Secret of the Scarlet Hand(y Changes): ‘Nancy Drew’ From Page to Screen

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

Last time, I discussed how the adaptation of Stay Tuned for Danger (STFD) was a mixed bag. Most changes were made for the better, but the game could have lived up to and beyond its potential if it were willing to take more risks or otherwise to seize upon missed opportunities from the source material. Secret of the Scarlet Hand (SSH), however, goes in the opposite direction. It takes missed opportunities from the original book, expands upon them, and creates a far more engaging experience. It’s easily one of the strongest titles in the entire game series.

As a book, SSH isn’t really one of the better ones. It has many tedious red herrings that are only tangentially connected to the main mystery, which could have easily been cut or condensed. For example, Nancy goes to a secret society meeting where a suspect is in attendance, temporarily ends up in peril, and is quickly saved by yet another suspect (Alejandro del Rio). In the end, this secret society turns out to have almost nothing to do with the actual mystery — apart from amounting to bored, rich white people appropriating Mayan customs for their own personal amusement.

While that event is somewhat important because it helps Nancy discover that Alejandro isn’t the bad guy, it could have been removed and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Even when the culprit makes a half-hearted attempt on Nancy’s life at that meeting, the threat could have been replaced by anything else.

The game does away with this entirely. Instead, almost everything you learn about is directly connected to the events at the museum in one way or another. Every clue that points to any of the suspects — even ones who are not the culprit — is still relevant and tied in with the mystery and its resolution. You get the chance to learn more about another series of thefts related to the current one, and slowly unravel the deep and tangled web behind the stolen Pacal carving and its history. The game also takes this one step further by setting up two background characters who make recurring appearances over the course of the series: Prudence Rutherford and Sonny Joon.

One thing the SSH book has over the STFD book is that Nancy is a much more active character in the story. She uncovers clues through her own ingenuity and investigation — not simply by witnessing a series of incidents and connecting them together. But apart from that, it felt like the author assigned to this book followed a pre-written formula too strictly and didn’t seem overly concerned about spicing up the writing in order to make Nancy, her friends, and the suspects a bit more engaging.

In the book, Nancy comes across the mystery while on vacation (tale as old as time), and that only happens after the theft has already occurred right under the museum director’s nose. Despite the fact that Nancy commits to the mystery from beginning to end, she’s gradually pulled away from the museum itself. In the game, Nancy starts off as an intern there, the theft occurs while she’s at work, then most of the game spirals to its conclusion. This ties Nancy more directly and intimately to the mystery itself, giving the player actual tasks to do instead of just wandering around until the next if_flag is tripped. (Well, okay, it still does that too, but you’re at least given things to do until that flag is tripped.)

One of the game’s biggest improvements is how it handled one of the suspects: Henrik van der Hune. Henrik’s book counterpart exists to serve as a suspicious red herring, then get conked over the head only to wake up with amnesia and be put out of commission for the rest of the book. By the time he is ready to talk with Nancy, he relays facts to her that she already figured out on her own, offering only one new detail. Henrik could have been cut out of the book entirely had his role been replaced by any of the other suspects. It wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference.

In the game, Henrik also loses his memory after the Pacal theft, but in a more ambiguous way. He falls down a flight of stairs in a suspicious “accident,” though it’s never confirmed if he was actually pushed. This makes the culprit look smarter, because in the book, they push a statue right on top of Henrik, which makes it more obvious that this wasn’t an accident. While Nancy doesn’t get the chance to find out what, precisely, happened (unlike in the book), focusing on the accident itself is not important. It’s the events leading up to it — and its aftermath — that are far more crucial to the story.

Henrik remains in the hospital for the rest of the game until the climax, but he’s also given a much bigger role to play. He helps Nancy solve the mystery and reveals that he knows more about the thefts than he first let on. Henrik stole the Pacal carving and hid it in the museum after finding out about a series of similar thefts involving jade carvings. Knowing the museum’s Pacal carving would be next, he decided to beat the culprit to the punch by using their own motif to send out a signal: “I’m on your trail.”

Despite what he’s done, Henrik genuinely cares about preserving Mayan art, and he’s the only person associated with the museum whom Alejandro likes. He shows genuine respect for Mayan culture, rather than viewing it as a shallow trend to cash in on by using dubious methods in order to acquire more artifacts. One of the diary entries on his Zip disk indicates that he’s struggled with whether or not to go after the carving himself. He acknowledges this as a moral dilemma and asks himself, “Can I argue that the end justifies the means?”

