I went into Harriet the Spy with a rare sense of anticipation: It was my favorite book as a child. Written by Louise Fitzhugh in 1964, long before anyone thought of branding generations with alphabet letters, it may have been the first children’s novel to grant its protagonist a full measure of media-age brattiness and sophistication. Harriet, an 11-year-old girl growing up in New York City, spies on her neighbors and her staggeringly self-absorbed sixth-grade classmates, recording her observations in a precious notebook marked private. Even when she isn’t peeking through windows, she’s a voyeur of the spirit. Her inquisitive observer’s brain works full-time, and when the other kids discover the notebook and confront, with horror, her pitiless observations about them (almost all of which are true), she is turned into a pariah. She is punished not for her deeds — the notebook was a personal diary — but for her thoughts.
For anyone who loved reading Harriet the Spy, there are a dozen reasons to object to the movie version. Updated to the multi-culti ’90s, the film transforms Harriet from a sweatshirted tomboy into a button-cute sprite, and it’s been directed, by Bronwen Hughes (a graduate of television commercials and music videos), in a kinetic pop-cartoon style that couldn’t be further removed from Fitzhugh’s wry deadpan. Ole Golly, Harriet’s wizened nanny and mentor, has been reincarnated as Rosie O’Donnell (likably restrained), and Harriet’s observations no longer have the acid sting of particularity; she’s just a sharp kid scribbling down judgments. Yet Fitzhugh’s vision, her feeling for the casual precocity and cruelty of modern kids, is so vivid that the movie packs a punch anyway.
As Harriet, Michelle Trachtenberg has the features of a smirky young gopher. That face is so adorable it may take you a while to realize how many shades of pride, joy, and — when the other kids turn on her — fear are passing across it. Harriet the Spy has its sticky, Afterschool Special side (the ending is way too pat), but at its best it’s like a Welcome to the Dollhouse for preadolescents. What Fitzhugh’s book had, and what the movie gets, is the glee and neurotic terror of a kid lurching into adult consciousness, learning just how dangerous that notebook we all carry around in our heads really is. B+