Stay Tuned for Danger(ous Adaptations): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen

[Editor’s Note: All screencaps are courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]

When Her Interactive (HI) was still a division of American Laser Games in 1995, there were at least 128 titles in the main Nancy Drew book series and a handful of spin-offs, including the darker and more intense Nancy Drew Files. I can only imagine it was not an easy task for developers to choose a precise starting point and tone when adapting a single game or even a series from these books.

A lot can be said about the books and games individually, but I haven’t come across anything — apart from the occasional HI board topic or Arglefumph book review — that directly compares the books to the games upon which they are based. On the one hand, they shouldn’t have to. The Nancy Drew games must be able to stand on their own, and they definitely do. You don’t need to read the source material to understand the stories or characters because you can appreciate them as they are.

But are there instances where the game missed opportunities that the book provided? Or even moments when the game actually managed to surpass the book? It’s more complicated than an absolute yes or no, as the games are only loosely based upon the books. Generally, they are used as a blueprint in order to set up the mystery and suspects rather than as an absolute rigid guideline.

Therefore, I’m not going to cover every single book that was adapted or write an in-depth ‘book versus game’ analysis for the entire series (or, at least, not in one article). Instead, I’ve chosen select titles among the ones I’ve read that were adapted into games. Namely, the books that two of my absolute favorite games in the entire series were based: Stay Tuned for Danger (STFD) and Secret of the Scarlet Hand (SSH). [Warning: Major spoilers ahead!]

Stay Tuned for Danger — much like its predecessor, Secrets Can Kill — was an odd choice to adapt into a game for an otherwise family-friendly series. The entire premise of the story is about a soap opera star, Rick Arlen, who is the target of death threats and murder attempts. (He also has a history with most of the women on set.) In the book, during the final confrontation in which the culprit locks Nancy and another suspect up, the culprit outright says: “Your death scenes will look so lovely on videotape. A videotape for my personal viewing pleasure only!”

During the game’s climax, however, this line was changed to: “Your deaths will make a wonderful end to Act 1.” The original was probably too intense and sleazy for a game that was barely pushing its luck with that kind of violence, both on screen and implied. It could barely get away with a rating lower than E, but that just makes the game even more badass. It’s like when Disney adapted The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the one hand, you’re astounded someone even agreed to this; on the other, you can’t help but admire how many boundaries the company pushed.

Surprisingly, STFD is still faithful to the source material. A lot of the dialogue from the original — including some of the threats Rick receives — is carried over with minor edits that help it flow better. It also includes many of the same pivotal scenes, some of which are tweaked to better fit within the game. For example, in the book, the culprit plants a bomb in Rick’s dressing room right behind his mirror, which later explodes in Rick’s face (don’t worry, he survives). In the game, Nancy finds this bomb before Rick does and must defuse it herself.

The basic outline of the climax is the same in the book, too. Nancy uses an on-set fog machine to buy herself some time; when this fails, she tackles and subdues the culprit instead. In the game, Nancy has to pull a fire alarm and solve a bizarre puzzle in order to override the locked doors so that a security guard can come in and save the day. The override lock itself is a different issue entirely, but aside from this, the endgame challenge is one of — if not the — most intense and terrifying endgame sequences of any Nancy Drew game period. And I’m not even getting into the death sequence if you fail the final challenge. To this day, I still can’t see screencaps or GIFs of it since it freaked me out that much as a kid.

Most of the changes are for the better, though. Some of them are minor — like removing characters who were entertaining, yet pointless — but there are also larger changes. The book’s biggest flaw is that Nancy is barely a player in her own story. She and Bess go to New York for vacation (which we all know never stays just a vacation for someone like Nancy) where she resists getting pulled into the mystery until Rick is almost killed by a falling klieg light.

There are also only a few scenes where Nancy takes the time to actually investigate. She almost loses the case entirely, having failed to pick up on a key detail until the last possible minute. Another suspect, Lillian, ends up conducting her own investigation and gets farther than Nancy herself. She even figures out who the culprit is before our favorite sleuth!

The game fixes this by including a character named Mattie Jensen, a soap star, who asks Nancy to investigate the threats against Rick. Nancy then snoops around the studio at night, explores every nook and cranny of the set, and uncovers actual clues related to the mystery that place her much closer to finding out whodunit. Lillian’s climax-enabling phone call still crops up at the end, but by that point, it feels well-earned.

