In 1970, as the Vietnam War raged, inflation soared and Hamburger Helper, Earth Day and the floppy disk hit the scene, Judy Blume published her seminal book “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Another event that year: My mother, a 16-year-old bride and traveling gospel guitarist, discovered she was pregnant with her first child. Twelve years later, Blume’s book and its main character, 11-year-old Margaret Simon, would reverberate in my life like electric strings under my mother’s double-jointed fingers. During a stop at our local newsstand in 1982, she picked up Blume’s book, read the back cover and added it to her fresh stack of Harlequin romance novels waiting on the counter. I can’t recall my response when she handed it to me that day, but in a text exchange the other night, she told me that I “hogged” the book. “It was hands off!” she said.
At 11, I was captivated by Margaret Simon’s voice. Who was this strangely familiar girl who had internal conversations with God, even as a part of her wondered whether there really was some all-knowing being up there? Who was this girl who was obsessed with getting her period and growing boobs? How had Blume crawled inside my head and pressed my innermost thoughts and feelings onto these pages I held between eager fingers? I’d place the book face-down on my grandmother’s quilt spread out under the floppy leaves of our fig trees and search God’s face in the clouds, stopping every so often to jot down thoughts in my little grass-green diary with its gold lock and key. How was Margaret Simon, a Jewish girl uprooted from her apartment in the middle of New York City to live in the New Jersey suburbs, so much like me — a Black girl growing up in a deeply religious family in a small Louisiana town?
By writing a book that, as Blume has said, most reflected her internal self, she unlocked a door that was universal and timeless, linking Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and, now, Gen Z, thanks to the film adaption of “Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret.” Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, it’s a Gracie Films production presented by Lionsgate. On opening weekend, it had to compete with “The Super Mario Bros” (video game adaptation vs. book adaptation), and ticket sales were not as grand as projected. Still, I believe this pitch-perfect film will follow in the steps of its origin story’s longevity. I’ve already watched it twice, interviewed some of the artists, re-read the book and viewed the equally absorbing documentary “Judy Blume Forever,” streaming on Amazon Prime. Each experience dredged up memories, laughter, tears and also this: a yearning for a time when it seemed the most dangerous thing about being a kid in this country was feeling terribly awkward or being a “late bloomer.”
Cultural significance and staying power
But while it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the ‘70s and ‘80s, that period, too, was rife with political, economic and social upheaval, and Blume’s novels, stories that center puberty, sex, bullying, divorce, family dysfunction, are among some of the most banned books in the world.
A few days ago, I jumped on a Zoom call with my writing workshop — a group of five authors (four GenX and one Millennial) — and one of the women was dabbing at her eyes, still tender and moist. “Oh my God, I just got back from watching ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ and I am a complete mess,” C.W. said. To be clear, the “mess” one feels when experiencing the Margaret movie is a good mess, one rooted in nostalgia and wistfulness — as both former child and parent.
We were the only two in our group who had seen the film at the time, but our pre-workshop conversation was an excited ping-pong discussion about how parents everywhere back then used Blume’s stories to broach “uncomfortable” topics with their children — and how, looking back, we realized Blume’s influence on our early pull toward writing (“I’m going to be a writer,” I told my mom at that magical age: 11).
C.W. had re-read the book with her tween daughter first and was hoping like hell the film held up. Like me — like countless viewers and film critics — she was deeply relieved as she sat in the dark theater and watched Margaret walk right off the pages of the book and onto the screen. The transformation comes through 15-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson, a relative newcomer who has been wanting to act since she was 4, scurrying to auditions with her actor parents, John Fortson and Christie Lynn Smith. Fortson becomes Margaret in that crystal-pure way of cinema at its best — when the lines between actor and character dissolve.
“That’s exactly how we felt when she walked through the door to audition,” Fremon Craig said. “It was, like, ‘There she is.’ I think she acts in a way where there’s such a delicate subtlety in her expressions. It’s all in the face and in the eyes, and so much comes through. She makes me laugh and she also breaks my heart. She has so much talent.”
Other standout acting comes from the indomitable Kathy Bates, who plays Margaret’s paternal grandmother, Sylvia, and Rachel McAdams, who plays her mom, Barbara.
To adapt or not to adapt?
When it comes to page-to-screen adaptations, Blume has been fiercely protective of her novels for decades and kept her beloved Margaret book especially close to the chest. But a half-century after its publication ended up being the right time to say yes to Hollywood. Now, she told Good Morning America, “I may be one of the only authors who says, ‘This movie is better than the book.’”
