I know I can’t be alone when I confess to you all that as a kid, I was Jerry Spinelli and Judy Blume trash.
I’ve come a long way in my literary journey, from being the kid who hated to read, then falling in love with Spinelli and Blume, to eventually becoming obsessed with Black and POC authors as an English literature major. In the beginning of middle school, I didn’t know much about books, but when I picked up a copy of Stargirl, I couldn’t put the book down.
It has been two decades after famous children’s author Jerry Spinelli published the novel Stargirl, and it has finally been adapted into a film of the same name on Disney+, directed by Julia Hart. Many millennials grew up reading Spinelli books and were immediately excited to see it become a film. However, like most book-to-film adaptions, some unfortunate changes were made that make this magical story a little less magical.
Arguably the most memorable and impactful scene from the book was taken out, and the tone of the story was modified. While this film did manage to capture the whimsicality and uniqueness that Stargirl had to offer in the book, it failed to capture the deeper messages that really inspired most child readers.
I will applaud the movie on doing a good job of depicting the commodification of Stargirl. Similarly to the book, the movie illustrates that Stargirl eventually becomes some kind of supernatural good luck charm, instead of a person. Her school friends, including Leo, only appreciate her quirkiness and non-traditional behavior when it fits their agendas. Stargirl’s singing performances during football games become their good luck anthems to victory. However, no one ever takes the time to learn more about who she is and why she’s so different. It seems that all personhood is taken away from her, as she is either expected to bring magical fortune or to blend in with all of the normal students. There is no room for her to be different without the pressure to fulfill the expectations of others.
The movie does stay very true to the story of Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) and Leo (Graham Verchere). Leo in many ways fetishizes Stargirl the most. He’s deliriously happy with her alternative lifestyle and imaginative ways, until he becomes afraid of being isolated by their peers. This speaks to the original ethos of the book to teach children about nonconformity and the importance of resisting peer pressure. The film successfully makes us feel sorry for Stargirl when Leo pressures her to be a “normal” teenage girl. Spinelli’s goal to critique the homogenization of identity and expression does translate to the movie.
With all that said, the central messages of pacificism, universal compassion, and choosing love over hate are definitely muddied. It all comes down to how Hillari’s (Shelby Simmons) character is drastically changed. In the novel, Hillari is one of the main antagonists who harshly rejects Stargirl’s personality and presentation. In the movie, however, she’s depicted in a different light. The film attempts to add more depth to Hillari’s resentment. Rather than almost warrantlessly bullying Stargirl, Hillari targets her based on Stargirl’s decision to inconsiderately cheer up Hillari’s brother, only to make him more miserable. Stargirl returned a bicycle that Hillari’s family sold because her little brother had hurt himself so badly that he wouldn’t be able to ride it again. So, the message was that sometimes in our attempts to be kind, we can over-insert ourselves into situations we actually don’t understand. It was interesting, but quite different from the book.
Also, Hillari is played by a Black girl in the film, which was very fascinating. Even as a child, I couldn’t imagine any of the characters in the book being anything but white. The film even makes one of Leo’s friends Black and presenting as queer. In my opinion, they’re just as unique as Stargirl. So, Stargirl’s otherness seemed a lot less impressive amongst all of the nonconventional people of color the film incorporated. I kept thinking, There isn’t that much that’s different about Stargirl.
Hillari’s identity really changed for me, as she seemed to be critiquing Stargirl’s white saviorism and her privilege of being so carefree and happy. I know what you’re thinking — wait, doesn’t this mean the film is providing a more nuanced conversation? After all, the intersections of race, class, gender, and sex don’t really play a role in the book. Yes, Stargirl in the book is a girl. She may not exactly be acting typically, but the whole thing seems like a musical theater kid got transferred to a school that randomly has no theater kids. I completely agree on that front. The deeper analysis that can be drawn from Hillari being an “emotional” Black girl with an unfortunate family situation and Stargirl being a white girl who is “magical” and fixated on “helping people” gives viewers a lot more to dissect.
But as a kid, the moment that really got my heart racing and my jaw-dropping was the famous slap scene in the book. The scene resonated with me. As many kids who have been bullied for being different can attest, it’s not easy. In the book, when Hillari slaps Stargirl across the face and Stargirl responds by kissing her on the cheek and then disappearing forever, I was feeling some type of way. The ethos and soul of the book really came together for me. Stargirl cheered for the football teams from both schools because she believed that people were more valuable than which school they represented. It was the first time I was introduced to sentiments of anti-war, universal love, and the rejection of ethnocentrism. Stargirl didn’t think that anyone was inherently better than anyone else despite their identity or beliefs. When Stargirl returned all of Hillari’s hate and scorn with love, I couldn’t believe it. Also, admittedly, as a kid, I thought it was wild that Stargirl kissed Hillari, even if it was only on the cheek.
For me, and possibly many other kids, this was as queer as any of my readings got for a long time. Even if the kiss was purely platonic, it still did something seemingly dangerous for conservative parents — it introduced kids to some pretty gay thoughts. I’m not sure if Spinelli intended that to happen, but that certainly explains Disney’s possible reasons for leaving it out.
I don’t think the slap scene could have ever worked in this adaptation of the book because they decided to make Hillari a Black girl. It would have changed and, quite frankly, ruined the reception of this film completely. Having Hillari be the recycled image of the mean and violent Black girl stereotype would have been ridiculous. So, I get why they added more backstory and took out the slap scene, but I’m still not sure what the movie writers were trying to achieve with these changes. Ultimately, for me, the changes only provided me with more to critique than celebrate. I’d say viewers could skip this film and watch High School Musical or something, as those films do the same thing, but better. Sadly, Stargirl was just another “it’s fun, but hard to be different” films with bad music. I just couldn’t feel the magic.
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Danielle Broadway is an English Literature MA student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in Black Girl Nerds, LA Weekly and Medium, is a writer for CSULB’s the Daily49er, is a managing editor for Watermark, her school’s academic literary journal and is an assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west. She’s an activist and educator that is inspired by her family to make social change both in the classroom and beyond.