Judy and I
I don't remember anyone turning me into a film-lover. I've never needed any encouragement to watch television. But I have only one person to thank for turning me into a book-lover. Despite coming from a book-loving family, as a child I found reading to myself to be tedious and boring. My parents, teachers, brother, even a tutor, all tried to tell me that I should read (read to myself, read books without pictures) as it'll do me good, I'm missing out, of course I'll enjoy it. And then, when I was about 10 years old, along came one very special lady whom I finally thanked in person yesterday: Judy Blume.
Blume's were the first books I read which I couldn't put down, which I brought to the dinner table and my parents were so surprised and delighted that they didn't tell me to put the book away while I was eating. Blume writes candidly and kindly about pre-teen and teenage life, describing the mundanity of those years so accurately, and with respect, compassion and sympathy for the psychological realities of pre-pubescence and adolescence.
Blume is on a tour promoting her latest adult novel, In the Unlikely Event. I went to hear her speak at a London event on Sunday, along with several old friends. It was a wonderful evening, and Blume discussed her enviable career and her much-loved characters. I queued up to get my tatty, 1988 edition of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret signed, along with the obligatory hardback of her new release. And I thanked her for inspiring me with a love of reading.
From book to screen?
I enjoyed Sarah Churchwell's interview, and I liked many of the audience's questions. But one theme of the evening's discussion made me feel uneasy.
Several people asked Blume her thoughts on adapting her books into films. With 85 million books sold around the world so far, you'd think there'd be quite the public appetite for her books to be brought to screen. Indeed, Blume adapted Tiger Eyes into a film in collaboration with her son Lawrence Blume as director and writer of the screenplay (released in 2012). Blume said that she chose Tiger Eyes for screen adaptation because it has a strong narrative and a sense of place which were important for making a successful film. I haven't seen the film, and unfortunately I don't remember enjoying the book all that much because its plot was unusual, its setting too esoteric, and it didn't tap in to my rather boring pre-teen experience. But what I loved about Blume's other books, such as Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Deenie, Blubber, and Just as Long as We're Together, was precisely the lack of plot, the suburban drama, and the interiority of narration.
Yet, judging from the audience of fans at Sunday's event, the public desire for these interiorities to be brought to the big screen remains high. Having a book turned into a film is now a mark of success and mass appeal, but not every author wants their books to be adapted, and many who do (Blume, E.L. James, and countless others) state that they will allow an adaptation only if they can be closely involved in the process and have control over several aspects of production: no easy task for a writer. Blume also admitted that Hollywood tends to make children "cutesy", which would rule out a faithful representation of most of her protagonists, especially, she said, Blubber.
Films made and marketed specifically for Young Adult audiences are hugely profitable. Unlike Blume's novels, these films often portray fantasy worlds, their plots full of action and extraordinary events. Books which have successfully been adapted to the screen for this age group include series such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight to name but a few. It is relatively new to aim films at this market share: as Blume described, as a child in the 1950s she went to the cinema frequently but would see whatever was showing on general release, often not understanding all of what she saw, and absorbing it nonetheless. So too did she read whatever she could, whether it was aimed at young readers or not. Blume made her name in the 1970s tapping into the neglected young adult readership. But that age group is now acknowledged as an important consumer base of film and literature.
Yesterday's discussion got me thinking about why the question of film adaptation irked me. Why do we want to see on screen what we imagine in books? Why are we not satisfied with keeping our most treasured characters in our mind's eye? Being a scholar of film studies, my thoughts turned to film theory for an answer, to theoretical debates about cinema and the psyche.
But many great films are brilliant adaptations of books. So what is it about adapting Blume's stories specifically that made me feel uncomfortable?
My reaction to the question is more personal, more simple and more essentially fearful than a theoretical argument could explain: If I had watched a film of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret then I perhaps wouldn't have bothered to read the book. And then I may not have read anything for pleasure at all. Ever.
So thank you again, Judy, and Margaret too.