In a recent Zoom interview with Fremon Craig (who also wrote and directed “The Edge of Seventeen”), she was still gushing over Blume’s assessment. “I think it’s the best compliment I’ve ever received in life,” she said. “I’m so happy she’s happy. That was my number one goal — just make Judy proud, do right by her, so I’m so thrilled that she feels that way.”
Fremon Craig, a former English major from Whittier, said she was looking for a new project to sink her hands into when she thought to turn back to her first love: books. “I was thinking about the authors who I loved the most and whose work I might want to adapt, and the first person that I thought of was Judy Blume, and so I started to reread her work, and when I got to “Margaret,” I just was, like, ‘This has to be made into a film. It has to be made.’”
And so, Fremon Craig (who also first read the book when she was 11 — 10 years after I did) wrote Blume a letter about why she wanted to adapt her book and how she would do it (stressing how her mentor, Academy Award winner James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) would work alongside her in adapting the book.
The urgency Fremon Craig felt was rooted in childhood memories — and her present-day reality of parenting. She is the mother of a 9-year-old son, and she decided to read Blume’s book to her son prior to the movie’s release date. One night, he turned to her and said: “So you made a whole movie about boobs? How many people are gonna see this?”
“So, he’s learned a lot and he’s had a lot of questions, but I like that he’s this young, and that [topics such as puberty] are not going to be weird or embarrassing for him,” she said. “He’s just going to know what the deal is.”
Storytellers are often drawn to one or two themes that refract like light through a prism into different tales. For Fremon Craig, that lens is the adolescent perspective. “I’ve made two coming-of-age films back-to-back, and I’m asking myself, ‘What’s the deal? Why am I so drawn to this?’ I think it’s because there is something about that time of life where everything is so heightened — it all feels like life and death.
“It’s a time where there’s a lot of internal emotional searching going on and a lot of insecurities, and in many ways, I feel like I’m kind of on a coming-of-age loop over and over and over again, so, you know, it doesn’t go away,” she said. “You find it happens again and again throughout your life every time you have to do something new that’s a little uncomfortable.”
Blume, who says in “Judy Blume Forever” that she is still very much a kid, would likely agree. After Blume said yes to the adaptation, Fremon Craig and Brooks flew out to Key West to consult with Blume about the script. Fremon Craig was immediately enchanted, caught up in Blume’s world. “She picked us up from the airport, which I couldn’t believe,” she said. “We got into her Mini Cooper, and I was sandwiched in the back seat with her and her husband was driving. I was, like, ‘This is so surreal. This is so wild.’”
Blume served as a consultant and producer for the adaptation, stopping a scene at one point to show the young actresses the proper way to do the famous “We must increase our bust” exercise. “I wanted her feedback and notes and ideas, and she was there on set,” Fremon Craig said.
Fortson remembers the bust-exercise-correction day. “She visited set a couple of times, and it was super-duper fun to get to meet her,” she said. “We were doing the bust exercise incorrectly because we thought that you kind of clasped your hands together and you kind of squeezed it. But actually, you’re kind of just moving your arms back and forth and working those shoulder blades.”
The power of intergenerational stories
While “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” highlights preteens’ angst about their changing bodies, early romantic interests and religious tension, one of its most endearing storylines captures the relationship between Margaret and her grandmother Sylvia. I’m a sucker for grandmother-granddaughter stories.
Bates brings Sylvia, who is hilarious, melodramatic and lovable, alive as only she can. But she had not read Blume’s book until she was cast as Sylvia. “In the 70s, I was protesting Vietnam and not doing this, but my niece came up during that time and loved the book,” Bates told me one afternoon while standing in the courtyard at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills during a media preview event. I was surprised to hear the seasoned actress express a bit of doubt about her work.
“My niece loved this book so much that I was nervous about bringing her to the screening,” Bates said. “I was so nervous about what she was going to say, but she loved it.
“One of my favorite experiences working on the film was, of course, with Abby,” she said. “She’s just phenomenal, just phenomenal. I loved her to pieces.”
For Fortson, the feeling was mutual. “It was amazing to work with [Bates]. She’s such an icon and such an incredible actress. We actually built our relationship before we even met each other at all. We started doing this improv thing where we would write letters back-and-forth as our characters — all this backstory that they could share during our scenes. She’s so kind. She’s so welcoming and so supportive, and it was really great having her as my screen grandma.”
After reading “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” for the first time, Fortson said, “I remember turning to my parents and saying, ‘How did someone write down this experience? This is the experience. How did Judy Bloom write this down?’ It was so beautiful and so honest. And I just feel so lucky that Judy was able to share her story and speak up and share something that meant so much to all of us.”
Same, Abby. Same.
Cassandra Lane is editor in chief of L.A. Parent and author of “We Are Bridges: A Memoir.”