"Someone came to us and said, 'Hey kids, do you want to make a movie?'" Judy Blume said with a laugh when I spoke to her by phone last month about the upcoming release of the film adaptation of "Tiger Eyes," based on her 1981 novel. "No, that's not what they said. But they had funding to adapt a couple of books into movies, and they asked us (Blume and her son, Lawrence Blume, a film director) which one we would like to do, and we didn't hesitate for a second. Because we always knew which one."
When "Tiger Eyes" opens in theaters Friday, it will be the first of her books to make its way to movie screens. This is a bewildering fact when you consider her output over more than 40 years includes staples such as "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," "Deenie" and "Blubber." It is even more head-scratching when you consider just how hot the young adult and children's book markets have become for movie adaptations.
But her books never leapt from the page as ready-made film franchises. They are not high-concept, larger-than-life stories set in futuristic dystopias. They do not involve chaotic adventures or otherworldly love interests or possible merchandising tie-ins. No. Blume's novels have always been lean and grounded in ordinary, human-scale, real-people problems.
Blume has sold more than 80 million books in the course of a notable career, and the intensity of feeling she generates among her readers, many now well into adulthood, is not to be underestimated.
Winner of the of the 2013 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize, which she will receive June 9 at the Printers Row Lit Fest, Blume writes about the business of living and the pleasures and angst therein.
"I think the (movie) studios, in general, are mostly interested in the bigger, tent pole films, things that can open very wide and have an enormous amount of marketing that can be thrown at them," her son, who goes by Larry, told me by phone last month. "They kind of make business sense. So the smaller, more emotionally-driven, character-driven pieces that are naturalistic in style tend to be of less interest to them. That's my sense, but who knows, because every once in a while something comes along that's great."
A couple of TV projects based on Blume's books did get off the ground, including an adaptation of "Forever …" starring Stephanie Zimbalist that aired on CBS in 1978, an odd choice for a movie of the week given the novel's frank portrayal of teen sex. (Knowledge of the book's more explicit passages has long been a trade secret among those who read it as preteens, myself included, who passed around copies with specific pages dog-eared.) No one has uploaded the film to YouTube as of yet, and it might as well be a lost artifact.
"I have a copy on VHS in my closet here," Judy Blume said from her home in Key West, Fla. "And you know where we got it? On eBay or something."
"Tiger Eyes" is a different sort of project altogether. Hollywood may have dithered over the years, not quite sure what to do with Blume's novels, but perhaps it is just as well. Her work has always had more of an indie film sensibility.
Of all her novels, Blume calls "Tiger Eyes" the most obviously cinematic, a coming-of-age story set primarily in Los Alamos, N.M., where a teenage girl named Davey moves with her mother and younger brother after her father's murder. Starring Willa Holland ("Arrow" and "Gossip Girl") as the lanky, vanity-free high schooler, Davey is forever tamping down her grief and confusion in this surreal, sunbaked place. All the while, her mother is off in a fog all her own. This is a family in crisis, and the film feels thematically similar to 2011's "The Descendants," this time told from the teenage vantage point.
Initially, the film's producers didn't have a specific project in mind, said Larry Blume, "which is not unlike many producers. I'm sure Judy told you about the 'Judy, sweetheart!' lunches with producers who come out of the woodwork and say, 'We want to do Judy Blume.' And she says, 'Well, what do you want to do?' And they say, 'Anything!' And she says, 'Well, when you know what you want to do, come back and we can talk.'"
About 10 years ago Disney was developing a film based on "Deenie," a project that never got off the ground.
"I know at one point Gus van Sant called about doing 'Forever …,'" Larry Blume said, "and we looked at each other like, 'Awesome! Great!' And then he made four or five other movies."
But as a director, Larry was only interested in two of his mother's books: the adult novel "Summer Sisters" and "Tiger Eyes." The latter was chosen because it fit the small budget (less than $2.5 million) available. Judy and Larry would ultimately co-write the script.
"The story itself is close to me," she said, "and it's close to him too. It's close to us for different reasons. The New Mexico setting is an important part of the story. We lived there. We knew it."
Shortly after divorcing her first husband in 1976, Blume married a physicist and left her native New Jersey, moving west to Los Alamos with her two children (Larry and his older sister, Randy). By all accounts, it was a difficult transition and a difficult marriage.
"I cried every day," she told People magazine in 1984. "Anyone who thinks my life was cupcakes all the way is wrong."
The marriage was brief, but the family stayed in New Mexico, relocating to Santa Fe, where Larry spent his teen years and Judy would later write the manuscript for "Tiger Eyes." (She has since remarried, to former law professor George Cooper, with whom she has been for 33 years.)
"I was 13 when we moved to Los Alamos," said Larry, "a little younger than Davey's character, but the circumstances were similar. Not in that my father died, but my parents split up, and so I sort of, in a way, lost my father, and I was taken thousands of miles away to this exotic place that I had never been and didn't know anybody, and kind of was left to figure it out.
"I felt like I understood that story in a very intimate and personal way, and it really resonated with me. And I always thought, from the moment I read it, I would love to make this into a movie someday."