The 1976 Disney movie Freaky Friday spawned a 2003 Lindsay Lohan remake, and is credited with helping to kick off the bizarre “body swap” genre that swept American movies in the 1980s: Vice Versa, Dream A Little Dream, 18 Again!, Big, Like Father Like Son. (Notice that unlike the movie that inspired them, all of the stars in these outings are male.)
What also often gets lost in the Freaky Friday canon is where these movies came from. In 1972, Mary Rodgers, daughter of composer Richard Rodgers (the genius collaborator behind Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Sound Of Music, et al. with Oscar Hammerstein), released the novel Freaky Friday, which was “young adult” before the genre had been invented. Rodgers was in her 40s at the time, the mother of five, and a composer in her own right, as the author of the musical Once Upon A Mattress, among others. Unsurprisingly, considering the field she was raised in and eventually became a part of, she went on to chair Juilliard’s board for several years, and was close friends with Stephen Sondheim. She contributed some songs to Marlo Thomas’ groundbreaking kids’ album Free To Be You And Me (including “William’s Doll”). Her son Adam Guettel wrote the Tony-winning The Light In The Piazza, based on his mother’s suggestion to adapt the 1960 novella.
But one of Rodgers’ greatest creations and legacies is one that hardly gets mentioned anymore: the novel that gave way to the Freaky Friday films (which she followed with two sequels: Billions For Boris and Summer Switch). Through Sondheim, Rodgers met children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who had edited unconventional children’s classics like Stuart Little, Where The Wild Things Are, and Harriet The Spy, leading to the development of Freaky Friday. In the New Yorker tribute article “Beyond “Freaky Friday”: An Appreciation Of Mary Rodgers,” Sarah Larson reports, “Nordstrom encouraged her to have fun with it, and she did.”
The novel Freaky Friday greatly differs from the movies. The most important variance: setting. Rodgers’ Annabel Andrews lives in Manhattan, in an apartment building. Her strict mother Ellen won’t let her walk across Central Park at night, or go to a boy-girl party in the Village. Annabel introduces herself in the book’s first pages:
I’m thirteen. I have brown hair, brown eyes, and brown fingernails. (That’s a joke—actually, I take a lot of baths.) I’m five feet; I don’t remember what I weigh but I’m watching it, although my mother says it’s ridiculous, and I’m not completely mature in my figure yet. Maybe by summer, though.
Rodgers’ witty and winning first-person narration throughout the novel is perfectly snarky, as befits a 13-year-old New Yorker. Many of the main character’s traits carry across the Annabels (Anna in the Lohan version): She’s bright, sarcastic, sloppy, hates her perfect little brother, and is sick of her un-fun mother pushing her around. They fight over typical mother-daughter domestic battles, like the cleanliness of Annabel’s room:
Her idea of neat isn’t the same as mine, and besides, it’s my room, and I don’t see why I can’t keep it any way I want. She says it’s so messy that no one can clean in there, but if that’s true, how come it looks all right when I come home from school? When I asked her that last night, she just sighed.
The recounting of the fight climaxes in both the book and the 1976 Jodie Foster version when Annabel yells at her mother: “Listen! You are not letting me have any fun and I’m sick of it!” then speculates about what an easy life her mother must have. In the book, her mother storms off, leaving a premonition/warning hanging in the air; in the movie, this leads to the body swap:
With Annabel as our only narrator in the book, we get some other major differences from the screen. We learn a lot of what is going on in Annabel’s head as it wakes up in a different body (no freaky earthquake-like tremors or split screens here). Initially, Annabel has no idea why this happened, and muses over any number of possible candidates who would have wanted to switch bodies with her, or where her mother’s mind might be (“Or is Willa Cather dead? Yeah, I think she’s dead.”) Eventually, based on her most recent fight with her mother, she realizes that Ellen must be the culprit:
I was a little surprised, of course, but mostly I thought it was fantastically considerate of her. And imaginative. Instead of punishing me for rudeness, or crying phony tears like some mothers I know, she was just going to let me find out for myself. I could hardly wait.
But unlike in the movies, since in the book we’re only reading about Annabel’s perspective, we never really find out how Ellen’s freaky Friday went. In fact, due to her mother’s excellent impersonation of herself, Annabel isn’t even sure that her mother is in her/Annabel’s body, as she goes into Annabel’s room:
Whoever-it-was sat up in a hurry, and stared at me with its mouth wide open. It had not swallowed what was in its mouth. A marshmallow. Since I have never in my life seen my mother eating a marshmallow, I began to have a sneaking hunch that this was not my mother.
We eventually learn that Ellen got Annabel’s braces taken off, and her hair done, and bought some new clothes, changing her appearance so much that Annabel’s crush/neighbor Boris doesn’t even recognize her, calling her a “beautiful chick.” But this superficial maintenance is the extent of what we learn about Ellen’s day as Annabel.