In fact, Lillian — of all characters — sees the most improvement. She’s a walking Woman Scorned trope in the book who only turns out to be a more active participant at the end, and even that much development gets undercut when she is frozen with fear throughout the whole climax (albeit understandably so).

But in the game, Lillian plays a direct role in at least one of the threats against Rick and gets to interact with Nancy far more. She even gets a better character arc! In the book, the last we see and hear of Lillian is after she faints from fright during the ending. In the game, Nancy says during the epilogue that Lillian moved to California in order to direct her first film. This implies that she’s at least going to try to get over her crush on Rick and remove herself from a toxic environment. It’s a comparatively minor detail, but one that I’m happy about since she’s my favorite character in the entire STFD cast.

And while this is a somewhat small change, STFD begins a tradition that follows in the next few games: taking a character/suspect who was a man in the book and portraying them as a woman in the game. In this case, that character is the delightfully eccentric prop master Millie Strathorn who’s given more to do in the game than her counterpart in the source material. That guy doesn’t even get a name or more than one scene.

All that said, I can’t help but regret that the game — while still among my favorites — missed quite a few golden opportunities. That’s not to say that the book was classic literature, but it goes a long way in terms of what it’s allowed to get away with. It feels like a mini-soap opera of its own in just 149 pages. There’s a romantic subplot between Bess and Rick that ends with Bess’ heart getting broken, but we never find out how this break-up affects her or what it is about Rick exactly that makes her lose all reason. In the game, you can talk to Bess over the phone after getting to meet all the suspects, but she isn’t in New York, so the Bess/Rick subplot never even happens.

This is too bad, because while the relationship could have been resolved more directly, it also raises the stakes. Nancy’s basic human decency is what motivates her to save the life of a man who hurt a lot of people to get where he is today, but it’s Bess’ involvement that thrusts her right into the crossfire, and she nearly gets killed because of it. This makes the case feel more intense and personal.

In the book, Bess helps Nancy by distracting Mattie’s agent, Dwayne Powers, while Nancy quickly rifles through his office. Had this element carried over, the game could have offered even more opportunities and challenges with Bess at Nancy’s side. Perhaps if STFD were to be remastered, Bess could be included as a potential playable character to go undercover, romance Rick, and get to the bottom of the threats. Maybe she could even be there to save Nancy at the end!

While Mattie and Rick are adequate and entertaining to interact with in the game, they are somewhat better developed in the book. In the game, Mattie is almost entirely oblivious to the fact that Rick is a jerk, and apologizes for him even when she acknowledges his less-than-stalwart actions in the past. This is meant to indicate that Mattie is still in love with Rick, and therefore, we must want Mattie and Rick to get back together! (This is despite the fact that Rick is a terrible person.)

Rick also never accepts that these dangerous incidents are actual attempts on his life, and remains firmly in la-la land. He even treats Nancy defusing a bomb in his dressing room as a joke! In the end, whether or not Mattie and Rick get back together is left open for interpretation. Their characters on the show get married, and Nancy, the eternal optimist, hopes this will “rub off on them. There’s always hope!” Why she wants them to get back together is anyone’s guess.

Even though Mattie is still apologetic of some of Rick’s flaws in the book, she’s more aware of others, and discusses them openly with Nancy. She also calls Rick out for shrugging off the attempts on his life and being needlessly snide towards Dwayne, then warns Bess not to get into a relationship with him because of his cruelty. Rick is still in la-la land for the first 60% of the book, but he changes his tune very quick after barely surviving the incident where a mirror exploded in his face. Afterward, Nancy and Bess overhear a conversation between him and Mattie where, for the first time, he reveals how terrified he actually is, and he never recovers until the culprit is finally caught.

It’s because Rick is forced to wake up and re-evaluate his life that he and Mattie not only get back together at the end of the book, but even end up engaged. On the one hand, Mattie and Rick’s characters are a bit better developed in the source material, which makes it easier to see the possibility of them getting back together. On the other hand, though, making the future of their relationship more ambiguous is actually a better move on the game’s part. Otherwise, they’re rushing back into things way too fast to be believable. But hey, if Nancy thinks there’s always hope, maybe she’s right! Since when has Nancy Drew ever been wrong?

