Novelist Judy Blume, revered by millions for demystifying the thorniest bits of puberty, has authored some of America’s most cinematic young adult books and weathered years of controversy for her frank writing. As novelists go, few are more eligible for a Hollywood adaptation.
Yet, in the 41 years since she published her first book, Blume fans have never seen one of her stories make it to the big screen. Then last summer, the author started tweeting about scouting movie locations, working “15 hr days” on preproduction, tweaking a script and casting roles for a film adaption of her 1981 novel Tiger Eyes.
At 72, Blume was suddenly living the life of a scrappy indie filmmaker. And though, her movie’s chances of reaching theaters are still uncertain, the novelist is energized by the challenge of it all.
“It’s a fantasy come true for me,” Blume told me in a Sunday night phone call, just three days before the whirlwind shoot was set to begin in New Mexico. “I’m glad I’m still around to enjoy it.”
Tiger Eyes is about a striking 15-year-old girl named Davey (played by Gossip Girl stunner Willa Holland) coping with her father’s violent death during a robbery and her family’s new life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when she meets a hunky Native American guy named Wolf (played by Tatanka Means).
Some fans (including this one) puzzled over the decision to adapt this book when Blume’s oeuvre is so rich in juicier adolescent fare, most memorably the pre-pubescent angst in Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, the brutality of bullying in Blubber and the sexy teen romance in Forever.
But Blume’s choice of Tiger Eyes for her first film has as much to do with her loyalty to fans as it does her commitment to her protagonists, those ordinary boys and girls, grappling with real-life problems. It is an empathic style that earned Blume the devotion of Generation X just as those kids came of age and began craving a guide. And over the years, that approach has had remarkable staying power. Blume’s sales—more than 80 million copies, translated into 31 languages—nearly match Twilight author Stephenie Meyer’s.
Tiger Eyes stands out for Blume as her most personal story, including elements from her own childhood tragedy. When she was very young, she was with her father when he died suddenly. The book is also the only young adult novel Blume considers truly cinematic.
“Not every book has to be a movie,” Blume says before referencing her two blockbuster adult novels. “ Summer Sisters is a movie. Wifey is a movie. These are the ones that I see. I don’t know that [ Are You There God? It’s Me,] Margaret should ever be a movie because every girl sees herself as Margaret. I could be seduced if the right young actress came along at the right time. But let’s go through this experience first.”
“The style of her books is very sophisticated,” says Nina Jacobson, the former head of Disney. “They’re like James Brooks for kids."
Over the years there have been four TV adaptations of Blume’s novels: ABC’s animated versions of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (1991) and Fudge-a-Mania (1995), a 1995 ABC sitcom based on Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge, and a 1978 CBS TV movie of Forever.
But Blume routinely eschewed offers for screenplay options to her books. “Judy didn’t want her books to be exploited,” says producer and longtime family friend Jane Startz.
She has been content to hang out with her writer husband, George Cooper, dividing time between their homes in Martha’s Vineyard and Key West, Florida, chipping away at a new novel, most recently one inspired by a real event that took place in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey during the 1950s. During her downtime, Blume is also an avid Twitter user, tweeting about everything from Mad Men to her new tap dancing lessons. Movie making hasn’t exactly been at the top of her list.
So it makes sense that Blume opted for a relatively small production with Tiger Eyes, partnering with the London-Los Angeles-based Amber Entertainment, established in January 2009 by three former New Line Cinema executives and a British documentary filmmaker. The film will be shot in 24 days on a budget under $5 million. And, as Amber’s Ileen Maisel described it, Tiger Eyes will have a DVD “premiere” in spring or summer 2011 with the “opportunity to pursue” a theatrical release.
For Blume, the deal was appealing because her son Larry would direct and produce. They would write the script together. And she would have broad creative control, on the set nearly every day.
“The fact that we were so embracing of Larry also gave Judy a certain level of comfort,” says Maisel, “because she knew Larry, above all else, would protect the integrity of her work.”
It’s a very different arrangement than Blume’s first venture into theatrical filmmaking with Walt Disney Studios back in 2004. Then, Judy, Larry, and Startz went to the two major studio executives they believed were truly invested in projects about girls and women: then-president of Walt Disney Studios’ Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group Nina Jacobson and the studio’s senior vice president of production and development Karen Glass. Both women were childhood fans of Blume.
“Judy talked about the things you wanted to ask a parent but couldn’t,” Glass told me. “She wrote about children and how your peers inter-related in a way that felt real. It felt like she understood you.”
Soon, Jacobson was announcing “a multi-picture deal” to develop and produce films based on some of Blume’s bestselling young adult novels. The first (and only) book optioned was Deenie, about a 13-year-old wanna-be model struck with scoliosis. Though there was the hope that they would ultimately adapt Blubber and Iggy’s House as well.
Glass says in Deenie they envisioned a small drama that appealed to girls and their mothers in the same way that the studio’s 2002 film Tuck Everlasting and its 2003 blockbuster Lindsay Lohan comedy Freaky Friday did. Screenwriter Pam Gray ( Conviction) delivered the first draft. Secretary writer Erin Cressida Wilson did the re-write.
Then in summer 2006, Jacobson was fired and the studio moved its focus to big budget blockbusters.
“One morning we woke up and read, ‘Oh my God! Our executives at Disney all got fired!’” Blume recalls. “So much for that project!”
Jacobson, now an independent producer, says she relished the time she spent working with the whip-smart and amiable Blume. She considers her work uniquely filmic, with fantastic commercial potential, but challenging to adapt because it is so intimate and character-driven.
“The style of her books is very sophisticated,” Jacobson told me. “They’re like James Brooks for kids. That’s very hard to pull off.”
Blume and her son are confident that this time, they will. At the very least, they’re having a lot of fun trying.
“I have to say this is incredibly seductive,” says Blume. “Totally exhausting and equally exhilarating. It’s fun! My husband and I have this little joke. We have friends who do adventure travel to make their lives interesting. This is our adventure.”
Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.