Judy Blume is known to be averse to adaptations of her works, especially Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. But half a decade after it was published, a movie version of her beloved novel is hitting theaters.
The story follows 11-year-old Margaret, who is mired in personal anguish after her family moves from New York City to the suburbs due to her desire to get her first period. In an effort to cope with all this, Margaret, who grew up without being raised religious by a Christian mother and Jewish father, begins to pray for answers. Since its publishing debut in 1970, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret is loved not only by the Blume canon, but by all books aimed at the adolescent readership. At the same time, it has been restricted or banned by various schools in America because of its subject matter.
Like many, director Kelly Fremon Craig first read the book when she was going through puberty. “I was such a clumsy and insecure kid,” she says in a phone conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “There was something about reading about a character going through all the things I was going through that just reassured me so much.” Craig broke out with her directorial debut, dramedy The Edge of seventeenwho, like Margaret, exposed the realities of growing up, in contrast to the often glamorous and gruesomely mature Hollywood portrayals of teenhood.
In an interview beforehand Margaret‘s release, Craig talks about convincing Blume to make the movie and dealing with puberty on set.
What was behind your desire to adapt Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.?
After I made The Edge of seventeen, there was a moment when I thought about what to do next. I started thinking about the authors who had impressed me the most, who I loved the most and Judy Bloom was the first person I thought of. I started re-reading all of her books, now with a view to adapting them. When I arrived Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret, I read the last page and was just sobbing. I’ve been going around in circles trying to figure out what happened to me. What I realized was that there was something very deep about the uncertainty of adolescence. So I wrote Judy Blume a letter telling her all that.
Was it essentially a cold call?
It was actually in sync, because right when I started rereading her work, she tweeted that she was considering opening her work up for editing. So I knew she was tinkering with the idea, but then I quickly found out from her reps that the one book she would never choose was Margaret. It’s just too important to her and too important to too many people. I think she was just afraid someone would screw it up. But I just couldn’t resist. After contacting her I didn’t realize I had received a letter back, but the next day I had an email from her in my inbox and her response made me think there might be a window. I called Jim Brooks, who had produced Edge of seventeenand we got on a plane to see her so soon.
What was it that got the “yes”?
I think she felt encouraged when she saw it Edge of seventeen. I think that gave her confidence that I wouldn’t make it shiny and poppy. I think maybe that was her biggest fear – that it would turn into this bubblegum movie.
What didn’t you want this movie to be?
I really didn’t want it too neat and tidy. My own adolescence was a mess, and I was a mess. There are details of adolescence that I felt should be portrayed in a really truthful way. Your hair is greasy. You did it yourself. It’s just a really annoying time. I wanted all of that to be represented. I wanted it to feel like these were real kids. When we were casting, we searched all over the country and for most of these kids it’s the first thing they’ve ever done. I forced them to improvise a lot. I really wanted it to feel alive and messy.
In Hollywood, it’s common to see 20-year-olds playing 15-year-olds. How important was it to cast kids who were the actual ages of these characters?
We reached children exactly this age, who were 11 and 12. It was tricky, especially with Abby (Ryder Fortson), who plays Margaret. We found her when she was 11 and we planned to go into production that summer, but this was in March 2020. So the world shut down and it felt like we were in a race against puberty. By the time we make this movie, will it make sense for Margaret to pray to God for breasts? Or will it seem that God has already redeemed? As it turns out, when she showed up in the costume department to try on outfits, God had answered. So we spent a lot of time trying to hide that. We had to tie her up. This kid has such a nice performance and had to have an Ace bandage on him when it’s 90 degrees in North Carolina, that’s not easy. Then we had to do visual effects in some places.
The film lovingly and hilariously depicts what it’s like to prepare for and get your first period, which is rarely seen on screen. What was it like producing that behind the scenes?
When I first edited the book and I went to these meetings and I had to say the word “period,” I was embarrassed. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘I’m a grown woman and I’m ashamed to say this word out loud!’ But in the course of making this movie, because we’ve talked about it so many times, I’ve become completely desensitized. There was a point in particular where we were on set, and we filmed the scene where Margaret tries on a pad for the first time and puts it in her underwear and then walks around. That felt so exciting to see on the monitors. I’m 42 and I’ve never seen another person do that, I think that’s wild, this thing that half the population is doing, I’ve never seen. I’ve seen myself do it and that’s it. I feel like we’re breaking new ground, which sounds crazy, because how have we not seen this thing that half the population is doing?
The stakes in this movie – puberty, menstruation, bras, etc. – are low, especially by today’s Hollywood standards. But Margaret still feels like a high-wire act.
I definitely feel that adolescence feels like the highest stakes. I just remember all those moments being so heartbreaking, so that feeling was always at the center of what I talked to Abby about. But a lot of it is a credit to her because she was able to translate those conversations into something that came through in her facial expression. You really felt that this was all for her. That she might die if this doesn’t go right.