How Judy Blume’s ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ finally made it to the big screen

"The feelings, the emotions, the complicated messiness of that age is just exactly the same, so it wasn’t a stretch for them to become these characters."

 FROM LEFT, Kathy Bates, Judy Blume, Kelly Fremon Craig, Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. (photo credit: DANA HAWLEY/LIONSGATE)
FROM LEFT, Kathy Bates, Judy Blume, Kelly Fremon Craig, Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams.

When I tried to explain to Kelly Fremon Craig, the director of the movie, Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, an adaptation of the classic children’s book by Judy Blume, which opens throughout US theaters on April 28, what that book meant to me when I was growing up, I struggled for words and finally told her, “When I was a kid, we didn’t have the Internet. We had Judy Blume.”

Craig, who directed the quirky comedy Edge of Seventeen, laughed in recognition. “That’s exactly right, that was where you went to find out about everything. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was really passed around our school like a bible and you had to read it.”

The movie is funny and moving as it affectionately portrays its heroine’s struggle to find her place in the world and will delight both young viewers and older ones. It features a great cast, including Rachel McAdams (Spotlight, Disobedience) as Margaret’s mother, Benny Safdie (Licorice Pizza, Uncut Gems) as her father, Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as her Jewish grandmother, newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret and scene-stealing Elle Graham as Nancy, a sometimes mean girl.

For those who aren’t familiar with Judy Blume and her books, it’s hard to describe the impact that Blume’s work has had on generations of girls. Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret was published in 1970 and was like an earthquake in the lives of millions of girls, especially those who grew up in families where sex and puberty were not openly discussed. For many, Blume’s books were where they learned about menstruation, bras and sex. But they were more than just that. Blume is wonderfully insightful and an engaging storyteller who has guided millions through transformative life experiences and showed them that others share their feelings and that it is perfectly all right to wonder about sex and growing up.

 Printed copy of Judy Blume's classic novel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Printed copy of Judy Blume's classic novel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Judy Blume's legacy of coming-of-age stories

MILLIONS OF girls – and boys, too, – grew up on Blume’s bestselling books, among them Deenie (about a girl with scoliosis); the Fudge series, about an endearing and very real little boy; and Forever, a ground-breaking book about a teen couple who have sex and don’t get punished for it in any way.

Blume is Jewish and wrote in her books about recognizably Jewish characters, particularly in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, where the heroine has a Christian mother and a Jewish father. Much of the book and the film are about Margaret exploring her religious identity (or lack thereof) and both feature a synagogue scene, as she asks her grandmother to take her. But whether Blume is writing about sex, religion or any other topic, her honest, chatty voice has become a kind of best friend to many of her readers.

However, she also has her detractors. Her books have caused a great deal of controversy and many are offended that she writes about sex in children’s books. Starting in the 1980s and again in recent years, her books have been banned from libraries and schools across the United States. Blume and her husband, who own a bookstore in Key West, devote much of their energy these days to fighting the bans. Those interested in learning more about Blume will want to watch the enjoyable documentary, Judy Blume Forever, currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Margaret, which for many is the jewel in the crown of Blume’s oeuvre, has never been adapted before and Blume had refused many offers from filmmakers, fearing they would not treat her book with the sensitivity it deserved. But Craig was determined to change that. “I just reached out to her... really as a die-hard fan. I wrote her what amounts to a love letter about how much her work impacted me. And then it turned out that she had seen my first film, Edge of Seventeen and responded to it and then she heard that James L. Brooks [was going to be] our producer and she had seen his work and loved it. So those three things worked together to help her change her mind.”

Brooks, who produced Craig’s previous film, is a legend as well and directed such classic movies as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. He also created a number of iconic television series, among them The Simpsons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. He had not read the book when Craig approached him to produce the film, but his daughter and granddaughter knew it. After talking to Craig, “He read it that day and was swept away by it and completely understood why it’s been this lifeline to women and girls for 50 years... for over 50 years. He got it and then we were on a plane within two days to go see [Blume].”

What was Judy Blume's role in the production?

ONCE BLUME agreed to the adaptation, Craig convinced her to collaborate on the screenplay. “She was so generous and permission-giving and really said, ‘It’s yours, just run with it.’ But it was also really important to me to have her involved in the whole process and to have her sign off on things and have her creative brain because she’s a genius... It was a group collaboration, we all rolled up our sleeves together... She was there on set for a handful of weeks.”

Fortuitously, one of her on-set days happened to be when they were shooting the scene where Margaret and her friends do the “We-must-we-must-we-must increase our bust” exercises. Blume told Craig the girls weren’t doing the exercise correctly. “I couldn’t believe that I was about to get the most iconic scene wrong... When she corrected me I was almost saying, ‘Are you sure, because I’ve been doing it this other way and everybody I know does it this way.’ ...But thank God she was there on the set that day and it was fun, it was fun to see her teach those girls how to do it the OG way.”

Craig discovered that her young cast members were completely comfortable in their roles and that the story had not aged in half a century. “I found that there was zero disconnect between what they’re going through today and what girls went through back then because while some things have changed, the fundamental things haven’t changed: the feelings, the emotions, the complicated messiness of that age is just exactly the same, so it wasn’t a stretch for them to become these characters. We didn’t talk about 1970 and this period very much at all.”

Reflecting on the journey to bring Margaret to the big screen, Craig said, “Isn’t it amazing, we grew up with the male coming-of-age experience, seeing it all the time and I didn’t quite realize that I wasn’t being represented until years later when I thought, ‘Where’s the girls’ point of view?’ But now, what I’m really hoping is that boys show up to see it, too... I can’t tell you how many of them have come up after screenings and told me they’re surprised at how much they relate to and are moved by Judy’s story.”