What Makes a Successful Nancy Drew Adaptation?

Successful Nancy Drew Adaptations

On October 4, 2019, The New York Times wrote an article exploring the history of Nancy Drew adaptations and pondering the continuing popularity of a character first created in the 1930s.  Even though Nancy is a feminist icon, a character often cited by women as influential in their lives, few adaptations have proven successful.  Fans, it seems, cannot always reconcile their vision of Nancy with what is presented to them onscreen.  So movies and TV shows have generally received lukewarm feedback as fans demand to see their idea of Nancy.

The article does note the Her Interactive PC games as one of the few adaptations of Nancy Drew to modernize the character successfully.  The article suggests that, perhaps, the ability of fans to play as Nancy is part of what has made the games so popular.  (Even after waiting for years for a new game to come out, many fans remain loyal to the company, which focuses on making logic-based games for girls.)  I have to agree.  Although I fell in love with the classic yellow hardbacks as a child, subsequent book series, the 2007 movie starring Emma Roberts, the comic book adaptations–they all failed to charm me.  They weren’t my idea of Nancy.  And the latest adaptation currently showing on CW? Well, I haven’t seen it, but everything I’ve read suggests it isn’t for me; I just don’t envision Nancy having casual sex, a strained relationship with her father, and run-ins with actual ghosts. But the PC games have always enthralled me.  I love solving puzzles, interviewing suspects, and never, ever giving up until the mystery is solved.

The PC games have, I think, successfully modernized Nancy for two reasons.  The first is that the games really only give a minimal idea of who Nancy is.  She’s persistent yet polite, she’s nosy, she’s a rule breaker, she’s fearless.  She’s a bunch of general attributes that line up with her original incarnation–kind and socially graceful, but also prone to rifling through your most personal possessions when you aren’t looking.  But players don’t get much more of Nancy than that.  They don’t really know what she does in her free time, what her relationships are like (besides, you know, being friends with George and Bess and having Ned as a boyfriend), or even, in many cases, what she’s wearing.  Nancy is somewhat of a fill-in-the-blank.  If players want, they can imagine Nancy as the flirty, sensuous incarnation of later series.  Or they can imagine her wearing her pumps and a vintage dress, ready to go to a fraternity dance or to bake a pie.  Beyond the game, Nancy could really be anyone.

This ties into the second reason I think the games are successful: players get to choose Nancy’s conversation and reactions, so Nancy is always going to say or do what players imagine the “real” Nancy would do.  If they think Nancy’s a flirt, she’s going to flirt with that handsome cowboy.  If they think Nancy belongs with one of the Hardy Boys, they can choose conversations implying as much.  But if they think Nancy and Ned are meant to be, they can have Nancy remain steadfastly loyal. This logic applies throughout the game, in various circumstances.  Nancy can be polite or pushy.  She can be accommodating or rebellious.  She can push her luck or err on the side of caution.  Nancy has always had such contradictions in her character; she’s the girl who always knows the right thing to say, while also knowing how to pick a lock and steal your papers.  But the games give fans the ability to bring out the side of Nancy that they associate with her the most, the attributes they think are her essence.

I’m still waiting for a Nancy Drew TV series or movie that presents my idea of Nancy. I’m not sure a modern adaptation will ever work for me.  Nancy is, in my mind, associated with 1950s settings and values; it just seems weird to see her using a cell phone or driving a hybrid car.  But the Her Interactive games have modernized Nancy for me successfully, probably in part because I never see Nancy moving through the world.  When I play, I’m Nancy.  She may carry a cell phone and find videos for evidence, but, somehow, her lack of a physical body makes her presence in the modern day make more sense. That’s something a movie or TV series can’t capture.  So, for now, the Her Interactive PC games are going to remain the only modernized Nancy Drew I love.

5 thoughts on “What Makes a Successful Nancy Drew Adaptation?

  1. Inge | The Belgian Reviewer says:

    I haven’t played the Nancy Drew games yet (ok I didn’t even know they existed) but they sound like something I’d like playing. I don’t think I saw the tv series yet either but I’m definitely up to watching something à la Murder She Wrote 😊


  2. Jeanna says:

    Yes, I totally agree with you! Modern Nancy Drew just doesn’t work except in the Her Interactive games. I watched the first two episodes of the new CW show and it just doesn’t feel like Nancy. The first introduction into her character on the show was her having casual sex with Nick- whose first name is Ned, of course, but doesn’t go by that. It was a strange look at the character that I grew up with through the books and the PC games. I probably won’t be continuing in the show.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah…I’ve seen some of the backlash about the steamy Nancy (and have a post sort of about scheduled for next week). I think there’s room for all sorts of interpretations of old favorites. But Nancy is a children’s book character so I can see why fans would be disconcerted by such an, ahem, adult depiction.


  3. Captain's Quarters says:

    What a wonderful post! I do think that the movies fail to capture the various personal takes on Nancy. I have never liked any of them and will not be watching the CW show. I have to admit that I did judge it just based on it being on the CW. I have not played any of the video/computer games but have always wanted to. I don’t know if ye gave me the article or not about Nancy being kinda bland but I thought it was very compelling. A link below in case it wasn’t ye.
    x The Captain



  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    I am fascinated by the evolution of long-standing characters like this. Whether we’re talking about Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, or whomever. I’ve always been intrigued by how they do (or don’t) grow to reflect the age the story exists in.


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