Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase releases today, March 15, in select AMC theaters around the US. It's a limited release and will go to DVD soon. Support of the movie and DVD sales will help boost the possibility of a sequel and I hope there will be one. If you actually haven't read this infamous classic Nancy Drew book, I recommend seeing the film first and then checking out my review.
What you'll find with this review of the movie is a fan's perspective and comparison between the Nancy Drew books which I know well and the movie. The movie is based on the classic Nancy Drew book, The Hidden Staircase, which was also made into a movie in 1939 starring Bonita Granville. Both movies focus on the haunted mansion in the book, the 1939 movie being based on the original 1930 text version written by ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson and this current movie starring Sophia Lillis as Nancy Drew is based on the 1959 revised version (currently still in print today) of Benson's story. Both revolve around the haunting of an old mansion and ghostly happenings that Nancy must get to the bottom of. If you haven't read the book before, I recommend you read it after seeing the movie.Visit my website to learn more about Benson, whose favorite Nancy Drew book was Hidden Staircase. I'm currently writing a biography about Benson who was a real-life Nancy Drew in her own right and you can check out an article I wrote about her that was published at Smithsonian.com last year and recently reprinted in The Saturday Evening Post.
Written by Nina Fiore and John Herrera, the script attempts to modernize Hidden Staircase for today's generation of kids - the target audience for this movie and they do a good job of adapting it. There are "Easter eggs" to elements from the classic books and Hidden Staircase as well that fans of all ages should enjoy. Director Katt Shea, Exec producers Ellen DeGeneres and Wendy Williams did a great job as well as the rest of the cast and crew. It's never easy to adapt a popular character - especially from beloved books - to the big screen and I think overall they achieved their goal of doing so in a way that sticks close enough to the source material to make even the ficklest of fans relatively happy overall.
Modern technology is a part of today's generation, so that's been updated in this movie. Nancy even uses the flashlight on her cell phone when she forgets to bring her flashlight to snoop around the haunted Twin Elms mansion. Lucky for her a young Deputy Patrick, who admires Nancy, has a vintage-like shaped flashlight for Nancy to sleuth with.
There are quite a few elements from the book fans will recognize in the film - the train and local politics, the haunted mansion, threats from the villain, Nancy's dad Carson going out of town and getting himself kidnapped, a hideous mask outside of the window to scare everyone, radios playing all of a sudden, shadows and other strange happenings around the mansion, discovering the hidden staircase and more. This is an origin story as it's the first movie, so there was a lot to introduce among the characters and their relationships. I liked the relationship between Nancy and her Dad - it was respectful like in the books and yet modern for today's times. Nancy's housekeeper Hannah is now her Aunt Hannah in this movie, her father Carson's sister. Nancy's mom has passed away and she and her dad have relocated to River Heights from Chicago, to live with Aunt Hannah. River Heights, compared to Chicago, bores Nancy a bit, but soon excitement follows her.
Classic Nancy Drew elements that any fan of Nancy Drew will recognize include the titles in the beginning sequence of the film in blue letters with a yellow background evocative of the current in print "flashlight" picture covers.
Other elements are the color blue - in the movie it was Nancy's mom's favorite color as it was hers in the books. Nancy doesn't have a blue convertible to drive of her own, but her skateboarding helmet is blue. She does attempt - quite poorly - to drive her Aunt Hannah's blue convertible. The opening scene complete with Emily Bear's song, "More Than Just A Girl" is a powerful message - one that resonates, as in the books villains were often underestimating Nancy and her abilities because she was a "mere slip of a girl" or due to her age.
Other classic book elements include Nancy seeking justice, wearing a disguise, Hannah's baking prowess, Nancy looking for logical explanations for ghostly things as she never believed in ghosts in the books, Nancy bravely facing the ghost(s), a secret room/hidden staircase, chloroform, lock picking and trespassing to sleuth, following footprints, checking out for hollow spots and sleuthing to find a hidden way into the mansion. A next-mystery-notice like the books would have at the end, pops up at the end of the movie to clue you into what the sequel might be about - and you guessed it - another classic Nancy Drew mystery!
There is humor - Linda Lavin plays a great Aunt Flora and I enjoyed her very much in the role as the eccentric aunt from the book. We learn her former burlesque dancer name from decades before was Strawberry DeVille and she was worried she was losing it over seeing ghosts - or as she puts it - her cheese sliding off her cracker.
My advice to anyone adapting Nancy Drew to TV or film has always been to not stray too far from characterization or source material as the fan base - who are also part of the majority of those who will turn out for a niche character movie like this - can be negative about too much change. I think this movie, while it has its changes in part to modernize the story, overall doesn't stray too far from basic concepts in Nancy's world - friendship, mysteries, and loyalty. No matter how many threats to stay off the case or else or how baffling the mystery, Nancy's always seeking justice and righting wrongs. Those are concepts that are ingrained in the character of Nancy and are her driving force in this movie. The movie is a good family friendly movie, unlike the upcoming CW Nancy Drew pilot being filmed in Vancouver which is a much edgier take on Nancy Drew for the older CW audience. So families should take their kids to see this film and get the DVD when it's released.
There are changes - Nancy's only 16 (instead of 18) and is still in school. Helen is considered more of a mean girl at first and in the book she was Nancy's friend, but they work out their "feud" in this movie in order to help Helen's Aunt Flora. George (characterized really well in a very George way by Zoe Renee) is African American, she and Bess don't appear to be cousins, they were also not in this book, as they were not introduced until book #5, so they are appearing out of order, but fans really shouldn't care too much about those changes. These things are inconsequential and I honesty didn't care about them as I was watching the movie. Bess is a bubbly blonde in the books who is into fashion and boys, but in this movie she's a science nerd who gets bullied by a popular athlete at school and Nancy and George rally to help her overcome that in a form of vigilante justice that Nancy later regrets, and has to face the consequences of. Nancy is more tomboyish in this film, but overall that didn't bother me. She was still the same determined resourceful character as she was in the books and that was really all that mattered. There are good lessons learned in this film too - that revenge is not the answer and you should never stoop to a bad person's level to solve your problems - and if you do, you should face consequences of your actions, as Nancy does. But there are also lessons on friendship and sticking together and helping others in need that are quintessential elements of the classic Nancy Drew books. Nancy is inspiring in the books and is also inspiring to today's generation in this movie.
Nancy teases her friends in the end that she's giving up mysteries for Instagram, boys and doing her nails and then winks at the audience and let's us know she's just kidding. Clearly Nancy Drew will always be a mystery magnet! And we wouldn't have her any other way.