Next month two Judy Blume films will grace the screen, one based on a beloved novel and the other on Blume’s own life and work. PW spoke with Blume, Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen), the screenwriter and director of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Emmy award-winning documentarian team Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok (Very Semi-Serious) who created Judy Blume Forever, about these highly anticipated projects.
‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’
For Fremon Craig, adapting Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel was intensely personal. “She [Blume] is my literary first love,” she told PW. “I found her at a time when I had just turned 11. I was very unsure of myself. I read this book and everything Margaret was going through I was going through, too, and I felt such a sense of relief.” She wanted to create a feature worthy of the book. Though Blume had famously refused requests for a film adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret since its publication in 1970, Fremon Craig wrote an impassioned email to the author describing her vision for the movie.
This email proved so persuasive that Blume invited Fremon Craig and her mentor, Academy Award-winning director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), to Key West, Fla., where Blume lives and owns the bookstore Books & Books with her husband, George Cooper. When Blume realized this team could be trusted with Margaret, she finally greenlit the project, which she produced alongside Brooks. Lionsgate will release the film in theaters on April 28.
Reverence for the novel and author presented one of the biggest challenges in writing the screenplay. “When I started out, every change felt like a betrayal,” Fremon Craig said. In Are You There God?, 11-year-old Margaret Simon moves from New York City to Farbrook, N.J., and must adapt to a new school, a new group of friends, and the demands of puberty. Raised with interfaith parents, Margaret asks questions of God as she tries to figure out what to do and what she herself believes. As Fremon Craig fleshed out the characters and dramatized the plot, “I ultimately realized that what I needed to do was to stay true to the spirit of the book. And that freed me.”
Both Fremon Craig and Blume applauded the stellar cast. Blume said Abby Ryder Fortson (Ant-Man and the Wasp) “is wonderful as Margaret. There’s not a false note in her performance. She’s a natural.” Of Oscar-nominated Rachel McAdams, who plays Margaret’s mother, Fremon Craig noted, “Her performance is so deeply moving and true.” Actor and director Benny Safdie portrays her father, and Oscar winner Kathy Bates stars as her grandmother.
In setting the movie firmly in 1970, Fremon Craig credits the production and costume design with evoking a universal nostalgia while still managing to offer modern appeal. “I read it in 1990 and I was positive it was contemporary, and that’s been happening for readers for 50 years,” Fremon Craig said. “In the movie, choices had to be made so that it could feel both visually of the time and timeless.”
PW first spoke with Blume about the movie in an exclusive behind-the-scenes interview on set in Charlotte, N.C., in 2021. Blume spent a total of five weeks on location and said, “I couldn’t ask for a better team and I trust my team.” When she did (rarely) offer notes, Fremon Craig said that they were invaluable, such as a correction of form when the girls were performing the actions for the famous “we must, we must, we must increase our bust.”
After more than 50 years, even when completed, the film had to wait a little longer. Shooting wrapped in early summer 2021 and the movie was originally slated to come out in 2022. Fremon Craig attributed marketing shifts at Lionsgate with the delay.
Blume herself is “thrilled” and “over the moon” about the movie and even stated on the Today show in January that she thinks it is better than the book. Fremon Craig said, “It means everything to see her so happy [with it] and to make Judy Blume proud.”
‘Judy Blume Forever’
The documentary chronicling Blume’s life and work also began with a heartfelt “Dear Judy” email from Pardo about how much Blume’s work meant to her. However, “it was much scarier to do the documentary [than Margaret],” Blume said. “It really involves opening yourself up.” Blume worried how the team would handle topics like divorce and if it would invade the privacy of her two children. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to sacrifice the time. “She has such a full life,” Pardo said. “She really loves being a bookseller. She was tempted but not sure.”
After five years of discussions, and once Imagine Entertainment Documentary, which is backed by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, signed on, Blume agreed to participate in February 2020, just as the pandemic hit. The team waited until Covid vaccinations became available and started filming in April 2021. Judy Blume Forever begins streaming globally on Amazon Prime on April 21.
The documentary highlights Blume’s activism against book banning and issues of intellectual freedom that authors still face today. “It brings back the censorship of the 1980s,” Blume said. “And yet here we are again but worse.” The testimony of writers is a key element of the film, according to Wolchok. “We always wanted to have the voices of authors whose work is currently being banned,” Wolchok said. “From the beginning, even when we pitched this idea, we knew we wanted to include writers like Jason Reynolds, Alex Gino, and Jacqueline Woodson. We wanted to talk to people who had been inspired by Judy’s honesty to create their own stories and maybe push the form even further than she had pushed it in the 1970s and ’80s.”
In addition, notable fans, including Molly Ringwald, Lena Dunham, and Samantha Bee speak for generations when they share the ways Blume’s work influenced their feelings about sexuality, growing up, and belonging.
One of the great surprises to the filmmakers was the extent and duration of Blume’s correspondence with readers. In the 1980s Blume received 2,000 letters a month from kids who were eager to confide their struggles and ask her advice. Blume formed enduring relationships with many and the filmmakers profiled two of these women. Blume, who is tremendously protective of them (and of all of her letter writers), believes Pardo and Wolchok handled their stories with great consideration and care. Yale’s Beinecke Library now houses the complete collection of correspondence and manuscripts.
The longevity and enduring appeal of her work proved a consistent theme. “I don’t think Judy Blume wrote her books to be timeless. I think she wrote her books to be timely, and they were so timely that they became timeless,” Reynolds said in the documentary.
Several other Blume screen projects are also in the works. Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers: Endgame) are producing an animated version of Superfudge for Disney; Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends) is developing a Forever-inspired series for Netflix; and Today co-host Jenna Bush Hager is producing Summer Sisters for Peacock. Now that Blume is finally saying yes to Hollywood, when she selects her partners, “I always look for passion,” she said.