In fact, all of the suspects in the game are a little bit more complex: they do or have done slightly questionable deeds or not-so-nice things, but are portrayed as genuinely well-intentioned or irresponsible rather than outright evil. The culprit, Taylor Sinclair, may be the exception to this, but even then, he’s still one of the more underrated culprits of the series. He creeps out a lot of players, but he also presents himself as a friendly ally to Nancy, and doesn’t reveal how cold-blooded he is until the very end. Although it isn’t explicitly spelled out, it’s likely that Sinclair was warning Nancy about the thefts he committed in an attempt to throw suspicion on the other suspects, set them up to take the fall for his crimes, and ruin their lives while he got to walk away scot-free. That’s some cold-blooded shit right there, and that’s not even getting into what he does to Nancy at the end of the game.

The game also continues the time-honored tradition of gender-swapping men from the books. Namely, John Riggs becomes Joanna Riggs! John Riggs is an archaeologist at a different museum, whereas the museum director of Beech Hill is a woman named Susan Caldwell. In the game, the two characters are consolidated into Joanna Riggs. 

Lastly, one of the game’s biggest and best departures from the book is the ending — partly because it feels more thematically appropriate, but partly because the book’s ending is now awkwardly inappropriate. Why, exactly? Because the book was written and published pre-9/11. In the book, Nancy catches up with the culprit, Taylor Sinclair, at the airport. She does this by dashing through the airport terminal, waltzing through a remarkably short security check where there is no line, passing quickly through security scanners past the almost non-existent airport security (apart from a sole security scanner) — all without purchasing a ticket.

Then, Nancy demands to search his luggage, which is allowed despite the fact that she has no authority to do so. When she doesn’t find any evidence, Sinclair is not subject to a pat-down and almost gets on the plane, but then Nancy realizes at the last second that he might be hiding the carving in his cowboy shoes (which he hasn’t been required to take off to pass through security). After Nancy announces this out loud, Sinclair takes off, and Nancy chases him through the airport terminal, runs up the stairs, and tackles him to the ground. She does not get tasered by the non-existent airport security, does not get arrested, does not get the entire airline shut down, and she’s still allowed to travel after the whole affair.

Like I said: written and published pre-9/11. The game, however, was not, so the ending was changed to something less awkward and tacky in hindsight. In the game, the climax takes place at the museum right at the center of the entire exhibit: the monolith. After Nancy successfully put together an ancient cube-key to open it, Sinclair comes along, pushes Nancy inside, steals the ancient writings he was after, and locks Nancy up in the monolith to suffocate. She then has to find a series of small items within the confined space she’s trapped in to get out and save herself. Upon escaping the monolith, Nancy is greeted by the remainder of the cast reciting what appears to be an improvisational poem congratulating her on solving the mystery.

It’s one of the series’ more bizarre endings, but outside of the poem, it’s a huge improvement over the original. It sticks to the setting and theme of the plot, is genuinely terrifying and tense to work through, and doesn’t feel so awkward in hindsight. Except for that poem. Like, seriously — you couldn’t bother trying to open up the monolith and save Nancy? Improvisation beat was more important? SQUAD GOALS. That said, however, if you’ve played this game and you ship Alejandro/Nancy, I cannot recommend the book enough. You won’t be disappointed!

Overall, comparing the Nancy Drew games to the books is like comparing Disney films to their original source material. Each one is good in its own right, but in very different ways. If you try to measure the adaptation by its virtue as an adaptation, you’ll be driven up the wall. At the same time, however, it is still a fascinating look into how the culture surrounding each work influenced it, and how that may have also influenced the adaptation in the present day. The ending of SSH the book could not be written today, but the ending to STFD — book and game — would be considered a bit too frightening and intense for later installments in the series.

In these two particular cases, I’d argue that SSH the game is still superior to the book overall. And while STFD the game benefited from taking just enough liberties, it could have been even better if it were willing to step up and either be a more risky adaptation, or take what was there in the book and work it more directly into the gameplay. That said, this isn’t necessarily the end of my book versus game analysis overall. There are still plenty of books for the game series to choose from later on, and plenty of books turned into games to go over.

And, of course, plenty of men to apply rule!63 to.

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