Harriet the Spy
Directed by Bronwen Hughes; Paramount Pictures in association with Nickelodeon Movies; 90 minutes
Marykay Powell, the producer of Harriet the Spy, the film based on Louise Fitzhugh’s best-selling children’s classic of 1964, says that “everyone who ever read the book is convinced that they were Harriet growing up.” She’s right. As childhood illusions go, identifying with a nosy 11-year-old graphomaniac was, and is (the book remains a big seller), a skill-building, emboldening adventure. Harriet, who sneaks around recording sharp-eyed observations of her classmates and her New York City neighbors, inspires the itch for a notebook. I can remember the authoritative smell of mine, the quiet bouncy thrill of wearing high tops like Harriet’s (boy footgear until then), my guilty excitement as I heartlessly probed for a friend’s family secret, as curious to watch her squirm as to discover the specific details.
Everyone who is involved in bringing Harriet the Spy to the screen this summer—-Powell, director Bronwen Hughes; screenwriter Douglas Petrie; Debby Beece, president of Nickelodeon Movies (which has collaborated with Paramount Pictures on the project, its film debut); Rosie O’Donnell, who plays Harriet’s nurse, Ole Golly–appears to be convinced that she (or he), though grown-up, still is Harriet in spirit. As adult delusions go, this Hollywood zeal to “[relate] to the whole thing as a personal kind of story,” as the promotional paraphernalia puts it, does not prove inspirational. The movie prides itself on its “fresh and youthful approach,” its “ceaseless energy,” its spunky honesty in confronting the traumatic and “timeless themes and events” that are part of becoming a “true individual” in an often daunting world. In fact, it is coyly self-conscious and sentimental. That is exactly what Harriet never is.
Merchant-Ivory-style fidelity to the classic was hardly to be expected, or even desired. But in busily updating the ‘60s story for the more worldly ‘90s, the filmmakers have ended up, ironically, with a product much more naively juvenile than the original. Fitzhugh’s book visits two character-building calamities on Harriet–the departure of her beloved, peculiar Ole Golly and the discovery of her private notebook by her classmates, who then turn on her. It rated as discomfiting fare when it came out. The portrait of children’s capacity for cruelty toward each other and for unillusioned curiosity about adults is still subversive reading. But on screen, the story lends itself all too easily to TV-style didacticism of the we’re-on-your-side-kids Nickelodeon variety. A savvy yet vulnerable girl, stranded when her nanny leaves after a scene with her hapless parents, suffers self-esteem trouble at school, only to emerge as brassy as ever–with the blessing of the nanny, who is, the director happily reports, “a lot cooler than readers remember.”
Rosie O’Donnell, a Nickelodeon star and now a talk-show host, was slated to play Ole Golly from the start: a commercially obvious decision (she won a 1995 Kids Choice Award from 26 million Nickelodeon watchers) but creatively far-fetched. It would be hard to imagine a less appropriate choice for Harriet’s “stern, uncompromising” nurse, “never very kissy,” a highly unusual mother-substitute with a face that “looked like it was cut out of oak.” O’Donnell, with a visage like a smooth soap bar, loves nothing better than hugging and kissing (on her show she constantly smothers her guests). She restrains herself in the film, but the inhibition seems odd, given that otherwise she plays the part in the chummy style of an Irish au pair. Solidly wholesome, she makes sure to show that she’s a little wild, too–one of the kids in spirit.
The main kids–Michelle Trachtenberg, another Nickelodeon star, as Harriet; and Gregory Smith and Vanessa Lee Chester as her best friends, Sport and Janie–do what kids on TV seem to do all the time these days: They act like adults on TV. They’re manically “on,” thoroughly mannered in a now pompous, now ironically knowing way, taking each other very seriously, and ridiculing their prissy and nerdy classmates. The film even gives them a scene in which they drink to their brilliant future careers during an outing to a funky wind-chime-filled park with Ole Golly (in the book, she takes them on an unsettling visit to her obese mother in a Far Rockaway shack).
Admittedly, this is not entirely unnatural 11-year-old behavior. It’s not even a total travesty of Fitzhugh’s book. Harriet with her literary aspirations, Janie and her dreams of scientific glory, and Sport, who earnestly tends to his “starving writer” father, are children impatient with frivolous immaturity. But Fitzhugh’s trio is too engrossed in watching the world to be jadedly self-aware; in fact, it’s the pseudo-sophisticated airs of the powerful clique of uppity classmates that these kids can’t stand.
As the short scenes flash by, the film can’t help missing the essence of Harriet’s story. For the novel’s psychological drama lies in her unsettling discovery that others are watching her, and that she has to watch herself–that her zeal for unblinkered, sometimes brutal honesty spells trouble in a world that depends on a degree of merciful hypocrisy. In the book, Harriet is devastated to realize that she isn’t an invisible, invincible spy, and that her straight-talking guide, Ole Golly, isn’t an inseparable part of her life. Fitzhugh makes sure that Harriet, like most memorable heroes of such coming-of-age ordeals, surmounts her crisis of self-consciousness without joining the ranks of conventional phonies. But Harriet’s recovery isn’t easy, and the credit is due as much, if not more, to the sympathetic adults who help her save face as to her own gumption.
Such an odyssey is meaningless in a film in which conventional phoniness is the tone throughout, and the kids are more confidently suave than the grown-ups from the start. The set and costumes consist of an eclectic melange of trademark decor dating from the last four decades, and are as studiously artificial as the characters: This is the perpetual present in Any City, U.S.A., an apt venue for a movie that amounts to a series of sitcom episodes. Snickery insults and sanctimonious nostrums pass between kids and between kids and adults. Since this seems like business as usual, it’s hard to feel that anything very consequential is happening. Harriet ends up smugly full of herself. She proposes herself as class editor of the newspaper, after telling off her parents; to their suggestion that her notebook has become an unhealthy obsession, she responds with the taunt that they can’t get through the day without their martinis. Her mother and father are reduced to complete, rather than partial, fools. And Ole Golly looks and sounds just like she did at the start, that is like Rosie O’Donnell struggling to be both witty and wise, and a lot cooler than we remember.