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Are You There God? It's Me Margaret movie

The Existential Yearning Of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

Judy Blume’s novel normalized puberty for generations of readers, but it’s Margaret’s spiritual search that resonates for me now.

This might be the only essay about Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that does not start with a declaration of how much the book meant to me when I was 11 years old. I read it then and I liked it — it’s a quick little gulp of a book — but it didn’t reverberate in my sixth-grade psyche the way some other books did. Partly that’s because the heroine didn’t wear petticoats or face the risk of an early death. But it’s also because I found the book just a touch mortifying.

It’s not the subject of puberty that disconcerted me — getting boobs and my period never embarrassed me (though referring to breasts as a bust has always made me cringe). I was self-conscious, sure, but only because having a human body is so inherently weird and puberty is the first time you realize that. No, what embarrassed me about the book was Margaret’s earnest search for meaning, her questions for God.

Watching the new movie version of Are You There God, which is in theaters this weekend, I suddenly realized how much my adolescent self had wanted to hide her existential yearning. By the time I was Margaret’s age, I had absorbed a host of cultural messages that I should be boy crazy, makeup obsessed, and interested in clothes and the politics of girl cliques. Or I could be a tomboy, wearing oversized T-shirts and dribbling my soccer ball down the hallway. But preoccupied with the nature of life and the universe? That was going to be tough to draw in bubble letters on a school binder.

The trailer for Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

The bigness of my questions spurred me to action though. In seventh grade, I told my surprised parents that I wanted to be confirmed in the Episcopalian church where we attended the Christmas Eve caroling service (“for the lovely music”), and so, for a year, we became a church family. I went to service and class every Sunday, and dutifully memorized the Nicene Creed. I also learned that organized religion is uniquely bad at answering the ambitious, openhearted questions of a deeply-feeling girl.

I should have trusted in Judy Blume all along.

Margaret’s search for a relationship with God is at the forefront of screenwriter and director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Are You There God. Margaret Simon is not just navigating sixth grade at a new school, a move from her family’s Manhattan apartment to a house in the New Jersey suburbs, new friends, and (yes) puberty, but she is wrestling with whether she is Jewish (like one side of her family) or Christian (like the other) — or a non-practicing agnostic like her parents, who found in each other what their backgrounds could never give them. She dabbles a bit in Catholicism by going to mass with a friend, but mostly Margaret’s ongoing conversation with God is about who she is and whether a deity will have anything to do with who she is becoming. The primacy of this spiritual search is one of the wonderful ways that Fremon Craig expands Blume’s slim novel to fit the scope and runtime of a movie. (She could very well have leaned into Margaret’s budding crush on Moose Freed, for example. Thank God she didn’t.)

“It gets tiring, trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?”

Perhaps the movie’s biggest deviation from the book is the expanded role of Margaret’s mother, Barbara, played by Rachel McAdams. Barbara was primmer in the book; McAdams has a lovely open quality. She is also on a deep quest of her own, to find her voice as a painter and teacher and her role as a parent to an adolescent who no longer needs to be fed and bathed, but requires as much mothering as ever. Barbara sees all the hard work Margaret is putting into becoming; she too is trying hard to please not just her neighbors and friends and husband and daughter, but herself as well. “It gets tiring, trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?” she says softly to Margaret.

“Barbara's story is widened, and that definitely comes from my own experience trying to balance motherhood with career and dealing with all my crushing guilt about how much I work and stuff like that,” Fremon Craig told me. “I wanted to be that mom that's in the PTA and doing all those things, but I'm not built like that. I've had a lot of guilt about that for a long time.”

From left: Kathy Bates as Sylvia Simon; Judy Blume; Director Kelly Fremon Craig; Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon; and Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon. Dana Hawley

Lest the topic of “spiritual quest” put you off, let me reassure you that Are You There God is as funny and light as it is moving. Moose is there, mowing the lawn, and Margaret and her friends do chant about increasing their busts. Kathy Bates as Margaret’s grandmother Sylvia is a comic delight. Fremon Craig told me that some of Bates’ best lines were improvised. I had somehow assumed that Blume only approved Fremon Craig’s script after it was finalized and ironclad. Blume had resisted making Are You There God into a film for 50 years, and the fact that she entrusted it to someone open to improv delights me.

I don’t know if I’ve asked my daughter whether she talks to God. I can’t wait to hear the answer.

Not that Fremon Craig took her adaptation responsibilities lightly. “When I first sat down to write it, I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I was paralyzed with fear that I was going to screw it up because I did feel like I was adapting the Bible. Then I realized that my job is to deliver the feeling of the book. The way the book made you feel, that's the way the movie has to make you feel. When I talked to women who had read it when they were young, most of them did not remember much from it. They remembered a couple details. They always remembered, ‘I must, I must increase my bust,’ and maybe two or three other details, but mostly they remembered how it made them feel.”

My younger self might have felt reticent or embarrassed about Are You There God, but my big-feeling 40-something self has no qualms about falling hard for Margaret this time around. I cried watching this movie, for the girl that thought she’d find answers in Sunday school, and for lovely Barbara and grieving, fierce, funny Sylvia; for my mother, who I can no longer call up and ask about what it was like to parent a teenager. And for my own 11-year-old daughter. I can’t wait to take her to see it in a theater. We don’t need this movie to help us start a conversation about puberty or being a good friend — we talk about those things all the time — but I don’t know if I’ve asked about whether she talks to God. I can’t wait to hear the answer.