Harriet the Spy (film)

Harriet the Spy is a 1996 American coming-of-age comedy film directed by Bronwen Hughes in her directorial debut, and starring Michelle Trachtenberg in her feature film acting debut. It co-stars Rosie O'Donnell, J. Smith-Cameron, Gregory Smith, and Vanessa Lee Chester. Based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Louise Fitzhugh, the film follows a sixth-grade student who aspires to become a writer and spy.

Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy (1996 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBronwen Hughes
Screenplay by
Adaptation by
Based onHarriet the Spy
by Louise Fitzhugh
Produced by
  • Marykay Powell
  • Nava Levin
CinematographyFrancis Kenny
Edited byDebra Chiate
Music byJamshied Sharifi
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • July 10, 1996 (1996-07-10)[1]
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$12 million
Box office$26.6 million

Filming began in the fall of 1994 in Toronto and was completed by the end of 1995. Produced by Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies and Rastar, it was the first film produced under the Nickelodeon Movies banner and the first of two film adaptations of the Harriet the Spy books. In theaters, the pilot episode of Hey Arnold! called Arnold was shown before the film.

The film was released in theaters on July 10, 1996. It made $26.6 million worldwide on a production budget of $12 million.[2] The film was released on home media on February 25, 1997.


Eleven-year-old sixth grader Harriet M. Welsch aspires to be a spy and writer. She lives a privileged life in New York City with her parents, Violetta and Ben and her nanny, Katherine "Ole Golly", who's the only person who knows all the things that Harriet has been snooping on. Harriet and her best friends Simon "Sport" Rocque and Janie Gibbs are enemies with an elitist rich girl named Marion Hawthorne.

One night while alone with Harriet, Golly invites a friend, George Waldenstein, over for dinner. After Golly accidentally burns the meal, the three go out to dinner and a movie instead. When the three return home late in the evening, Violetta, enraged at Golly for letting Harriet stay out past her curfew, initially fires her, but quickly regrets this and begs for Golly to stay. However, Golly concedes that Harriet should be on her own, and shortly before departing, she encourages Harriet to never give up on her love for observing people, and promises her that she will be the first to buy her very own autographed copy of Harriet's first novel. After bidding Golly goodbye, Harriet becomes depressed and withdrawn. While spying on people in various areas of the city, Harriet breaks into the mansion of Agatha Plummer, and gets caught hiding in her dumbwaiter.

After school the next day, Marion discovers Harriet's private notebook and begins reading all of Harriet's vindictive comments about her friends out loud, such as how she suspects Janie "will grow up to be a nutcase", and teasing Sport's father for barely earning any money. This results in Sport and Janie turning their backs on Harriet. Harriet's classmates subsequently create a Spy-Catcher club and torment Harriet on her spy routes.

When Harriet begins avoiding her homework assignments, her parents take away her notebooks and request that her teacher, Miss Elson, search Harriet each day at school for notebooks, embarrassing Harriet. One day, during art class, Marion and her friends intentionally pour blue paint on Harriet, who slaps Marion in the face and flees the school. Harriet enacts a revenge plot against her classmates, including exposing that Marion's father left her family to be with his secretary because he never loved her, cutting off a chunk of Laura's hair, sabotaging one of Janie's science experiments (triggering an angry response from Janie's parents), and humiliating Sport with a picture of him in a maid outfit. Harriet's revenge plans enrage her classmates, further alienating her.

Harriet's parents discover what she has done to her classmates and send her to be evaluated by a psychologist, who assures them that Harriet is fine. Then things start to get better again. Harriet gets her notebook back, and she even gets a surprise visit from Golly, who tells her that in order to make things right again, she must do two things, both of which she will not like: apologize and lie. When Harriet tells her that it's not worth it, Golly disagrees, and tells Harriet that she is worth it as an individual, and her being an individual will make others nervous (and keep making them feel as such), before finally adding that one of the blessings of life is good friends, and tells Harriet to never give up her friends without a fight.

Harriet then tries to apologize to Sport and Janie, even though they initially reject her (they later, however, finally come to their senses because they get tired of being treated unfairly in Marion's bully group and consequently quit as a result, much to Marion's dismay). She also shares her opinion with Miss Elson and the class that the appointment of the editor of the sixth grade paper was done unfairly, who agrees, and opens it up for a vote. Harriet is voted in as editor, by her classmates, replacing Marion. Through one article, she apologizes to everyone, including Marion, and all (except Marion) accept her apology. On opening night of the 6th grade pageant, Janie, Sport, and Harriet light off a stink bomb as revenge on Marion and dance to James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" until the end of the film.




