How Judy Blume Finally Got a ‘Yes’ From Hollywood

The lunches Judy Blume used to have in Hollywood would all go the same way, she said. “Judy, sweetheart, what would you like to do?” the men would ask — and they were always men. “We want to work with you. How do you want to adapt your books?” This began in the 1970s and continued for decades. She had already sold millions of copies, on her way to her current tally of more than 90 million worldwide.

But she didn’t know what a Judy Blume movie should be. She was young when she first took the meetings. As the years went on, she kept writing while navigating two tumultuous divorces, newfound fame, and the relentless attacks by the religious right and its crusade to ban her books — books that in Ms. Blume’s quest to honestly depict the teenage experience dared to frankly discuss masturbation, menstruation and sexual desire, topics, among others, that made teens feel seen.

Some things were produced, mostly for television, including the 1978 made-for-TV movie based on the novel “Forever.” In 1991, “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great” became an ABC Weekend Special directed by her son, Larry Blume. A television sitcom, “Fudge,” aired on ABC for two years in the mid-90s.

Yet so much was never made.

“Somebody used to say to me, ‘Just wait till all these kids who grew up with you get to those positions of power in Hollywood — you will see,’” Ms. Blume, now 85, said. “Of course, that is what happened. And I’m glad I’m still here to see it.”

The Judy Blume Renaissance is upon us.

In April, Amazon Prime Video will release “Judy Blume Forever,” a documentary by the filmmakers Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok that tracks the effect that Ms. Blume’s work has had on generations. The film features luminaries like the actress Molly Ringwald, the author Jason Reynolds and the filmmaker Lena Dunham, while also examining the surprising correspondence that Ms. Blume engaged in with thousands of readers, some of which lasted decades and sometimes dealt with issues of personal trauma. This was not just about writing to an author to ask about what happened to a beloved character after the last chapter.

Then on April 28, Lionsgate will debut in theaters “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” arguably Ms. Blume’s most beloved novel — and the one she was most reluctant to adapt. Ms. Blume softened her stance on turning the novel, about an 11-year-old girl grappling with her developing body while questioning the constraints of organized religion, into a movie after the filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”) sent the author an impassioned email and she and the veteran producer James L. Brooks ventured to Ms. Blume’s home in Key West, Fla., to make their case in person.

Also in the works are an animated film based on Ms. Blume’s “Superfudge” book that will be produced by Joe and Anthony Russo (“Avengers: Endgame”) for Disney+ and a Netflix series inspired by “Forever” that Mara Brock Akil (“Girlfriends”) will oversee. And the long-gestating “Summer Sisters,” which originally was set up as a Hulu series, is now being produced by Jenna Bush Hager at Peacock.

The author Mark Oppenheimer has begun working on her biography.

In Ms. Blume’s mind, the newfound attention is based not on the booming streaming market and its insatiable quest for material but rather on nostalgia writ large. It doesn’t hurt that her books still sell well today. As Mr. Reynolds says in the documentary: “I don’t think that Judy Blume wrote her books to be timeless. I think she wrote her books to be timely, and they were so timely that they became timeless.”

“I mean, they need content; I have books,” she said. “But I really do think it’s that they grew up, and they are in more powerful positions.”

From ‘no’ to ‘yes’ in Hollywood

For the children growing up in the ’80s, Judy Blume was the ultimate confidante. She was there for you when you got your period — or when you were wondering why it was taking so long. She explained masturbation without making you feel ashamed. And in the fictional worlds she created, she allowed teenagers to have responsible, consensual sex without anything bad happening to them.

Inside the Media Industry

Through her novels, Ms. Blume has served as a guidepost for generations of children who needed answers when their grown-ups were keeping secrets. By honoring the complex, interior lives of young readers, she gave rise to the young adult genre of literature and compelled us to never look at the name Ralph the same way again. (“Forever” readers understand.)

Yet as beloved as she is — and she is beloved, just ask her husband of 35 years, George Cooper, who talks about fans he calls the “OMG criers” who come to her bookstore in Key West asking to meet her and then promptly burst into tears in her presence — she has never received the red carpet welcome from Hollywood when it came to adapting her books into films or television shows. And she tried.

At one point, Ms. Blume thought about moving to Los Angeles to work with the producer Edgar Scherick (“Shoot the Moon”), but her children were young and she was raising them in New Mexico. The megaproducer Aaron Spelling offered her $100,000 for “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and another $100,000 for “Then Again Maybe I Won’t.” That didn’t come together, either.

“That was a lot of money back then,” Ms. Blume said.

