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Pop Culture Happy Hour watches 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Judy Blume's 1970 novel, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," tells the story of a preteen girl who moves to New Jersey with her family, makes new friends, and awaits the arrival of her period. It was a staple for many childhood readers, including my co-host, Mary Louise Kelly. Recently, she spoke with Judy Blume about the many letters Blume has received from fans and readers over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Well, Judy, I did not write you a letter. If I had, among other things, I might have complained that the bosom-increasing exercise that Margaret does fervently does not work because I tried. My friends and I tried.

JUDY BLUME: And don't I know it. And when I talk to kids, I tell them it doesn't work. It doesn't matter. And one day, when you're as old as I am, you might even be glad.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: We should, for people who don't know what we're talking about, would you just say that - what we're talking about here?

BLUME: We're talking about I must, I must, I must increase my bust with the proper accompanying arm movements.

KELLY: Like chicken wings flapping as we're - Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Writing honestly for adolescent readers about puberty and sex is not so unusual in 2023, but at that time, in the 1970s, it was revolutionary. And it's a story that still resonates with audiences today. A movie adaptation of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is out now and getting some rave reviews. Earlier this week, the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour focused on the movie. Here are co-hosts Stephen Thompson and Linda Holmes speaking with NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon and Monica Castillo, senior film programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Monica Castillo, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret"?

MONICA CASTILLO: So I'm part of this in-between generation where we weren't allowed to read it. Judy Blume was kind of banned from my library growing up in Florida, so this was one of my first real experiences of getting to see any of her stories. And I was so charmed. It is so darling. The cast is so impressive. And the story is still painfully relevant and relatable, even though it takes place in the 1970s. I loved it, and I'm so glad that it's on the big screen for a whole new generation to discover.

THOMPSON: Nice. How about you, Barrie?

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: I am part of the segment of the population that owns my copy still of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." And so I went in with very high expectations and prepared to be disappointed. And boy, was I surprised because I absolutely loved this film. It did a beautiful job at correcting a couple of things in the book that could stand to be corrected. It actually softened out some of the edges.

The children in this film were masterful. There was not one child actor on the screen. It was all children. Rachel McAdams is so warm and lovely. I wanted her to be my mom. And Kathy Bates steals every scene that she's in. She just runs away with it.

Again, this little girl playing Margaret is just stunning. What she's doing with her eyebrows and her shoulders is encompassing an entire world of sixth grade that - I have a sixth grader. I see sixth-grade girls and boys a lot. This was the most authentic thing I have ever seen.

THOMPSON: Wow. All right. How about you, Linda?

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Yeah. I'm afraid I have to just keep the train rolling.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I also really loved this. I was somebody who read "Margaret" when I was young. It was already kind of an established classic book by the time I read it. What I really liked about the film is, just as Barrie said, I think it maintains the integrity of the book, but also kind of adds to the book in some interesting ways. The building-out of the character of Margaret's mother, played again by Rachel McAdams, who's so good, I think does such a lovely job of explaining that in 1970, adult women were also in this position of...

CASTILLO: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...You know, thinking about who they wanted to be and how they wanted to fit into the world. And I think creating that parallel allows for some absolutely stunning scenes between Abby Ryder Fortson playing Margaret and Rachel McAdams. There's a scene late in the film where they're on the couch together that I just think is such a - there's so little dialogue. They trust those actors so much to just be in that moment. And it is - it felt so genuine to me as a moment of bonding between Margaret and her mother. The other thing I would say is I'm so glad that they set it in 1970.

HARDYMON: Oh, me too.

HOLMES: Because I think there's always a risk of trying to consider a story like this universal. And it's very important to treat it as a story that isn't universal. It's broadly relatable in certain ways. But this is one story of one girl in one place in one neighborhood. And I think leaving it in its moment rather than being like, Margaret with a smartphone, Margaret with access to the internet...

THOMPSON: Oh, for sure.

