A Tale of Two Nancy Drews

The general process of “what old, well-established properties can we adapt for movies and TV?” has recently swung around to Nancy Drew — not once, but twice. We’ve got the movie Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, and the CW’s Nancy Drew TV series.

As someone who used to inhale the Nancy Drew mysteries by the linear foot — the original novels, the 1980s continuations, and the Nancy Drew Case Files — I have . . . opinions.

The movie is surprisingly charming, and preserves what I remember of the feel of the original books, while updating things to the modern day. Nancy gets involved with George and Bess after a boy at their school posts a humiliating video of Bess, getting revenge for his cyber-bullying and landing herself in community service as punishment. From there she winds up helping an older woman solve the mystery of her apparently haunted house (generally following the plot of the book).

The actress playing Nancy is quite engaging, and has a fair number of witty lines. Bess is an adorable science nerd, and they cast a black actress as George. The evolution toward friendship with Helen is also pleasing. And while the movie as a whole is lightweight, not attempting to tackle any particularly weighty issues, that feels about right to me. I’m sad that there seems to be no news of them considering a sequel, because I’d happily watch another one.

The TV show is . . . hrm. For one thing, it centers on a murder — two of them, in fact, one twenty years in the past, but apparently connected to the present day. Nancy and all the rest have recently graduated from high school, but Nancy’s mother’s death from pancreatic cancer has left her family with crippling medical debt that has scotched Nancy’s dream of going to Columbia, and kind of wrecked her relationship with her father to boot. She’s in a relationship with Ned Nickerson (here called “Nick” instead of “Ned”), but his own dream of a football career crashed and burned when he spent a few years in jail for manslaughter, and their relationship proceeded from “acquaintance” to “sex” without passing through much of a “get to know one another better” stage (that comes later on). George is both Nancy’s and Bess’ employer at the restaurant she runs, and she is not a fan of Nancy, who didn’t do anything to defend her at school when her own reputation got trashed by rumors — true ones, as it happens — that she was having an affair with an older, married man. And you rapidly find out that Bess, who claims to be rich, is living in a van on the edge of town.

If you are looking for the tone you remember from the novels, you will not find it here.

In fact, it feels a lot like Veronica Mars, but with much less snappy dialogue. Which might explain another aspect of the show — because it feels like the writers were fishing around for a way to distinguish their show when the territory of “Nancy Drew, but noir” has already been so thoroughly explored, and consequently took a flying headfirst dive into urban fantasy.

I mean “somebody call the Winchester brothers” level of supernatural material. For the first few episodes, I was waiting for it to be revealed that somebody in town was leveraging the folklore about how the ghost “Dead Lucy” haunts the town — because that’s how things usually go in a Nancy Drew story! Round about the point where one of the characters gets possessed by the ghost of the more recent victim, I gave up on that interpretation. Not long after that, I gave up on trying to keep track of how many different ghosts and spirits are running around interfering with the plot. Half the clues come from the dead, rather than from investigation; George’s mother turns out to be a spiritualist (much to the disgust and embarassment of her daughter), and another character busts out with a full panoply for sending somebody on an astral quest to fetch back the spirit of a third character that’s gone wandering.

What. The.

It isn’t bad. I wouldn’t call it especially memorable — see above re: not having the snappy dialogue of a Veronica Mars — but it’s perfectly competent urban fantasy. It’s just that urban fantasy is not what I expect out of a Nancy Drew adaptation. I can’t remember if there was ever real magic in the novels (and I wouldn’t trust my memory even if I did; it’s been probably twenty-five years or more since I read any of them, and back then my ability to read fantasy into a story on the thinnest grounds was pretty impressive), but I’m certain they did not routinely feature Nancy insisting she needs to steal the cursed Roman coins so she can use their dark power to communicate with the ghost of the murder victim and ask who killed her.

But since I mentioned the casting of the movie, it’s worth noting that this version of George is surnamed Fan instead of Fayne and is Chinese-American, Bess’ actress is British-Iranian and the character is a lesbian, Nick is black, and the police chief is Native American. It reminds me of the line from a Supergirl episode where Cat eyes the characters who have come to talk to her and says, “You look like the attractive yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show.” As pro forma as this approach can sometimes be, I do prefer it to the alternative. It’s certainly a lot less jarring to me than the ghosts.

Like I said, the show isn’t bad. I only wish I could go somewhere to get another dose of the more authentic Nancy Drew flavor: a heroine who’s plucky instead of bitter, a mystery that isn’t about death, and a haunting that turns out to just be someone playing tricks.

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