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How Judy Blume's Movie Adaptation Honors 50 Years of Fans.
Exploring the enduring impact of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret along with its 2023 movie adaptation.
When I was a child in the 80s, we had a giant bookshelf in our basement. On it, along with a box of my mother’s 45s, was an eclectic collection of my parents’ old books that they’d taken with them from their own parents’ homes and into the one that they created together. My mom, especially, had a bunch of paperback novels, some she’d had to read in high school, others bought at yard sales. Two stuck out to me in particular: Deannie and Tiger Eyes. They were both written by an author whose name I’d never heard of: Judy Blume. I didn’t read them because they were relics from my mother’s teenage life; they simply felt too advanced for me. Plus, they seemed to deal with young adult issues, and I wanted to stay a kid for as long as I could.
Cut to the fourth grade: my teacher would dedicate a few minutes at the end of each day to read us a chapter book. She’d picked Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, a hilarious novel about a boy named Peter and his mischief-making little brother, Fudge. As an older sibling with a younger brother, I could relate to Peter’s plight: little brothers get away with everything because they’re cute and funny. It never occurred to me that this book would have anything to do with the too-old-for-me books in my basement at home, but they indeed all had the same author: Judy Blume, who, starting in 1969, published books both for children and for teens/young adults. Blume, now 85, is a world famous, prolific author. While many authors stick to one audience, she has published childrens’, YA, and novels for adults. And by the late 80s, she’d already written almost twenty. The “Fudge” series was so funny, and so relatable: I was a fan of Judy Blume’s from the fourth grade on.
Discovering a classic
A year or so after the “Fudge” series got me hooked, I remember becoming aware of Blume’s 1970 YA novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The girls in my class and I had started hearing concerning stories about puberty, and how it was going to happen to us, whether we wanted it to or not. I probably got my hands on a copy through the library where only a librarian would know what I was checking out. It felt illicit in some way, and reading it was a significant rite of passage. Not just for me, I’d learn, but for the generation before and after mine too. It was the book girls whispered about for its discussions of menstruation, buying bras, and first kisses, and it was the book cool moms gave to their preteen daughters. I remember the experience of reading that book in a visceral way. It was so honest about girlhood, family, and religion, and also… quite dated. It was highly relatable, yes, but also entertaining in its portrayal of what it was like to hit puberty in a bygone era, and I spent a lot of time wondering about what a sanitary belt was. But its discussions about uncomfortable topics made the imminent future a bit less scary: Margaret may have been wondering if God was there, listening to her worries, but we for sure had Judy Blume–and she was listening, and talking, to us.
A coming of age story that broke barriers
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a classic fish out of water story: 11-year old Margaret moves with her parents from New York City to a suburb in New Jersey. Her mom is Christian and her father is Jewish, leaving Margaret languishing somewhere in the middle questioning her own religious beliefs, which in and of itself is a pretty heavy topic in a book for pre-teens. (Before you ask: yes, it was banned, often ending up on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books.) Margaret is also desperate to fit into her new town, her new school, and her new friends. Her first crush is confusing, and she’s desperate for her child body to start developing into a womanly one as her friends reach pubescent milestones before she does. She often prays, starting each prayer with, “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret…” Few books cut right to the heart of the grossness of growing up, but this one has been a classic for over fifty years for a reason: it’s simply really hard to talk about these things, so turning to a novel (or a film), is a great option.
The book, as well as many of Blume’s others, were often met with opposition from parents and leaders for being provocative (if the act of growing up can be such a thing), but Blume has said that she would get about 2000 letters a month from young people who were moved by her stories. In 2021, Time Magazine called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret one of the best YA books of all time and its fans range in age from teens to women in their sixties. It still sells between 25,000 and 50,000 copies a year. And in April 2023, it finally gets a film adaptation—fifty-three years after the original publication.
When I saw the trailer for the movie, what made me the most excited was that the filmmakers chose to set the story in the 1970s, which is the same as the one in the book. I’m delighted to see the story on screen as I read it, as the women before and after me read it, without modern day trappings. Also thrilling: the adaptation is directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, who directed The Edge of Seventeen, another recent film that truly cut to the heart of navigating adolescent friendships and relationships. Craig had the same experience I did when she heard about the book at age eleven, which fills me with hope that her film will conjure all the feelings I did while reading it thirty years ago. The movie stars Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, and Kathy Bates.
A watch party that spans generations
While many stories, like Gilmore Girls or Star Wars, have intergenerational appeal, there’s something to be said about a film adaptation of a book that has been wildly popular for five decades. Millions of people, mostly women, have read this book, and there’s a good chance their mothers, or aunts, or grandmothers, or daughters, or nieces, or granddaughters have also read it. While the book is set in the 1970s (and Blume did have the sanitary belt part updated for more modern printings), there’s something so comforting about a story that is deeply felt by several generations of audiences, and is relatively unchanged from the original publication in its discussions of identity, religion, friendship, family dynamics, and puberty. The movie, highly anticipated both because Blume refused movie rights for years, and because the book is just so popular, is the perfect candidate for an intergenerational watch party.
One of the film posters speaks to its innate intergenerational appeal. It’s reflected in the casting itself: women who read the book in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e., me) will love the casting of Rachel McAdams as Margaret’s mom (our hero from Mean Girls to The Notebook), and women who read the book closer to its original release date will likely love the casting of Kathy Bates (though she’ll always be the “unsinkable Molly Brown” to me). And the youngest audiences attending will no doubt love to see another familiar face on screen: that of 15-year old Abby Ryder Fortsen who plays young Margaret (she played Paul Rudd’s daughter in Marvel’s Ant Man film series.)
My watch party will consist of me and a few friends who read the book around the same age I did. Even though we didn’t know each other at the time, we’ve bonded over our love of the author that spoke to us as young adults, and well into adulthood. Today, Judy Blume owns a bookstore in Key West (the dream!) and a documentary about her work and her career-long battle with censorship, Judy Blume Forever, premiers on Amazon Prime just a few days ahead of the theatrical release of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Judy Blume is certainly having a moment, but most of my female friends and I could argue that her work has always been prevalent in our lives. Since the day I flipped through the dusty pages of my mom’s copies of Deannie and Tiger Eyes, to the movie theater ticket I’ll be buying in a couple of weeks, it’s difficult to name another author whose work feels so personal to me, but millions of others at the same time.
Are you a fan of Judy Blume? Will you be going to see Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? You can find other fans of the author and the film on our Discord. Start a book club, schedule a watch of the upcoming documentary, Judy Blume Forever, or chat about the movie if you go see it in theaters! At Remarkist, you’ll always find other fans who want to chat about the things you love.
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