In 2004, Ms. Blume rewrote the script for “Deenie,” a story about a 13-year-old with modeling aspirations who is diagnosed with scoliosis, for Disney, only to have it fall by the wayside when the studio switched its attention toward blockbusters. “There have been a lot of almosts, a lot of maybes,” Ms. Blume told The New York Times back then. Her son directed a film version of “Tiger Eyes,” but it didn’t do much to move the needle, grossing only $27,000 on tepid reviews.

“I was longing for somebody to say, ‘Judy, sweetheart, this is what we want to do,’” she says now. “I don’t know why things never worked. Eventually you just say, ‘Eh, you know, let me write my books.’”

But now, Ms. Blume said, she is finished writing. Her last book was the 2015 adult novel “In the Unlikely Event,” a fictionalized account of the three plane crashes that occurred in her childhood hometown, Elizabeth, N.J., in the span of eight weeks in the early 1950s. Her focus is centered on adapting her works into films and television shows. Armed with an agent who understands her influence and scrutinizes any potential collaboration, Ms. Blume is finally, it seems, receiving the proper recognition in Hollywood.

“I sure have heroine worship when it comes to her,” said Mr. Brooks, who produced Ms. Fremon Craig’s adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” “I’ve adapted books before, but I’ll never know another stress like doing right by her. You can’t be the person who let down Judy Blume, about anything, ever.”

Ms. Blume’s resurgence began with boxes of fudge. Jill Gillett, Ms. Blume’s new agent at her longtime home, WME, had a grand plan for today’s world of prestige programming — an entire collection on Netflix or Hulu dedicated to Ms. Blume’s vast bibliography. Ms. Gillett’s colleagues wrangled the chocolate, and the group went on a road show to sell this sweet plan to the streaming services.

“Everybody was interested; everybody wanted to do her works,” Ms. Gillett said. “And they asked me what I was looking for. And I said, ‘Millions, many millions of dollars.’ It was crickets. I was way too lofty.”

Ms. Gillett was pitching places that have, in fact, paid many millions of dollars for a revered talent. Think Netflix’s $100 million deal with Shonda Rhimes, the prolific television creator of such shows as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” But that wasn’t how the Blume-aissance was going to work. Instead, the effort became a piecemeal enterprise. A passionate email here. A fortuitous meeting there. Despite a handful of starts and stops because of the pandemic and its overhang, we will soon be awash in Judy Blume projects, both those about the beloved author and adaptations of her treasured tomes.

Ms. Gillett confirmed that nostalgia had played a big part in how these deals were made. Nostalgia, specifically for entertainment from the ’80s and ’90s, has fueled some recent Hollywood hits like “Top Gun: Maverick,” which earned $718 million, and this year’s Oscar race, which has three stars from the ’90s nominated — Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser. Yet the relationship that executives say they have with Ms. Blume is far more personal.

Just ask Susan Rovner, chairman of entertainment content at NBC, who is redeveloping “Summer Sisters” for its streaming service. The executive, who oversees all programming on NBC’s linear channels and its streaming service, Peacock, talks about how “Deenie” saved her during her teenage years. As a girl growing up in Roslyn, N.Y., Ms. Rovner turned to Ms. Blume’s 1973 book about a 13-year-old people pleaser with an unfortunate scoliosis diagnosis. “Deenie” was Ms. Rovner’s salve, especially in the ’80s when bulky back braces were the butt of so many jokes. (Think Joan Cusack in “Sixteen Candles.”)

“I brought that book to college with me,” she said. “Honest to god, it got me through my teen years.” And to this day, she added, whenever she has a conversation with the higher power, she begins it with “Are you there God? It’s me, Susan.”

“So yes, Judy might be right,” she continued. “Those books really spoke to women my age. And it’s not until recently that we’ve been in positions of power to do something about it.”

Who Judy Blume was to her readers

Quick-witted and sweet with an almost encyclopedic memory of her past and an insatiable curiosity about her present, Ms. Blume is exactly who you want her to be. Her airy apartment on the Upper West Side overlooks Central Park with a view that allows her and Mr. Cooper to see all the sunbathers and picnickers lounging on the grass. (You can almost picture the idlers thumbing through a Judy Blume novel.)

Books new and old are stacked on her coffee table. The best-selling novel “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” by Gabrielle Zevin, has a prominent spot, while an entire wall is dedicated to “his and hers” bookshelves: Ms. Blume’s side is filled with fiction, everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Philip Roth, and Mr. Cooper, a former Columbia law professor, has his side crammed with nonfiction titles.

