Harriet the Spy Movie Poster Image

Harriet the Spy



Book-based movie has some bullying, name-calling.
  • Review Date: February 25, 2005
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Family and Kids
  • Release Year: 1997
  • Running Time: 101 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Lessons on being true to yourself. Being a writer is more than writing words into a notebook and passing harsh judgment on everyone around you -- it also requires empathy and understanding. Pursuing your life's ambitions requires passion, dedication, and tenacity. 

Positive role models

Harriet is an aspiring writer who's constantly writing in her notebook. She finds ways to spy on her neighbors and friends, and when her notebook is stolen by one of the popular girls and read aloud, she must learn a lesson that being a writer is much more than passing mean judgment and cruel observations about her friends, classmates, and neighbors. 


Some bullying. An ostracized girl gets a bucket of blue paint "accidentally" dumped on her clothing, and then her classmates pretend to "clean it up" but merely add more paint to the situation. This girl responds by slapping one of her attackers hard in the face. 


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. 


While her friends and classmates kick around ideas for a game to play, Harriet calls one idea "retarded." Some name-calling, talk of "dorks" and "de-dorkification." "Crap." Talk of how the snooty popular girl in school makes Harriet and her friends want to go on a "psycho killing spree," and one of her friends talks of using her chemistry knowledge to poison her. Harriet writes that if she had to live like one of her classmates, "I'd hang myself." 

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Harriet talks back to her parents about how they drink martinis every night. 

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?

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?


It's 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 the movie is Rosie O'Donnell's performance as Golly.

Families can talk 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.

  • 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? 

Movie details

Theatrical release date:February 25, 1997
DVD release date: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

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Parent Written byaimless1 December 14, 2013

One of the worst family movies ever! Painful to watch.

Ugh, this movie was terrible. It just went on and on and I was hoping it would get better but it never did. Rosie O'Donnell was the worst person for the role of nanny. I thought this movie had terrible messages with the bullying that went on. Then the revenge was horrible to watch especially when she was carving the frenemies names in the wooden desk top. Wow! Sorry I let my kids watch it.
Teen, 17 years old Written byhamstergurl09 February 12, 2012


I was a huge fan of this movie when my cousin introduced it to me at age...8 I think? The storyline is realistic, but not boring as some realistic films can be for kids. This film is very funny and will keep kids of all ages entertained. The acting in this movie is quite good. Many people I know who saw this movie as a kid decided that they wanted to follow in Harriet's footsteps and keep a notebook themselves. That encourages kids to be observant (well, maybe a little TOO observant, in Harriet's case). I read the book, too, and I prefer this version. Don't even bother with "Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars" though, that movie was awful.
Adult Written bysusie q August 4, 2009
My nine-year-old daughter sat with tears streaming down her face while watching the cruel behavior of Harriet's classmates when they turned on her. No happy ending makes up for that.


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