The screenplay was adapted from Louise Fitzhugh's 1964 novel of the same name.[3] Director Bronwen Hughes commented on the adaptation: "Certain things about the ’60s story, especially the relationship between kids and their parents, had to be adjusted to make sense because you don’t have that same kind of formality that you had in the book in the ’60s between parents and kids. So those things needed to be made more natural for the 1990s kids audience. But it was very important to me that the things that really affected Harriet in the book would be the things that really affected Harriet in the movie."[3] The result mixed elements from various decades, but Hughes aspired to create a "timeless" film that featured little technology.[3]


Harriet the Spy was filmed in Toronto during the fall of 1994 and winter of 1995.[4] Director Bronwen Hughes recalled: "It was Paramount’s financial decision to make Toronto look like New York, although to tell you the truth, nothing looks like a row of brownstones and stoops like New York, so we just started choosing great locations to create a visual experience."[4]

Michelle Trachtenberg recalled the shoot beginning on October 11, 1994, her ninth birthday.[3] She and co-star Vanessa Lee Chester had known each other prior, having filmed a commercial together in New York City when they were five years old.[3] Charlotte Sullivan recalled of the shoot: "When [Bronwen] would direct us, if we were walking she’s like, “Okay you’ll go bop-bop this way then bop-bop this way,” she was always dancing. I don't remember her not dancing on set. And music was always playing. It was very cool and in terms of performance art she was pretty ahead of her time. It was a great way also to direct children. It was a way to keep things alive."[3]


Box officeEdit

The film was released in U.S. theaters on July 10, 1996, and the film grossed $6,601,651 on its opening weekend, averaging about $3,615 per each of the 1,826 screens it was shown on.[2] The film went on to gross a total of $26,570,048 by November 10, 1996, and is considered a modest box office success, earning back more than double its $12 million budget.

Home mediaEdit

Harriet the Spy was released on VHS by Paramount Home Video on February 25, 1997. The cassette also contained two Rugrats music videos, and customers were able to receive $5 rebate if they bought the movie in an orange clamshell case plus two eligible Rugrats videos.

The film was later released on DVD on May 27, 2003.


Critical responseEdit

The film received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 48% based on reviews from 31 critics. The site's consensus: "Harriet the Spy is a rapid-fire mystery movie that doesn't have much to offer beyond the two decent lead performances."[5] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave it a grade B+.[6]

Rita Kempley of The Washington Post was critical of the film, deeming it a "tedious" adaptation of the source novel, adding: "Harriet the Spy isn't really a story, but a dark slice of this ruminative child's inner life. Like the more clearly comic Welcome to the Dollhouse, this film finds more wrong than wonder in these terrible, tenderfoot years."[7] Roger Ebert praised the performance of Trachtenberg, but conceded: "It is not a very technically accomplished movie--the pacing is slow and there are scenes that seem amateurish--but since Harriet doesn't intend to inspire anyone to become a movie critic, perhaps it will work a certain charm for its target audience."[8] Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, a self-proclaimed fan of the novel, wrote that the film "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."[9]

John Anderson of the Los Angeles Times also commented on the film's darker elements, writing that it is "fun, yes, but [it] isn't afraid to expose the nastiness of youth or the offhanded cruelty of one girl's ego. This is not a happy little movie about the sweetness of childhood."[10] Barbara Shulgasser of The San Francisco Examiner dismissed the film, describing the protagonist as "the kind of kid I'm not looking forward to meeting as a grownup...  While the well-loved novel was apparently about the admirable battle a kid must wage in order to become an artist in the face of peer disapproval, the movie seems to be about a mean-spirited tyke who has no scruples. If that kind of person wants to become an artist, it's OK by me, but I don't have to root for her."[11]


Year Award Category Recipients Result Ref.
1997 Kids' Choice Awards Favorite Movie Actress Rosie O'Donnell Won [12]
Young Artist Awards Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actress Michelle Trachtenberg Won [13]
Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actress Vanessa Lee Chester Won
Best Family Feature – Drama Harriet the Spy Nominated
Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actor Gregory Smith Nominated


Another adaptation of Harriet the Spy was released as a television movie in 2010 entitled Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars, with Jennifer Stone in the title role.


  1. ^ "Harriet the Spy". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Los Angeles: American Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 26, 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Harriet the Spy (1996) - Box Office Mojo". www.boxofficemojo.com. Archived from the original on 17 October 2018. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Schildhause, Chloe. "Which Is Why I Am A Spy: An Oral History Of 'Harriet The Spy'". Uproxx. Archived from the original on August 8, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Brody, Caitlin (November 15, 2016). "Harriet the Spy 20th anniversary: Blue paint scene gets an oral history". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on August 4, 2018.
  5. ^ "Harriet the Spy (1996)". Archived from the original on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 23 March 2019 – via www.rottentomatoes.com.
  6. ^ "CinemaScore". CinemaScore.com. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  7. ^ Kempley, Rita (July 10, 1996). "'Harriet the Spy': A Growing Pain". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on August 10, 1997.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 12, 1996). "Harriet the Spy". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on December 11, 2017.
  9. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (July 19, 1996). Harriet the Spy review: Read EW's original 1996 take. Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on July 7, 2018.
  10. ^ "'Harriet': A Smart-Kid Film with Some Tough Lessons". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. July 10, 1996. pp. F4–F5 – via Newspapers.com.  
  11. ^ Shulgasser, Barbara (July 10, 1996). "Harriet the nosy". The San Francisco Examiner. San Francisco, California. Archived from the original on February 1, 2014.
  12. ^ Shaw, Jessica (May 2, 1997). "Celebrities turn out for the Kid's Choice Awards". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on April 26, 2019.
  13. ^ "Eighteenth Annual Youth in Film Awards". Young Artist Awards. Archived from the original on August 18, 2000.

External linksEdit