Translations, Plays, Other Versions

Harriet the Spy has been translated into at least 10 languages, according to records in WorldCat. (footnote) Other versions of the text include cassette, CD and downloadable audio books; large print and braille books; and downloadable e-book (including Kindle and Nook versions for personal ownership and a lendable Overdrive version for libraries). (footnote) All of these versions, while necessarily involving some form of modification of the original, attempt to hew closely to its content. Translators may or may not catch the tone, style, and pacing of the author, as well as making simple errors by misunderstanding the text. Across very different cultures, the contextual richness of a text may be impossible to convey. Audio and braille versions lack the illustrations which are so important to a work like Harriet the Spy. In addition, the consumer of audio books relies heavily on the interpretive work of the narrator who voices the version they listen to. The downloadable audio book available through libraries (the only one of the audio versions currently readily available) is voiced by a television actor named Anne Bobby, who makes distinctions between characters and is able to approximate children’s voices. Her interpretation of Ole Golly is a bit robotic in an effort to sound stern. Audio interpretations thus add interpretive elements which can both contribute and detract from the text.

A more extensive revision of the work occurred when a musical play for children was created. A major touring company devoted to children’s theatre, Theatreworks USA, commissioned a play based on the book, which they started performing in early 1990. (New York Times, 1989) (footnote) It was performed for several years, but has not remained in their repertoire.

What appears to be a different play adaptation was staged by the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis in 1988. According to Virginia L. Wolf,

All of the dark underside of the novel was lost, principally because of the cutting necessary to stage it. As the reviewer in the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it, the play “captures so little of the texture, resonance and depth that make the book special.” (141)

A production of one of these, most likely the Theatreworks version, or possibly even a third, unrelated play adaptation, was presented in New Jersey in 1991. A photo in the New York Times events listing shows a scene which does not immediately evoke the book:

New York Times, May 5, 1991.

Clearly, the popularity of the book was the impetus for the play adaptations: but as with the movie, there is an inherent problem in attempting to rework a character-driven, philosophical literary work–even one for children–into a plot-driven crowd-pleaser. While they may pay some kind of homage to the original, they speak more to the name-recognition of the book than to the author’s intention. Neither (or none) of the play versions have had any longevity to speak of: for example, they weren’t used as the basis for the film adaptation, and do not seem to have been revived.



Books to Share (blog).

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy (audiobook). Voiced by Anne Bobby. Overdrive Media, 2006.

Advertisement for Theatreworks USA season. New York Times November 17, 1989: C5.

Theatreworks USA web site.

Wolf, Virginia L. Louise Fitzhugh. (New York: Twayne, 1991)

Events listing for New Jersey. New York Times May 5, 1991: NJ18.

4 Responses to Translations, Plays, Other Versions

  1. Leslie Brody says:

    I am the author of the adaptation of the play “Harriet the Spy,” originally produced at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis in 1988. My play has recently become available again and is being distributed through Plays for Young Audiences. If you like, you can see an excerpt from the play here:

    I do not know Virginia L. Wolf, and I have not yet read her book about Louise Fitzhugh, but I was sorry to see that she quotes the worst review of my play. Of course there were better reviews from other sources, including the most important ones from audience members and actors. My own experience of adapting such a brilliant work was truly exciting, frustrating, fascinating and very often humbling. I love the book and did my best for Harriet and Louise. The play will be on stage next May 1-17th at the Knoxville Children’s Theatre in Knoxville, TN.
    Leslie Brody

  2. FJ says:

    I hope to see the play at some time, and be able to make my own decision about its relationship to the original. I’m happy to hear that you approached it from loving the book, which is always a good start. Perhaps after the Knoxville show you could post some reviews here, which will give us all a better chance to understand it.

  3. Leslie Brody says:

    Hi, I am sending a photo of our cast with some commentary from the Children’s Theatre of Knoxville.

  4. Leslie Brody says:

    Hi again, Not quite sure I sent the info correctly. here it is again.
    Thanks, Leslie

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