For any girl under the age of, oh I don’t know, 50, it’s pretty unbelievable that there’s never been a big-screen adaptation of a Judy Blume book. The phrase Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret has been in the lexicon since 1970, and since the book’s publication, being a young woman in America has never been the same.
Blume’s Tiger Eyes was published in 1981, the story of Davey, an Atlantic City teenager, whose father is killed in a hold-up. Her devastated mother moves the family to New Mexico to live and help deal with the pain. Even though it’s older than I am (barely), the emotions in the book still hold up. And that’s just one reason why the book has become Blume’s first movie adaptation, which will be released in theatres, iTunes, In-Demand, and DirecTV on Friday. (After the movie’s New York premiere at the AMC Theatre in Times Square, there will be an audience Q&A with Blume, Lawrence, and Johnson, to the delight of legions of Blume fans.)
Tiger Eyes is deeply personal for Blume, whose own father died when she was in college. The movie has other personal elements: it’s directed by her son, Lawrence, now 49—the pair wrote the script together. Blume is a producer, and her husband, George Cooper, is executive producer.
“[Larry and I] always said—he grew up and he became an editor and a filmmaker—we always said that if we got the chance to work together, we would make Tiger Eyes,” Blume said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I think it’s because the most cinematic of all my books, not counting Summer Sisters [her 1998 adult novel] because that’s a bigger budget.”
Tiger Eyes is considered “lower-budget,” having been made for only $2.5 million, but it still managed to draw in some serious star quality, including Willa Holland of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, Amy Jo Johnson of Felicity, and Native American actor Russell Means in his last on-screen role—and his son, Tatanka Means, plays his on-screen son, Wolf, Davey’s love interest. Transferring the first-person book into a movie meant that Holland, who plays 15-year-old Davey, had to be in every scene.
“Larry wanted it very much to feel like a first-person book,” Blume said. “Davey, therefore, would have to be in every scene and lucky us, we had Willa Holland to carry the whole movie and show on her face—on these huge close-ups—that internal monologue that I would write in a book. She can just show it. It’s just amazing to me.”
Tiger Eyes is one of the must-reads in the Judy Blume collection. Not only is Davey dealing her father’s murder, the dissolution of her family, and the sudden move to New Mexico, but also her new best friend drinks too much, her mother is relying on sleep medication and is beginning to date, she’s exploring a friendship with a dying man, and, on top of all that, she meets a handsome stranger in the woods named Wolf, whom she develops feelings for. The beauty of Blume’s stories are that they deal with the real issues that kids face, and they are written not just about them, but for them.
For example, one passage from Tiger Eyes: “I pretend to be engrossed in my schoolwork but what I’m really thinking is, that I’d like to dump the brandy over their heads and tell them how stupid and disgusting they are.” What 15-year-old hasn’t felt that way?
Of course, Davey also has to deal with her father’s death and feeling alone in the world—something that Blume remembers all too well from when her own father died. Her father passed away suddenly as well, but of a heart attack, not a murder. Like Davey, Blume was in the room when her father died.
“Her life falls apart and she finds her way back, it’s a struggle,” Blume says. “And she’s never going to forget the loss that she’s experienced, but she’s going to move on, and I think, in a way, that’s what happened to me. My father died when I was still in college and it was sudden and he was my beloved parent and you just can’t imagine what you life is going to be like. But what Wolf, what Mr. Ortiz helps her learn, and she’s lucky that she has them in her life, that she finds them, they help her understand that what her father would have wanted—what’s for her—is to live, to enjoy her life. I know that’s what my father would have wanted too, I know that’s what he wanted,” Blume says, tearing up.
Tiger Eyes takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Blume lived for two years, with Lawrence and Blume’s daughter, Randy, during Blume’s second marriage. “It was not a happy time,” Blume writes in a note in the back of the book. But while their experience in Los Alamos “wasn’t a happy experience,” it provided creative fuel: the author got to know the city intimately, and the impact it has on its residents.
Despite the fact that the book was written in 1981, Blume says they didn’t need to change much to adapt it to the big screen. She says one “flip phone” shows up, but that most things didn’t change—“if you live in New Mexico, you know the clothes don’t change, and people drive old trucks, and Larry says if you think your cell phone is going to work in those canyons, then you’re wrong.”
Blume’s first book was published in 1969, the children’s book The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, followed in 1970 by the now-classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It remains one of her most famous works and has become the 16th best-selling young adult novel of all time, with 6.5 million copies sold. But it’s also one of her most controversial: the narrator, who is going through puberty, struggles with religion, since she “half Jewish,” but not raised in particular faith. It’s been pulled from library shelves across the country—including at her own children’s elementary school, where she had donated three copies.
“I wrote Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and my own feelings when I was in sixth grade,” Blume writes in her essay Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories By Censored Writers. “I only wanted to write what I knew to be true. I wanted to write the best, the most honest books I would have liked to have read when I was younger. If someone had told me that I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I would have laughed.”
Throughout that decade, Blume continued writing, 11 books for young readers, one for teenagers and one for adults. But with Tiger Eyes in 1981, she wrote that her editor circled some passages alluding to masturbation and said to her ,“We want this to reach as many people as possible, don’t we?” Blume writes that she “still remembers how alone I felt at that moment" when she removed the passages.
Blume later found the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of more than 50 national non-profit organization dedicated to fighting censorship. She is currently a board member for the organization and wrote the opening essay for the 1999 short-story collection by banned authors, Places I Never Meant to Be.
That’s where I come into the story, with my own personal Judy Blume moment. In 1999, I was in the middle of my own battle against high school censors when I happened to come across Blume signing copies of Places I Never Meant to Be at a New York Book Festival. In her usual kind tone, she listened to me as I breathlessly told her about my own experience. The organization told me to contact them if I ever had any trouble again, and Blume signed my book: “Never give up the good fight.” Looking back, I’ve always believed that whole experience has been what led me to be journalist—and Blume’s support, however minor it may seem, played a key role in it. When I told her that story, she responded kindly “I’m so glad that it worked and you became a journalist.”
I’m sure it’s just of many instance of many fangirls coming up to gush to Blume. But I’m a girl who grew up reading Judy Blume, and if I learned anything from her books, it’s to grab the opportunity when it comes along.