Ms. Blume spends most of her time now in Florida, but in the fall she was in her New York City apartment for her annual doctors’ visits and to enjoy the weather. She was also recovering from an infection that left her gasping for breath and questioning just how much time she had left.

“This really shook me,” she said of her illness. “At 84, being that sick, it’s a whole different thing.”

And yet she is still not eager to analyze her legacy, hemming and hawing when asked why her books have endured through generations of readers.

Others will do so, happily.

The documentarians Ms. Pardo and Ms. Wolchok described how people would come up to them during each of the Sundance screenings of their film that they attended, with tears in their eyes wanting to talk.

“I don’t think we realized how emotionally resonant the film would be with people,” Ms. Wolchok said.

“I think part of it is the power of feeling seen and understood, and being taken back to a moment where you felt that, where you felt safe,” Ms. Pardo said. “I think reconnecting with Judy’s work takes you back to your childhood and, in a very specific way, to how you felt as a child.”

Mark Oppenheimer, who first wrote about Ms. Blume in a 1997 essay for The Times, has been trying fruitlessly for the past decade to get her to agree to a biography. “I’ve been thinking about her work, and why it succeeds and its literary merits in some ways, since I was 10 years old,” he said. “She’s a tremendously important woman of letters. She is one of a very small number of people who have written exceedingly well, and with great success, for multiple age groups.”

The world is a very different place from when Ms. Blume began writing over 50 years ago. Children searching for answers don’t need Judy Blume to help them; they have Google. Yet book sales are still robust. According to Justin Chanda, a senior vice president at Simon & Schuster, the portion of Ms. Blume’s catalog that the publishing house oversees, which includes everything but the “Fudge” series, sells 200,000 to 250,000 copies a year, with “Freckle Juice” being the best seller. Mr. Chanda adds that since publicity has begun on the “Margaret” film, sales of the 50-year-old novel have shot up 762 percent from a year ago.

Ms. Blume chalked it all up to children’s insatiable curiosity that she believed was still not being satisfied by the internet. “They still say, ‘Nobody is answering my questions, and nobody is telling me what it is I really want to know,’” she said.

Letters from children still arrived, though not as many as before and not as urgent as they once were. She’s rarely called on to save anyone’s life. The recent letters are more about her books’ characters and stories. All the correspondence today happens on a computer, a technological advance that she believes creates more distance between people and their emotions.

Yet Ms. Fremon Craig said test screenings of “Margaret” had evoked a wistfulness among middle school readers for a time they never even lived through, a yearning, if possible, for a world where technology and social media didn’t rule their lives.

“There is this feeling of wishing that they lived through it and also this weird, strange nostalgia that sort of feels like their own memory, but it is a step removed,” she said.

Judy Blume’s finale

As much as things have changed, so much remains the same. Ms. Blume’s books are still some of the most banned in the country — “Margaret,” “Forever” and “Deenie” are perennial targets. It’s an issue that still fires up the octogenarian.

“It’s better because we’re talking about it,” she said. “It’s worse, because it’s so politicized. It was awful in the ’80s. This is even bigger. And scarier. And more polarizing.”

I asked Ms. Blume if any of her characters ever had an abortion — a third-rail topic at the time and one with renewed resonance today in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling. She paused for a bit, recalled that it was discussed in “Forever” when Katherine goes to Planned Parenthood, but that was it — in her novels anyway.

“I’ve had two, and you can write that,” she said, pausing. “Both were during the horrible second marriage, when it just would have been a disaster. They weren’t emotional moments for me at all. They were just something that needed to be done. I never thought of that as a baby. It’s not a baby. It’s a clump of cells.”

It’s at this moment that I realize that this diminutive, soft-spoken author, who wrote thoughtful, insightful books for middle school students when it wasn’t even kosher for women to have a career outside the home, has long been a trailblazer in the fight for equality and body autonomy before it was a buzzword — both in her writing and in her personal life. You want to be around her because it’s almost a miracle that she exists.

“One of the real gifts of Judy is that she is, as a person, as approachable as her books are,” Ms. Fremon Craig said.

Mr. Brooks added: “When you meet people who are thought of as national treasures and the experience confirms it, I don’t think that is usual. She’s a credit to national treasures.”

And yet, in her presence, it’s the furthest thing from her mind. The question of societal impact is met with a pat answer. “That’s for somebody else to do,” she said. “I’ve got family. They are my legacy.”

Then in a follow-up email she added: “I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you asked about ‘my legacy.’ It embarrassed me when you asked so I dodged an answer. I still think my readers will say it better than I can. For me it’s about having touched lives. So unexpected when I started to write. It still makes me wonder how this ever happened.”

Source: Read Full Article