A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Harriet the Spy is a 1997 adaptation of the popular book in which a tween girl "spies" on her friends, classmates, and neighbors and learns a tough lesson on how words can hurt when her secret notebook is stolen by her arch-nemesis and read aloud. There's some bullying, especially when Harriet is ostracized by her peers; it's primarily verbal taunting and silent-treatment shunning but also chasing Harriet throughout the neighborhood and her getting blue paint "accidentally" dumped on her clothes at school. When the entire class joins in on smearing paint all over Harriet's face and clothes, she retaliates by slapping her arch-nemesis hard in the face, then exacts systematic and humiliating revenge on all her peers. In one scene, Harriet calls an idea "retarded." There are also melodramatic proclamations from Harriet and her friends about how a snotty popular classmate makes them want to go on a "psycho killing spree" and Harriet's aspiring chemist friend talks of poisoning the popular girl. The class is shown watching old classroom movies with titles such as Girl to Woman and Boy to Man. Harriet talks in a voice-over of how one of the girls in her class is "growing boobs"; as she says this, the same girl is bending over to pick up something off the floor while all the boys in the class try to stare down her shirt. This girl's bra is later hung from the school flagpole as an act of revenge.
What's the story?
In HARRIET THE SPY, eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg) wants to be a writer. Golly (Rosie O'Donnell), her nanny and best friend, encourages her to work toward her goal by keeping a notebook and writing down her observations about everything she sees. Harriet becomes a keen observer for the sake of her writing. Harriet's endeavor suffers a setback when Golly and her parents decide that she no longer needs to have a nanny. Even worse, her top-secret notebook gets into the hands of her nemesis, Marion, the class snob. The snob reads aloud all that Harriet has written, and the children ostracize her. Harriet learns that there is more to people than just the superficial details that she notes in her book.
Is it any good?
This is a great story, but there's too much plot and not enough character development. Louise Fitzhugh's book of the same title has been a favorite of several generations of girls. They're the best audience for this movie, which brings the story faithfully to life (but moves it from Manhattan of the 1960s to a blander, unidentified city of the present). The problem is that the film too often gets lost amid long, uninteresting scenes involving Harriet, her friends, and their escapades.
We want to learn more about some of the colorful characters Harriet spies on. The movie spends just enough time with them to catch our attention, then disappoints us by forgetting about them. The only character we come to know is Harriet, who tests our sympathy by writing down mean observations about her classmates. The highlight of Harriet the Spy is Rosie O'Donnell's performance as Golly.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how they've handled being treated badly at school and how they treat their own friends. Parents won't want children imitating Harriet's attempts to seek revenge on the kids who have ostracized her or Janie's "scientific" experiments from Harriet the Spy.
What do you think are the challenges of turning a popular book into a movie? What are some other examples of books turned into movies?
How was bullying addressed in this movie? What messages did the movie convey about how written words can hurt feelings and ruin friendships?
- In theaters: February 25, 1997
- On DVD or streaming: February 25, 1998
- Cast: Gregory Smith, Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O'Donnell
- Director: Bronwen Hughes
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Book Characters
- Run time: 101 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic intensity
Themes & Topics
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.