How Nancy Drew Succeeds as an Adaptation Where The Hardy Boys Fails

Hulu's The Hardy Boys is every bit as experimental as The CW's Nancy Drew, but only one makes the best of its changes to the original material.

Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys
Photo: The CW | Hulu

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every few years, a new on-screen adaptation of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew will arrive. Since the franchises’ first appearances on the page (1927 and 1930, respectively), we’ve all been collectively fascinated by the stories of spirited teens solving crimes that range from neighborhood theft to international espionage. But this year is perhaps the first time we’ve seen two appear so close to one another.

Hulu’s 2020 The Hardy Boys adaptation is the fifth time the famous sleuthing siblings have appeared onscreen. The CW’s Nancy Drew, which is set to return for its second season in January, is the girl detective’s ninth, and that’s only if you don’t count several failed pilots that never moved forward. (Quietly judging you, CBS.) We’re clearly obsessed with these kids, likely because many of us grew up reading stories of their adventures, and wishing we ourselves could take part in them.

But for a variety of reasons, these stories have proven perilously difficult to adapt for the screen. Perhaps it’s because movies and TV shows naturally dull some of the self-insert joy that young readers get from these books. Or maybe it’s because there are always going to be growing pains when trying to adapt children’s classics for the adults that networks hope will tune in to watch these series. Either way, neither The CW’s Nancy Drew nor Hulu’s The Hardy Boys is particularly faithful to its source material, though each makes different choices about how to strike out on its own, narratively speaking. And one method clearly works better than the other.

Nancy Drew jumps at the chance to create a completely new take on a classic heroine for modern audiences, acknowledging that their girl detective does and should look different than her textual counterpart. Tonally, The Hardy Boys has a lot more in common with the original Stratemeyer Syndicate catalog than its CW cousin does, with its wholesome feel, younger characters, and colorful, vaguely timeless aesthetic. But, of the two, it’s Nancy Drew that ultimately gets the spirit of its source material right.

Ad – content continues below

The Hardy Boys seems content to let the characters languish in a sort of nebulous vacuum, crafting a fairly bland family mystery that’s populated by characters who not only bear little resemblance to the classic novel versions we know but who aren’t interesting enough in their own right to make up for it. True, the show features a pair of appealing young lead actors in newcomers Rohan Campbell and Alexander Elliot, but it makes the brothers much younger than in any previous adaptation to date and needlessly widens the age gap between them in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. While this move is understandable on paper, in actuality it robs the series of its most important element: The relationship between the Hardy Boys themselves.

With Frank now sixteen and Joe just twelve, their characters no longer feel like equals, or even really like friends. In fact, young Joe has more to do with his BFF Biff – intriguingly now reimagined as a tomboyish girl – than he does with his brother. (What high schooler is naturally this eager to hang out with a twelve-year-old, after all?) Frank’s whole uber-protective vibe is sweet enough, but this isn’t the relationship that any of us remember.

To be fair, this Nancy Drew isn’t necessarily any truer to its literary roots than The Hardy Boys is. After all, Nancy has sex in the CW series, and the show fully embraces the supernatural in a way the original books never did. (In the novels that creepy noise in the attic was probably a neighbor’s cat. Here’s it’s 100% guaranteed a murderous ghost.) 

This version of her story bears little resemblance to Carolyn Keene’s novels beyond its eponymous mystery-loving heroine and a slew of self-referential Easter eggs that will make fans of the books sigh with delight. (Truly, there’s an episode whose plot turns on a literal hidden staircase.) The show acknowledges its roots by making its aged-up Nancy a former child detective prodigy in the town of Horseshoe Bay, even as it admits allowing that little girl to grow up into a young woman who regularly breaks into buildings isn’t really that cute anymore. And could have unfortunate legal ramifications.

However, despite the much-changed setting around her, it still feels as though you can draw a line from the Nancy of the novels to star Kennedy McMann’s version of the character. Her Nancy is whip-smart and plucky, but most importantly dedicated to finding the truth, no matter what, even and maybe especially when it personally costs her to do so. From its opening frames, The CW’s Nancy Drew knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be, and embraces that identity with gusto.

Fans of the original novels may or may not find that identity enjoyable, and that’s certainly more than fair, but rightly or wrongly, the show has a point of view. Hulu’s The Hardy Boys, unfortunately, seems stuck serving multiple masters and, in doing so, satisfies none.

Ad – content continues below

Its classic, old school mystery feel seems meant to appeal to families and younger viewers, but its legitimately scary moments and dark themes like death and political corruption are hardly things that parents are going to want to explain to their kids. After all, the boys aren’t just trying to solve a variety of generally low stakes cases in their small town, as they are in the novels. They’re trying to figure out who killed their own mother, and the show is vastly unprepared to really deal with how disturbing that both is and should be.

The show’s 1980s vibes and likable central squad of teens feel like a slightly less alien-filled Stranger Things, but none of our core characters are particularly compelling protagonists. (Callie Shaw is maybe the exception to this, but the show also puts her in a weird catfight with a new girl at her school, because, of course, it does.) In the end, The Hardy Boys is extremely tonally uneven, trying to balance innocence and adulthood in a way that just doesn’t work.

Is Nancy Drew perfect? Of course not. And if what you’re looking for is a faithful retelling of Keene’s original stories, you’re definitely going to be disappointed by it. But, unlike The Hardy Boys, at least this adaptation is a show that feels like it has something to say. And that makes all the difference.