HOLMES: ...Keeps the focus on the fact that this is what it looked like for one kid, you know, in this kind of family. And I think doing that preserves in a lot of ways the specificity of the story in a way that is more genuine than if they had tried to make it like everyone everywhere can understand this experience because, you know, kids everywhere wait for their periods and worry about their bodies. Like, right, but this is one girl and one girl's story.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I also loved this movie. And I'm so glad I loved this movie because if I didn't, I would suddenly be the guy who's coming in, being like, well, let me tell you, ladies...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...Why this story of a girl getting her period is wrong, wrong, wrong.

HOLMES: Yeah, but you've raised a teenage daughter.

THOMPSON: I sure have. I sure have. And I also - I loved this book as a kid, and I related to this book as a kid, obviously from a different perspective. But I was a kid who was raised without religion and kind of went through some of this process of wondering kind of where I fit into the spiritual world. I did not think about it as deeply as Margaret does and did not address it as thoughtfully as she does.

But I did - I totally agree with everything all of you have said. I think, Linda, what you were saying about - that great specificity creates a universal story really, really comes through here. I love how small this story is, how the stakes are really contained, and yet it is as big as any coming-of-age story. And I think that's really beautiful. I loved what Barrie said about Abby Ryder Fortson's performance here and how much work she's doing with her shoulders. It really reminded me of how much I loved the movie "Eighth Grade," which is kind of a similar kind of storytelling - made me think about how "Eighth Grade" really has a debt to Judy Blume in ways that I guess I hadn't really thought about before.

I loved this film. I guess my next question is kind of how and why Judy Blume's stories haven't been translated into movies more often. It's sort of shocking - isn't it? - that this book that came out 50 years ago is only getting its first screen adaptation now.

CASTILLO: I think that's something that's somewhat covered in the new documentary "Judy Blume Forever." And it does talk a little bit about that. I think she was protective of Margaret, and she didn't want, you know, multiple TV adaptations. There were previous adaptations here and there over the years of different books. I think "Forever" had one.

HOLMES: I think "Tiger Eyes" had one maybe.

CASTILLO: "Tiger Eyes" had one. Yeah.

HARDYMON: Oh, I love "Tiger Eyes."

THOMPSON: "Fudge" had a TV show.

CASTILLO: Oh, "Fudge." That was the one. But, yeah, I get the sense that this one, which was, I think, one of her first breakout, if not her first breakout, she wanted to hold on a little bit longer. And then now there seems like a little Judy Blume revival. And it especially kind of stands out to me because in the documentary, she also talks about, like, the book censorship and how that's come back around. And especially, you know, someone who did grow up in Florida and wasn't allowed to read her books because the school librarian deemed it too adult for us - that is continuing, that thing that she's been fighting for decades now. And that's kind of interesting that other forms of media are kind of combating that in a way between the documentary and between this movie adaptation - makes it more accessible for people.

HARDYMON: You know, I also think, you know, all of that is true, but we also have really focused on the kinds of coming-of-age stories that are more dangerous than this one. Do you know what I mean? Like the ones where there maybe isn't a loving family. And those are, by the way, important adaptations as well. But I think that what often - you know, I'm thinking of the movie "Thirteen," you know, with Evan Rachel Wood, and there's a kind of, like, you-don't-know-how-bad-it-is film that kind of rose to the forefront. And in some ways, it sort of squeezed out what one hopes is the ideal, really, experience for young girls.

But it also - I think some of it is that, you know, not much happens in this film. I mean, one thing - like, you look at the plot architecture. Not much happens. You know - spoiler alert - she does, you know, get her period. But, you know, it's a series of sort of smaller stories about relationships with God, relationships with your family, relationships with your friends.

And apart from "The Baby-Sitters Club" - which, by the way, this has a lot in common with the adaptation of "The Baby-Sitters Club" on television, which was canceled for - I'll never get over it. But, you know, I think, again, like, this is a small story. And, you know, there's still so much sort of hyperventilating and, in some ways, with good reason, about how dangerous it is to be a kid. There's a lot more warning than there is than celebrating. And this is a celebrator, you know?

