In ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ a fictional crisis of faith at a real-life synagogue
A new film adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved novel, first published in 1970, will be released on Friday
For generations, Judy Blume’s 1970 coming-of-age classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret has made girls on the cusp of adolescence laugh, cry and commiserate over the realities of their changing bodies.
But the beloved novel, which has sold millions of copies, is about more than a sixth grader who both dreads and anxiously awaits her first period as a harbinger of adulthood. A new movie adaptation of the book, the first feature film adaptation of any of Blume’s novels, depicts a girl grappling with the drama and indignities of middle school while also thinking deeply about a topic that is perhaps more scary to her than puberty: religion.
“What struck me was how profound Margaret’s spiritual journey is,” Kelly Fremon Craig, the film’s director, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “That’s something I did not remember from when I was a kid reading it. So that was actually a big part of why I wanted to make the film, because I felt like there was this secret, very simple yet profound journey at the center of it that I think a lot of readers miss.”
The movie hews faithfully to the 1970s suburban milieu of the book, which follows 11-year-old Margaret Simon and her interfaith parents from their cramped Manhattan apartment to a spacious but unfamiliar home in the New Jersey suburbs. When she starts sixth grade, Margaret (played by Abby Ryder Fortson) falls in with a group of girls who are obsessed with such crucial questions as where to buy their first bras, when they will first kiss a boy and when they will get their periods. To help her grapple with such a pivotal time, Margaret starts an ongoing conversation with God in her head.
“I remember at that age, taking myself very seriously, so it feels to me right to let their stakes be real stakes,” said Craig. “I think that is part of a big reason why [Blume] has been so beloved by kids who are growing up, because they feel as if somebody gets them.”
Craig, a Blume aficionado, wrote an impassioned letter to the author in 2018 after Blume tweeted that she was for the first time open to adapting her books into movies. Blume, who is 85 and lives in Key West, Fla., has famously avoided feature-film adaptations of her books. Craig’s “love letter” garnered a response, and eventually a deal with Blume, who had enjoyed Craig’s 2016 coming-of-age movie “The Edge of Seventeen.”
“When I first sat down to write the script, for the first two weeks, I was just, like, paralyzed with fear that I was going to screw it up, and everyone, you know, all her 90 million fans were going to just hate me for it,” Craig recalled. The film, which will be released on April 28, has been met with near-universal acclaim.
At the center of both the novel and the film is a spiritual quest. Margaret’s mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, and the couple decided not to expose their daughter to either religion until she’s an adult. Then, she can make her own decision about which religion she wants to be part of. But for an uncertain adolescent, such a choice feels huge — and excruciating.
At that age, “everything felt like life and death,” Craig, who is 42, said of her own life. “All the awkward things that I was going through which I can now look back and sort of laugh at, at the time was not funny at all.”
A young teacher encourages Margaret to explore religion through a yearlong research project she is required to complete. The next time she returns to Manhattan to visit her grandmother, Margaret shocks her by asking if they can go to temple together. Her paternal grandmother Sylvia, played by Kathy Bates, can hardly contain her delight. But when they go to a Shabbat service together, Margaret is mostly confused by the Hebrew she doesn’t understand.
Most of the film was shot in Charlotte, N.C., and Craig’s location scout suggested they film the temple scene at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue.
“I just loved the pink and blue stained glass,” Craig said. “It was very important to me to get every single little detail right in those places, and to capture them in a way that felt respectful, and beautiful, and the best of these religions.” (One scene took place at a Black church with a gospel service, and another followed Margaret and a girl from her school into the vestibule of a Catholic church.)
Craig hired an actor to play the rabbi who would be leading a service in the background while Margaret and Sylvia prayed and whispered to each other in the pews. She also had Rabbi Michael Wolk, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, on hand as a consultant. (However, Wolk admits he has not read Are You There, God?)
But after Wolk met the actor to talk to him about how he should act in the role, “the company called me,” Wolk recalled, “and said he doesn’t think he can do it, so would I be willing to take the job on?” He was asked to prepare a very brief sermon and to lead the “congregation” — several hundred extras that did include many members of Temple Israel — in some Hebrew prayers.
“He should get a directing credit, because he basically told me absolutely everything that we needed to do,” Craig said of Wolk.
The scene, which in the movie is just a few minutes, required a 15-hour day of filming in May 2021, with COVID-19 restrictions in place. Wolk had joined the synagogue in the summer of 2020, so the filming was actually the first time he stood on the bimah before a full room.
Actors and extras had to put masks back on every five minutes — union rules — but, of course, they could not have masks in a movie set in the 1970s. Wolk noted a few other historical inaccuracies that only the most eagle-eyed Jewish observers might catch: He stood on the bimah with a female cantor, but the Conservative movement did not ordain female cantors until the 1980s. And the prayer books held by Sylvia and Margaret were published within the last decade. Temple Israel was only built in the 1990s. The costume department found Wolk a 1970s-era black robe and a tallit to better match the look of the movie, but Wolk pointed out that he also forgot to take off his Apple Watch once the cameras were running.
In the movie, Margaret learns from her mother, Barbara (played by Rachel McAdams), that the reason they never see her maternal grandparents is because they cut off communication after Barbara married her Jewish husband, Herb (played by Benny Safdie). Craig mostly kept to the book — but one scene that she wrote entirely on her own is an unexpected and uncomfortable dinner party with the Simons, Sylvia and her Miami Beach beau, and Barbara’s parents from Ohio. Sylvia raises her glass to make a toast, and says “L’Chaim” over and over again, emphasizing the guttural pronunciation, much to her in-laws’ horror. The night does not end well.
“I felt that it was important sort of as a runway to Margaret’s crises, you know, her crisis of faith, and also just the crisis of her changing body. All of it. I just wanted it to all come to a head in that moment,” said Craig. “I also wanted nobody to be right or wrong. Everybody is just doing the best they can and trying to do what they think is right.”
Blume has given the movie her seal of approval, and the film has been met with delight by women and girls of all ages. “If they just advertised to tween girls, they were going to miss so much of our audience,” Craig said of the many women who grew up with Blume’s books. “When I read it as a kid,” she added, “it just made me feel normal at a time where I really needed to feel normal.”