Judy Blume's cinematic appeal

Judy Blume's cinematic appeal

Summer is Judy Blume's season: a time to re-visit the beloved author's novels, but also to finally celebrate how good they feel on the big screen. Ally Johnson writes on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and why it's took us so long to get here.

Judy Blume’s stories don’t present themselves as inherently cinematic. But as evidenced in the tremendous Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, adapting the 1970 novel of the same name, Blume’s work offers timeless storytelling capabilities. 

Classic without being coming off as a social relic, the commentary and observations are as astute now as they were when they were first published – their radical nature in hindsight all the more highlighted. It’s one thing to tell a story about girlhood including menstruation, masturbation, sexuality, birth control, and more set in the 1970s. It’s another thing to write about said subjects while living in that era. 

Blume’s impassioned focus on the interior lives of young girls offer such rich landscapes for films to explore. While girlhood is the main fixture of many of her novels, they expand and allow for stories that build around the central figure, creating all-consuming tales of the power of grief, family, and the influence of community. 

Despite the notoriety of the title, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret the film, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, isn’t the first official feature film adaptation of one of Blume's works — Tiger Eyes, based on the 1981 book, was directed by the author’s son Lawrence Blume and released in 2013. The film stars Willa Holland as Davey, a teenager who recently suffered the loss of her father after he was murdered in their family shop in New Jersey. Having moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico to live with family at the bequest of her grieving mother, Davey is forced into a new, unfamiliar life, with overstepping relatives who fail to give her the space she needs. She meets Wolf, a young Native American man, and the two engage in a relationship that emboldens Davey in facing old wounds while looking ahead to the future. 

Tiger Eyes is one of the more adult novels in Blume’s bibliography. The film never quite manages to sink its teeth into the all-consuming, grief-fuelled rage the protagonist is shouldering. It results in a homage to the book, rather than an adaptation breathing new life into the timeless tale. The story itself is extraordinary, with an undercurrent that permeates so much of Blume’s work. Coming-of-age stories aren’t all about developing romances, or the give-and-take of school popularity statuses. Instead, her writing finds that to come of age sometimes means to look at those who’ve raised you and recognise their flaws, but also their humanity. 

Davey’s mother is on her own journey of self-discovery as she processes the senseless loss of her husband. Despite her utterly human reaction to his death, pushing her out of her home and into the shelter of familial familiarity, her decision wears her daughter thin as she navigates a new life dictated by those of others—be it the hands of her father’s killer or the grief that guides her mother. Davey is only able to follow. The story captures that powerlessness so quick to enrage us, teenagers in particular, as we become stuck in the unfairness of it all, unable to see the “why's” that led us here.

It’s what makes Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret such an extraordinary adaptation. The film hones in on the authenticity of what it means to be a pre-teen girl who, despite inherent goodness, is challenged by social pressures and must ward off her own insecurities to extend empathy to others. While she is never written as wise beyond her years or precocious, Margaret is perceptive, as so many young people are. She begins to see and understand her mum’s hurt, just a little bit. Rachel McAdams’s expressive face and poise allow for her character's vulnerabilities to shine beyond the parental mask, and through it, Margaret sees a fuller picture of the woman who raised her, also once a child who looked to her parents too for guidance. 

The recent release as well as the 10-year anniversary of the Tiger Eyes onscreen debut makes the lack of Blume adaptations all the more peculiar. Even with Tiger Eyes’s imperfections, it still stands tall when dealing in the vast world of grief, and growth, born from one of the author's most challenging stories.

The 1973 novel Deenie and 1974’s Blubber produce similar coming-of-age stories, exploring the dichotomy of social ecosystems and the teenage revelations of parents being human. While Margaret ends on a positive note between daughter and mother, Deenie depicts a much more passive yet hostile relationship, where the mother in question looks to mould her daughters into versions of herself she could never be. Blubber, meanwhile, is primarily focused on a character's shifting friend group and the power hierarchy of schools which will always find a way to zero in on the marginalised, the outcasts, or simply the ones who stick out, and render them as small and voiceless as possible. The protagonist’s position in the ranking shifts through the book, and her lessons are learned with the pained understanding that sometimes growing up is about adapting. 

Perhaps the delay could in part be due to Blume’s own protective nature over the material. But you only have to look at the history of Hollywood to find a general disinterest in stories about teenage girls. Blume’s stories are enriched with the textures of growing up, and the suffering and ecstasy that comes from discovering friendships and interests that make you feel seen—compared to how often teenagers wish they could slip through the cracks in the floor instead. In Tiger Eyes and now Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, we’re given the chance to see these childhood favourites in a new light. In their steadfast ability to capture the essence of what it means to grow up in a world forever shifting and rumbling beneath our feet, Judy Blume’s works transcend time. 

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