HOLMES: Yeah. I also think that one thing about this film is that Abby Ryder Fortson just turned 15, so she was 14 when they filmed this, which is much closer to an actual turning-12-year-old than Hollywood will often give you.

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: I think one thing that has happened is there has been more interest - when you're making coming-of-age stories, there has been more interest in a little bit later teenagers, like the "Stranger Things" stuff, but also like "Whip It" and - you know, some of the really wonderful stuff about growing up has been older - on the older side. I think about something like - it's not a film a lot of people talk about, but I think about something like "Adventureland," which Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart...

HARDYMON: Love it.

HOLMES: ...Were in - which is, by the way, a terrific movie. It was just - it was kind of sold as a "Superbad" movie...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...And it's not a "Superbad" movie. It's a really wonderful, interesting coming-of-age movie. But again...

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Older teenagers.

HOLMES: And I think one thing about this is, how do you tell the story of girls who, when you look at them, they are really young? How do you kind of tell that story in a way that has enough appeal to, like, not just little kids? And I think Hollywood is not necessarily great at making those real middle-grade-y (ph) kinds of adaptations.

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: I think about stuff like "Everything Sucks," which was a show on Netflix...

CASTILLO: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: ...That we loved. It's tricky to make those kind of in-between adaptations. And I think when you combine that with Judy Blume's, as Monica was mentioning, protectiveness of Margaret, I think that may be why you didn't see it before now. But what a joy, I think, to see it have an adaptation that is, again, true to the book and yet expands upon the book.

THOMPSON: Linda mentioned that there aren't necessarily a ton of movies and TV shows that talk about this particular age. And I imagine part of that just comes from the challenges in casting. You know, any time you're trying to cast somebody who is on the verge of something, you run the risk of the actor crossing that verge in the time that it takes to develop and shoot a movie. And I think they did such a beautiful job in - with the casting of this film.

I did want to ask you guys one of the questions that I kind of had going into this movie, which was, who is it for? Is this movie for kids of this age? Is this an early exercise in nostalgia, you know, like, where teenagers would feel nostalgia for the time they were this age? Is this for people like several of us who grew up reading these books? Whom do you feel should be most excited about this film? I'm going to start with you, Monica.

CASTILLO: Oh, boy. I did want to give a quick shoutout, by the way, to the "Gordita Chronicles" 'cause I think it also captures this time...

HOLMES: Oh, what a great grab.

HARDYMON: Oh, right, yes.

CASTILLO: ...And just that sense of all the changes that are happening in that weird in-between spot in people's lives. But in terms of the audience, my goodness, as someone who didn't have nostalgia for these stories - and I immediately, you know, walked out of the screening beaming - I think it is so accessible for multiple people. And I love to hear that, you know, folks are going in groups and people are taking different generations. I think it has the capability of connecting with a lot of different groups.

THOMPSON: All right. So we have given people a recommendation for this film. See this film. We've given people a recommendation for "Eighth Grade"...

HARDYMON: Yes.

THOMPSON: ..."Baby-Sitters Club," "Gordita Chronicles," "Wonder Years." We've set you on a path full of rich recommendations. Also, bring on the Judy Blume cinematic universe.

HARDYMON: Oh, please do.

CASTILLO: Yes.

THOMPSON: I joked with Linda after this was over, I wanted a post-credit sequence kind of setting up "Forever."

HARDYMON: Yes. Oh, my God, yes, a stinger.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HARDYMON: Yes. I love it. I - you know, I actually - one thing that was so darling is, you know, Judy Blume is actually in this film. She walks by.

THOMPSON: Linda and I both pointed.

HARDYMON: Yeah. And she - like, she makes eye contact with the camera in this way that kind of made me think, like, it had a Marvel quality to it where she almost breaks the fourth wall where I was like, oh, we are going to get more.

HOLMES: She's the Stan Lee of the JBCU.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

CASTILLO: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Stephen Thompson and Linda Holmes are co-hosts of our Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. They were speaking with NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon and film critic Monica Castillo about the new movie adaptation of "Are You There God? It's me, Margaret." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.