It’s an area that the movies bring us that the book does not. Both Foster and Lohan ably depict a middle-aged woman in a young teenager’s body, calling their friends “dear” and unable to resist the urge to show off their adult knowledge in class. But while the book definitively shows that Ellen’s daily life is not as rosy as Annabel imagines, Ellen taking over Annabel’s life for a day proves just as difficult. Annabel’s friends scoff, “I’d like to see my mother just try it; she couldn’t last a day!” For Ellen, Annabel’s day is filled with no shortage of perils, like electric typewriters, photography class, band practice, a field hockey game, and an improbable water-skiing finale. In the 2003 version, Anna’s mother Tess has similar trouble, as she realizes why Anna and her childhood BFF had a falling out, and that Anna isn’t exaggerating the academic torture she receives at the hands of her English teacher.
Barbara Harris (1976’s Ellen) and Jamie Lee Curtis (2003’s Tess) both gamely dive into their roles as teenagers in adults’ bodies; for example, any time one of them sits down, it’s likely to be cross-legged or knees-up. Harris’ Ellen immediately rocks out to music and starts blowing bubbles; her ’70s up-do gets gradually more bedraggled by the end of the day, until she’s as untidy as Annabel. Anna in Tess’ body shops for some new, hip clothes for her mother. Unlike Ellen, Tess is not a housewife but a widowed published psychotherapist, so during the day Anna has to see one of Tess’ regular patients and tackle a promotional TV appearance, as well as deal with Tess’ upcoming wedding plans. She loses the caterer but wins over the TV audience with unbridled teenage enthusiasm.
Any possible disturbing Electra element to Freaky Friday gets ably sidestepped: In the book, Annabel fortunately creeps out of bed before her father wakes up, and dad John Astin is never anything but friendly (if demanding) to his wife in the 1976 version. For 2003, the climax of the movie is not at an aquacade, whatever that is, but the wedding of Tess and Ryan (Mark Harmon), who at least Anna is not related to. She swats away his prenuptial kisses by pleading a cold sore.
It wouldn’t be a 1970s Disney movie without a crazy denouement, and here Freaky Friday does not disappoint, with a car chase the Blues Brothers would probably find entertaining, as well as a stunt double providing no shortage of water-ski hijinks.
In 2003, these antics have fortunately been limited to Anna’s rock band, and she slyly fills in for her mother by playing her guitar solo behind the scenes.
In all three versions, an unlikely romance pops up between the daughter’s crush and the daughter in the mother’s body. Boris flat-out falls for Mrs. Andrews, not realizing she’s actually Annabel. Chad Michael Murray adds some grunge cool to the Lohan version as Jake, who decides that Tess-in-Anna’s-body is too young for him, but the real Anna is just right.
Rodgers contributed a lot of her original dialogue to the 1976 screenplay, and although the lead actresses do their able best to carry the lines across, they lose some of their bite off of the page. The generic suburban California setting didn’t help at all; Annabel seems right at home as a cheeky young New Yorker, but she’s much tamer in an immaculate subdivision. The 2003 screenplay varied almost unrecognizably from the source material except for the set up, and here Anna suffers from the same schematic problem as a typical suburban kid.
Another element the two cinematic versions lack: In the book, it’s clear that Ellen is the one doing the switching. It’s a unspoken nod to the greatness and tenacity of mothers, that they have hidden powers that can accomplish amazing things like switching bodies. Original movie Annabel and Ellen just happen to say the same words at the same time; 2003’s Tess and Anna have to bring in a mystical fortune cookie from a Chinese restaurant to pull off their switch.
In the end, they both have to reach the ultimate self-sacrifice to get their own bodies back: Tess lets Anna go off to her band audition during her rehearsal dinner; Anna is willing to go through with the wedding to Ryan because not doing so will break her mother’s heart. 1976 movie Annabel and Ellen just repeat the same words simultaneously again.
All three versions end in the same beneficial way: a deeper understanding and love on the side of both mother and daughter (why no other version of the story thought to have females as leads is still a bit of a head-scratcher: Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, all switched fathers and sons). But having lived in each other’s skin, Annabel and Ellen, Tess and Anna, all have greater knowledge of what the other goes through in a given day.
The teen years are a notoriously torrential time of communication breakdown between kids and parents. Rodgers’ creation of Freaky Friday goes to an extreme level to get those parties talking again (we can only wonder if it was inspired by one of her own teenage children, or her own childhood), but in the end it shows no better way of empathizing with the other person’s life. Placement tests, field-hockey matches, carpet cleaners, surly housekeepers, childhood bullies, unrequited love: No one’s life is ever really easy, for teens or grownups. Everyone you meet is going through struggles you can’t comprehend, even/especially members of your own family. Freaky Friday shows that despite these vast generational differences and struggles, the love between mothers and daughters remains a valuable, mystical constant.
Start with: The book absolutely deserves a resurgence, as Rodgers’ breathtaking, biting dialogue still resonates decades later: An excellent read for anyone age 10 and up who has parents. But the movies both hold up relatively well, primary due to the strength of all four actors juggling these parts (Lohan really had a promising career before she went off the rails). The Freaky Friday movies now make for a perfect family group watch, to remind parents and kids that the other generation’s life is not as easy as it seems.