some reason, the movie was rated PG, for reasons of “mild language and thematic elements.” Objectionable thematic elements are hard to detect. The “language” issue appears to be around words like “boobs,” “heinie” and “barf bag.” Nonetheless, it did reasonably well at the box office. It cost an estimated $13 million, but brought in $9 million in its first weekend, and $26 million in its first six months, before release on video (IMDB). But as Meredith Guthrie’s doctoral dissertation points out, it would not really matter if it had not made money in the theatres. Media giant Viacom purchased both the motion picture studio Paramount and Blockbuster Video in 1994.
Using Paramount, Viacom released cheap (for Hollywood) pictures under the Nickelodeon banner, starting with the movie Harriet the Spy. Whether these films did well at the box office or not, Viacom could make money off of the films through Blockbuster Video… This type of vertical integration allows media corporations to gain further profit off of even less beloved films and television shows. (45)
The New York Times reviewer, giving it a positive review, wondered if the movie were too slow-moving to do well with an audience used to video games. But the producers seem to have gauged fairly accurately what they could get away with and still have a mainstream market.
“Harriet the Spy” (film). Paramount, 1996.
Weiler, A.H. “On Bing Barnum’s ‘Moon’.” New York Times June 26, 1966: D11.
Gaouette, Nicole. “Girls find strong role model in `Harriet the Spy’.” Christian Science Monitor July 30, 1996: 13.
L.R. Review of “Harriet the Spy.” People July 15, 1996: 24.
Glieberman, Owen. “Little Bo Peeper.” Entertainment Weekly July 19, 1996: 58.
Box office/business for “Harriet the Spy.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt011649/business
Guthrie, Meredith Rae. “Somewhere Between: Tween Queens and the Marketing Machine.” PhD dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 2005. Available online at: http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=bgsu1119390228
Holden, Stephen. “Life as a Sleuth is Good, Until Her Nanny Moves Out.” New York Times July 10, 1996: C11, C20.