Judy Blume & Margaret – When the Film Is Better Than the Book

The long-awaited adaptation gets the Blume classic oh-so-fantastically right.

Are You There God adaptation
Are You There God adaptation

Cultured Vultures spoilers

“How many authors of the book can say, I think that the movie is better than the book?” Judy Blume

Are you there, reader? It’s me, a long-time bookworm. I first encountered Blume’s beloved book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, when I was around 11. I found it while curiously going through a banned books list — which goes to show you how banning books just piques curiosity in them even more — and the book has followed me around ever since.

All that said, I think I’d have to agree with Judy Blume herself here: the movie might be even better than the book. Or at least, the film breathes so much new life into the text, watching it feels downright mandatory for anyone who loved the book.


Three-Dimensional Adults

With the film no longer limited to just Margaret’s perspective, we’re allowed peeks into the adults’ lives outside of Margaret — her mom Barbara, dad Herb, and grandmother Sylvia. Sylvia, for instance, has an added scene where she’s crossing off things in her to-do list, and we can see just how empty her life has become now that Margaret is gone.

There’s another where she’s talking with Barbara and she asks how excited Margaret is to be visiting her, the scene making it clear how excited Sylvia is as well. In the book, we knew Sylvia missed Margaret because she told Margaret so, but in the movie, we see Sylvia actively missing Margaret. Sylvia needs Margaret just as much as Margaret needs Sylvia.

In coming-of-age fashion, both Margaret and Sylvia are learning how to grow up and need each other just a little less.

As for Herb and Barbara, there’s an added scene where the two are conversing about Margaret’s maternal grandparents who cut off communication when Barbara, a Christian, decided to marry Herb, a Jew. The two are allowed to speak without needing to be sensitive to Margaret’s presence, and you can see how much this cutting-off affected both Barbara and Herb, still deeply hurt even after so long.

Margaret almost feels excluded from this situation. It’s mostly about Barbara and Herb’s relationship with Barbara’s parents, as well as with each other. Barbara even says, “They’re my parents,” the film allowing her for a moment to consider her parents as her parents first before them as Margaret’s grandparents.


Margaret and Her Mom

Of all the adult characters, Barbara is the one with the most depth added to her. Apart from the film exploring her relationships with her parents more, there’s also her choosing to give up teaching art because of the pressures imposed by both herself and the society she lives in to be a more involved mother, such as the pressure to stay at home, join the PTA, and befriend the other moms.

Margaret even learns that her mom is much more than just her mom in the film. In the book, Margaret’s already aware of why they’re so distant from her maternal grandparents, but in the film, she doesn’t learn about it until she asks her mom about it at age 11 and sees her mom cry while explaining.

It’s a pivotal moment for both Barbara and Margaret, as Barbara opens up to her daughter and Margaret starts to stop seeing her mom in such a monolith maternal role. “Please take care of my mom, God,” Margaret says in one of her prayers, beginning to realize that it’s not just her in the family that needs taking care of.

The film takes the coming-of-age story of a young girl and turns it into the coming-of-age for three generations of women. Just like the bookworms who read the book growing up, this story grew up with them as well, all while never losing sight of the little kid that started it all.


Extra Steps

Always intended as a slice-of-life story, the book never rushed Margaret to have everything figured out in order to wrap everything up in a nice little bow. The movie still very much has that, but it also steps just one or two steps further into the story arcs in order to see more of Margaret’s growth.

There’s a story thread about Margaret discovering that her friend, Nancy, has been spreading lies about a girl in class, Laura. This ties into Margaret also finding out that Nancy lied about getting her period while away on vacation. In the book, it’s kept vague what Margaret actually chooses to do with Nancy and Laura, but the film has an added scene where Margaret asks Laura to dance with her during the fair on the last day of school, all while Nancy is left out.

So is Laura part of the friend group now? Is she forming her own friend group? We still don’t know, but this added moment does show how much Margaret has grown. She’s learned to stop projecting her insecurities on Laura and stop seeing her as an enemy, but instead learned to understand how difficult growing up is for everyone and what it truly means to be a friend.

The film also doesn’t just end with Margaret and her mom bonding over her first period, but also shows Barbara thinking to herself after she hands Margaret a pad and goes out of the bathroom. It’s a small addition that goes a long way, as before Barbara leaves, she tells her daughter, “You don’t need me.”

She’s of course talking about the pad, but we all know she’s also talking about something else. Just as Margaret and her grandmother are learning to let go of each other more and more, so are Margaret and her mother.


A Gold Standard for Adaptations

The film scholar Thomas Leitch once said, “The book will always be better than any adaptation because it is always better at being itself.” But what happens when the author positively says that the movie is better than the book?

Well, you get an adaptation like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. A movie that succeeds because it is so clearly comfortable being a movie, the same way a book is comfortable being a book.

Many of the film’s strengths come from screenwriter and director Kelly Fremon Craig taking full advantage of her medium, allowing us emotional access to characters that the book might not allow for, as well as taking the opportunity as an adaptation to expand and further develop the story threads and themes. You’re doing yourself a great disservice by choosing not to consume both of these experiences.

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