Adaptation of Classic ‘Margaret’ Preserves Judy Blume’s Perennial Wisdom – at the Expense of Entertainment
Judging by the new adaptation of Blume’s cautionary tale about conformity, it’s easy to see why the author’s work has resonated with generations of girls and young women.
We are in the midst of a Judy Blume renaissance. Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary “Judy Blume Forever,” which had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, debuted on Prime Video just last week. Arriving right on its heels is writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s film adaptation of Ms. Blume’s beloved novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” The circumstantial double feature has launched Ms. Blume herself into a flurry of publicity, complete with rounds on the late-night talk show circuit.
Judging from Ms. Fremon Craig’s new film alone, it’s easy to see why Ms. Blume’s work has resonated with generations of girls and young women. First published in 1970, “Margaret” has continued to leave its imprint on popular culture, inspiring, among many others, last year’s “Turning Red.” Both revolve around a girl’s first period; while the Pixar animated feature tackles it metaphorically, Ms. Blume’s tome addresses it head-on. But just as “Turning Red” involves other topics such as generational trauma, the overarching theme in “Margaret” is in fact conformity.
Much to the dismay of Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), her family is relocating from Manhattan to New Jersey. Soon her concerns about fitting in at a new school and making new friends are assuaged when Nancy (Elle Graham), a neighbor and fellow sixth grader, reaches out and extends an invitation to join her little secret club that also includes Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer). Nancy immediately peer-pressures the members to abide by many arbitrary and discomfiting rules, such as eschewing socks, wearing a bra, and sharing way too much information such as secret crushes and first menstruation.
Margaret also faces a religious quandary. Her immediate family hasn’t been on speaking terms with her maternal grandparents in Ohio, who cast off her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), for marrying her Jewish father, Herb (Benny Safdie). The parents prefer leaving Margaret to choose her religious affiliation once she reaches adulthood, though she is eager to start exploring the options when prompted by a school assignment. They feel undermined when Margaret asks to tag along with her paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), to a Rosh Hashanah service. After all, the maternal grandparents’ adherence to fundamentalist Christianity has caused Barbara much anguish.
The theme of conformity extends to Barbara’s impulse to raise her hand for various committees of the Parent Teacher Association at Margaret’s school. While Barbara doesn’t get to articulate her motivation here, Nancy’s mother, Jan (Kate MacCluggage), is all too happy to take advantage of her eagerness to please.
Given the influence of the source material, it’s understandable that Ms. Fremon Craig’s adaptation is strictly by the book but the approach comes across as a bit paint-by-numbers. Because the story builds toward a relatively low-impact climax, scenes are almost episodic, instilling a sitcom-esque tone even if the script is hilarious in spots. It’s as if the film’s commitment to remain faithful comes at the expense of its stand-alone entertainment value.
Then again, “Margaret” the film has fully preserved Ms. Blume’s perennial wisdom. With her novel now a likely candidate to be engulfed by the wave of school book bans sweeping the nation, the adaptation renders verbatim and without compromise her sage message to insecure and impressionable young girls – that conformity leads to regrettable conflicts.
The cast is terrific; the young Ms. Fortson and Ms. Graham are outstanding. It’s also quite poignant to see that Ms. McAdams, who made a star-making turn nearly two decades ago in “Mean Girls,” now gets to play the mother of a child navigating playground politics. It’s a somewhat poetic rite of passage that many of those who once read Ms. Blume and watched “Mean Girls” can take their own children to see the film adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”