The game adds an additional twist that you can only uncover if you pick the correct dialogue option with the culprit at the end. It turns out that Rick started this whole mess by sending the first few death threats to himself — and the culprit simply followed suit. (According to ripped audio files from the game, Nancy was originally supposed to find this out on her own.) This piece of information brings clarity to Rick’s blasé attitude and insistence not to involve the police, but even still, the strongest reaction he ever has to the whole affair is whining, “Get my agent on the phone. NOW!” after he’s almost hit with a falling klieg light. It’s the kind of reaction more appropriate for spilling coffee all over your very first signed contract — not for almost getting killed.

Speaking of agents, while Dwayne is the culprit in both the book and game, one essential part of his motivation is left hinted at in the game but never brought up in final confrontation: his unrequited love for Mattie. One of his more over-the-top lines in the game (which is also lifted almost word-for-word from the book) comes in response to Nancy asking why he hates Rick, since “Mattie and Lillian have more reason to hate him than you do.” At this, Dwayne explodes: “More reason than I? Rick Arlen has to die and I’ll tell you why. Because he killed me. He killed Dwayne Powers.” 

Dwayne does not elaborate on what he means by this in the game, but in the book, he goes on to explain how Rick managed to “kill him.” He (Dwayne) and Mattie allegedly “fell in love” while he was a struggling actor, but Rick wooed her after playing opposite Mattie in Romeo and Juliet. The tipping point came when Rick tried to lure Mattie – who by now was Dwayne’s only remaining client — away from his agency or, more specifically, “away from me.”

Dwayne is an unreliable narrator to some extent, as it’s clear from how Mattie describes him that she sees their relationship as nothing more than platonic, never hinting at anything more in the book or the game. But what’s important about Dwayne’s rant isn’t how much of what he says is true, it’s how much he believes to be true. In his mind, Mattie was his Desdemona, and Rick was the Iago to his Othello — the dastardly villain who stole everything he ever loved while fooling the rest of the world with a smile.

To be fair, the game hints at this many times:

  1. Dwayne keeps an old photograph of him and Mattie together in his wallet. It’s the exact same photograph in Mattie’s apartment, but her version shows her and Dwayne with Rick and Lillian, and the one Dwayne has is folded up so it just depicts him and Mattie.
  2. Dwayne owns a book of romantic French phrases in his office. Mattie has a love letter written in French in her dressing room, and it’s specifically addressed to her.
  3. Dwayne defends her far more than he does Rick whenever he and Nancy talk on the phone, and overall makes no attempt to hide his hatred or jealousy of Rick.

But none of this is ever touched upon in the final confrontation with Dwayne apart from one dialogue option Nancy can choose as a last attempt to appeal to what humanity Dwayne has left: “Mattie still cares for you. You’re making a big mistake.” Instead, the motive presented is that Rick ruined Dwayne’s business by walking out to find another agent, which resulted in Dwayne losing all of his clients except for Mattie. That he’s also jealous of Rick finding far more success as an actor than Dwayne ever did — despite lacking the talent to deserve his success — is also implied. But Rick “stealing” the love of Dwayne’s life and allegedly trying to lure her away from him for good would have served as an equally strong, if not stronger motive that connects more directly with the soap opera setting. After all, in the world of STFD according to Dwayne, “Real life is a soap opera.”

Overall, STFD feels too short as a game. It has all these fantastic elements — some of which are from the book, others from the developers’ imaginations — but they ultimately played it safe. This may have partially been an attempt to comply with a projected E rating, given that quite a few of the murder attempts and romantic scenes in the book were pushing their luck with the series’ soft PG-13. Or it could have been an issue with length, since the book itself is short and paced very quickly. Or it could have simply been because HI was still testing the waters in terms of content. STFD’s flaws as an adaptation are not entirely the fault of the source material or the game itself, but rather, they are an awkward stumble in trying to make a happy marriage between a good enough adaptation and a hella fun ride from beginning to end.

So with all this in mind, how does another favorite title of mine, Secret of the Scarlet Hand, compare? Stay tuned for danger(ous) opportunities explored in part two of my series!

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