For many women—and some men—reading Judy Blume’s 1970 coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. was a transformative experience. The book, about an 11-year-old named Margaret experiencing the ups and downs of puberty after moving to the New Jersey suburbs, was a relatable window into the tumultuous feelings of getting older and grappling with what life and family really mean. For decades, Blume resisted giving up the rights to the novel for a Hollywood adaptation, despite ongoing interest. But a few years ago director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig wrote Blume a letter asking to adapt the book.
“I’ve been a Judy Blume fan girl since I read this book for the first time when I was 11, and then read everything she’s ever written,” Fremon Craig says. “I told her how much her work means to me and that in a lot of ways, she turned me into a writer and that I really wanted to direct Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. When you write a letter like that you feel like, ‘I’m probably sending it into a black hole.’ But the next day there was Judy Blume in my inbox.”
Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks immediately got on a plane to Florida, where Blume lives, and eventually managed to convince the author that they were the right people to transform her book into a film. It was several years in the making, but Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., which stars Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and Benny Safdie, has finally arrived. The movie retains the early ‘70s setting and stays very true to the characters and events of the book, all of which was purposeful for Fremon Craig.
We spoke with Fremon Craig about what it was like to adapt such a beloved novel, working with Blume and why the story continues to feel relatable today.
What did you see in the book that convinced you it would make a good movie?
The ending. I think a movie is its ending. When I got to the end of this book, something about the last page just made me sob. It just cracked my heart open in such a huge way. There was something about this kid going through adolescence and all the uncertainties involved in your body changing, in your friend group changing and all of that. The way that she reaches out for something greater and tries to understand if there is something and what she might believe about it struck me as so profound. That wasn’t something that I remembered from reading it when I was 11. I only got it when I read it as an adult.
How faithful did you feel you had to be to the book?
It was important to me to be very faithful. But also I think that the job of an adaptation is to deliver the spirit of the book, to make you feel the way the book made you feel. Delivering the book line for line doesn’t work. It actually winds up betraying the book. I also didn’t think about modernizing it for even half a second. I absolutely wanted to set it in 1970. Both to be faithful to the book, but also because I think there’s something really connecting about girls today watching it and realizing that what they’re going through, girls went through 50 years ago, and from the beginning of time. There’s something really reassuring about that.
How difficult was it to cast Margaret?
We saw everybody under the sun. But when Abby walked through the door and auditioned the search was off. She was instantly Margaret. We didn’t need to see a single other person. I just knew: that was her.
Abby’s not the only teenaged actor in the film. Is it a challenge to direct teen girls?
I give them a lot of freedom. I encourage them to improvise and play. I talk with each of them about who they are, who their character is, what their insecurities are, what the group dynamic is. Just put all that in the back of their heads and then tell them, “Okay, let’s do the scene and you don’t have to say any of the words that are in the script. Just say whatever comes to your mind. As long as you’re in that character we’re good.” And very, very often those are the things that are used. It’s the kids reacting in the moment and improvising.
I love that collaboration process. I love giving them the freedom to play because so often they come up with something that you never could have thought of. When we shot the scene with the anatomy book where the girls see the drawing of the penis for the first time, I really just showed them that book and rolled. I said, “Just react to it. Just say whatever comes to your mind when you see this picture.” And everything they say is actually their true reactions to that drawing. When Gretchen says it looks like a thumb, I laughed until it hurt. I could have never written that.
One of the most memorable things in the book is the scene where the girls do an exercise and chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” I always wondered what the movement would look like. How did you come up with it?
Well, there’s a story there. I went to film that scene and I had the girls do it like this, where you press your hands together. This is how I did it with my friends. And all of a sudden, Judy, Judy Blume was there that day and she runs up and it’s like, “That’s not how you do it. You do it like this.” All these years I’ve been doing it wrong. I was about to do it wrong, so thank God she was on the set that day and could steer us right.
Were there any other moments where she gave you input or clarified something for you?
Generally, she was a collaborator. What I love about Judy is she’s obsessive about the little details in the same way that I am. I love little details. Like Margaret’s bobby pins don’t match her hair color. You’re supposed to get the ones that match, but they don’t and it always looks like she did it herself. Things like that, to me, subliminally make me feel like I’m watching something real. There’s something about that messiness, in particular, that I just find reassuring because I’m a mess. I was very much a mess at this age. I think that’s why I love Judy’s work—it has an honesty.
What has been her reaction to the final film?
Judy has been so amazing. She’s been running around everywhere, talking to every press person, every talk show, shouting from the rooftops for people to see the film. Which fills my heart so much because more than anything, I wanted to make her proud and do right by her. So I’m happy she’s happy.
Periods don’t get depicted onscreen often enough. How did you determine how to best represent girls getting their periods and going through that time of puberty?
It felt like our mission was to just be as truthful as humanly possible in the same way that Judy Blume writes. Part of her magic, I think, is that she includes all the embarrassing details. That is why I loved her and it felt like we had to do that sort of thing when it came to that subject.
Many readers remember the sanitary belts from the novel, but those are not in the movie.
In 1970 when she published, pads had sanitary belts. The next year, in 1971, the world changed and the sticky pads came out. Judy decided to go back in 1971 and revise her book, so it’s only the very first edition that has the sanitary belts. Every edition after that, since 1971, had sticky pads.
This was something that came up, actually, in that first meeting with Judy Blume when we were in Key West. I broke it all down, like some women are going to feel really strongly about these belts and they’re going to remember the belts and they’re going to feel like, “Why’d you change the belts?” So I tried to get them in there in some other little ways. Like when they’re staring at the wall of pads at the drugstore, you see some of them have the belts and some of them would say, “New belt-free!” So you get that things are changing at that time.
In general, why does it feel important to tell teen girls’ stories onscreen?
I don’t think there are enough of them. When I was going through adolescence, it was Judy Blume’s books that made me feel like I wasn’t so abnormal. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was a mess and everyone had it figured out except me. And then I read her books and I felt like, “Oh, thank God, somebody else is feeling all the things that I’m feeling.” There’s something about that recognition that you’re not alone and that we’re all in it together that is so meaningful, particularly at that age.
Has there been any discussion of you adapting other Judy Blume books?
No. I know there are lots of people clamoring to adapt her other books. I think some things are in the pipeline at various stages. But I love that there is what people are calling the Judy Blume-aissance.
This is your second teen girl-centric movie after The Edge of Seventeen. Do you think you’ll continue to tell coming-of-age stories?
I feel like this is probably the period at the end of the sentence. After I made The Edge of Seventeen I thought I’d probably move on, and then I made another coming-of-age [film]. I’m probably ready to move to the next thing. But you never know. It’s such an emotional thing for me. Do I deeply connect with the material and feel like I have to tell this story? That’s what I’m looking for. And those are feelings that just don’t come around often. I don’t know how it will show up next time and in what form.
There are a few things that I’m circling in my head, but I’m deciding which one to pursue. Right now I’m still birthing this baby. Let me get it out and then I’ll be able to figure out what to do next. It’s important, at least for me, creatively, to go be a human being for a while, be inspired by the world and people around me in order to figure out what it is that I really need to write next. I need that period of letting the ground lie fallow.