Harriet the Spy

Movie review by
M. Faust, Common Sense Media
Harriet the Spy Movie Poster Image
Book-based movie has some bullying, name-calling.
  • PG
  • 1997
  • 101 minutes

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 10 reviews

Kids say

age 9+
Based on 8 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

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 & Representations

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." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

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

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
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... Continue reading
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 hap... Continue reading
Kid, 0 years old August 10, 2019


I wanted to see this movie. I so the begging horrible it’s boring the girl is bad...she plays spy on the real rode like girl people can see you... in class she... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old March 2, 2015

Harriet the Spy Review

Great movie with great messages. However, there is a lot of bullying. Harriet writes stuff about her friends + kids in her class in her privet notebook which ge... Continue reading

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? 

Movie details

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Themes & Topics

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