This post was written for the Beyond the Cover blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Now, Voyaging and Speakeasy! To view more fascinating posts about books adapted to film, visit the hosts: Liz and Kristina.
Nancy Drew is one of the best-known names in the world of mystery. The character first came to life in 1930 with the novel The Secret of the Old Clock. The second novel, The Hidden Staircase, was also originally published in 1930 and would go on to become the basis of the 1939 film Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is one of four films to star Bonita Granville in the role of the girl detective, and marked Granville’s last appearance in the role. It’s also the only film to directly borrow a title from one of the books. The other Granville vehicles have titles like Nancy Drew… Detective, and even more recent adaptations of the stories for film and television have opted for simply Nancy Drew or Nancy Drew Mysteries.
The first time I saw the film version of The Hidden Staircase, I found it to be quite different from the novel, which has long been my favorite of the Nancy Drew series. I was an avid reader as a child and tore through those “Carolyn Keene” volumes, those shelves and shelves of yellow-spined mysteries lining the walls of my local public library. For some reason, The Hidden Staircase held on to the number one spot in my Nancy Drew ranking, no matter how many of the novels I read.
Though I noticed some difference from the book, I still found the adaptation to be very enjoyable upon first watch — fast-paced, light, and fun. Admittedly, it had been years since I’d re-read the book. And now, it’s been a few years since I watched the film, so this blogathon presents the perfect opportunity to take another look at them both!
My initial analysis of the film was partly colored by some context that I was unaware of until after watching. The version of the book I’d loved for so many years was not, in fact, the original text. Instead, it was a 1959 re-issue with some of the contents changed. The film was released nine years after the original publication of the novel, and a whopping twenty years prior to the version of the story with which I’ve always been familiar. Could it be that Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase was actually a faithful adaptation, and that I’ve been mistaken all of these years?
As it turns out, the film is closer to the 1930 version of the novel than it is to the ’59 version, but all three versions of the story differ from each other quite a lot.
The 1959 version of the novel involves a dual plot of Nancy’s investigation at the spooky Twin Elms mansion, alongside a dangerous case her father is dealing with which puts his life at stake. A man named Nathan Gomber has threatened Mr. Drew that a local dispute over a railroad, in which Mr. Drew is involved as a lawyer, could lead to violent trouble for him. Nancy is torn between watching over her father and taking on the Twin Elms investigation, especially after she and Mr. Drew are nearly run over by a truck with no driver. But Mr. Drew assures her he’ll be fine, so she takes the case.
The Twin Elms side of the plot is very clearly influenced by the tropes of the “spooky old house” mystery, though Nancy and Helen of course suspect that a living human is behind all of the trouble. The mansion is owned by Helen’s great aunt Rosemary and her mother, Flora, so Helen works with Nancy throughout the investigation. Their sleuthing efforts are fun to read. Less fun, but still great to read due to its level of tension is the plot involving Mr. Drew. He’s in real danger, which brings the suspense. At one point he is even drugged and kidnapped!
I wasn’t able to get my hands on a 1930 edition of The Hidden Staircase, but luckily we have the internet to fill in that gap! Based on the description in the Nancy Drew Wiki, the 1930 version of the story seems a bit simpler than the 1959 re-do, with fewer people involved in the mystery. Nancy is introduced to the Turnbulls (sisters in this version, rather than mother and daughter) by Abby, a character from the first mystery, rather than by her friend Helen as in the 1959 version. The mansion itself matches the story’s simpler take, a “primitive” estate without electricity or other modern conveniences.
Mr. Drew is mixed up with Gomber in both versions of the novel, but in the 1930 telling, he sends Nancy off to the mansion with his gun in tow. (He must have quite a lot of trust in his daughter!) Gomber has an accomplice in the form of a housekeeper fitting the “angry black woman” stereotype, which was one of the reasons the novel was updated in the mid-century years of civil unrest.
The movie, thankfully, avoids the user of Gomber’s stereotyped accomplice, though it was released two decades prior to changes being made to the novel. In fact, Gomber himself is also absent, replaced by a different foe. The story also takes a turn toward murder mystery rather than focusing on the “spooky old house” setting. The Turnbulls (sisters, like in the 1930 book) find their chauffeur shot, meaning that a genuine murderer is on the loose. There are a few ghostly elements incorporated — mysterious music, footsteps with no feet to match them — but by and large the film is your usual murder case.
An element of interest is added to the film through the legal conundrum of the Turnbulls’ property. In order to inherit ownership, they must spend a certain number of nights occupying the house, and their ownership is put in jeopardy when they’re both arrested. This adds a sense of urgency to Nancy’s solving of the case and adds a higher level of drama to the film. There’s also a dispute over whether the property should be turned into a children’s hospital or demolished to make way for a racetrack.
The only thing missing from page to screen that made a difference in my opinion of the film after re-reading the book was the fact that Helen is not a character in the film, meaning that there is no Helen/Nancy friendship. Instead, we get Ted — understandable since Helen did not appear in the 1930 version of the book, but her friendship with Nancy adds a lot to the novel. They investigate together, help each other dig for the truth, and have each other’s backs in a few less-than-safe situations. As funny as movie Nancy’s relationship with Ted is, I would have very much enjoyed to see Helen (or a Helen-esque character, since she technically didn’t exist yet at the time of the film’s production) in his place.
Since Nancy Drew is such a beloved character on paper, it’s natural to compare book Nancy to Bonita Granville’s portrayal. The Nancy of the film does seem a bit more childish, a bit less scientific than book Nancy in her investigation. She isn’t as brave as in the book, either, in one scene getting spooked by her own father — the harmless Carson Drew! This is no fault of Granville, though, and is instead due to the script, which puts the emphasis on “girl” in “girl detective,” portraying Nancy as young, curious, and just a tiny bit careless. Book Nancy seems to be fearless and goes over every inch of the Twin Elms mansion with a fine-tooth comb, seeking clues like an experienced detective. Still, though not as mature as the Nancy of the printed page, Bonita Granville is fun to watch and brings a lot of spunk to the role.
These various versions of The Hidden Staircase are all worth a look for fans of mystery or of the Nancy Drew world. My favorite version remains the 1959 edition of the book, but the film is highly enjoyable for a light and quick sleuth story.