Those who missed the theatrical release of Harriet The Spy last summer should think twice before rushing out to rent the newly released video. Despite the high hopes of fans of Louise Fitzhugh's engaging children's novel, the movie version of Harriet The Spy is a major disappointment, suggesting once again that Hollywood has little of value to say to people with childhoods.
First published in 1964, the book is a favorite of pre-teen girls drawing encouragement from the zany adventures of Harriet, an iconoclastic 11-year-old who lives as much in her imagination as she does on her block in New York City. Harriet's best friend is her journal; and through it she schemes, and snoops, and fantasizes, creating her own wacky little world. When that world occasionally bumps into reality, Harriet gets into BIG trouble. But nothing that can't be overcome by a little spunk and a lot of imagination.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't let Harriet overcome anything. When her journal is discovered by schoolmates (who take offense at finding themselves the object of Harriet's private barbs), they declare war. The revenge that is portrayed is brutal and incessant; it left me squirming uncomfortably at the sight of kids being so mean to each other.
In one scene, a classroom full of vengeful kids pours paint on Harriet's head while a teacher blinks witlessly in the background. This and other unsettling scenes make lies of reasonable childhood assumptions: that friends and teachers can be counted on, that bad days always end, that parents have your best interests at heart.
As the acts against her mount, Harriet is forced into an emotional corner from which her only escape is to lash out physically and mete out her own revenge in equally brutal ways. As cathartic as this is, it's all a set-up. Harriet-and the viewer-is forced down this path by manipulative filmmakers who seem determined to replace the book's hard lessons learned with a cruelty more reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.
THIS PERVERSE EMPHASIS may have an explanation. Harriet The Spy was co-produced by Nickelodeon, the kid-cable network whose programming is the television equivalent of breakfast cereal. Nickelodeon's high-speed, sugar-filled view of children is to hurry them through their icky and uncool childhoods and into the grown-up world of conformity and status. Nickelodeon-like the rest of mainstream entertainment-has a not-so-subtle message for the younger generation: Be liked, or be damned.
The book allows Harriet to survive her torments and tormentors with her childhood intact. Life can sometimes be tough, but in the end Harriet still has her pride, her spy glass, and her tomato sandwich.
But Harriet, the movie, shows a clear contempt for childhood and insists on projecting society's own cruel truth about life: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Despite a tacked on "happy" ending, young viewers cannot forget what has happened again and again for the last hour: Their heroine-a symbol of their own individuality-has been squashed.
Sitting in a theater with my two daughters-both about Harriet's age, both sitting quietly, numbly, as they watched the cruelty of their peers on screen-I reflected that when you are 11 years old, you are getting close to the end of childhood, the end of a lot of good things soon forgotten in the teen-age years. As the movie came to a merciful close, I had an overwhelming urge to go home and organize a game of hide-and-seek.