Heres to you, Judy Blume: Son adapts novel for big screen

For more than 40 years, the name Judy Blume has been synonymous with poignant, funny and, above all, relatable novels for children and young adults — the gold standard in the genre.

Through the eyes of realistic protagonists, ages 11 to 15, Blume has tackled racism, divorce, bullying and, of course, the insidious ogre known as puberty.

This summer, the author is bringing a hearty dose of humanity to the silver screen in partnership with her son, filmmaker Lawrence Blume. “Tiger Eyes,” the first Blume novel to be adapted into a major motion picture, screens at the Castro Theatre as part of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival. Both Blumes will speak to the audience after the film.

Judy Blume (right) on the “Tiger Eyes” set with actor Tatanka Means, who plays Wolf.

An impressively faithful adaptation of the 1981 novel, “Tiger Eyes” stars Willa Holland as Davey Wexler, a teenager from Atlantic City, N.J. whose life is uprooted when her father is murdered during a robbery.

Her mother, played by Amy Jo Johnson (known to a certain generation as the Pink Power Ranger), moves Willa and her little brother to Los Alamos, N.M. to live with relatives while the family grieves. There, while her mother takes to her bed for days at a time, Willa finds a confidant in a young Native American man named Wolf (Tatanka Means) who’s in the process of losing someone as well.

It’s a story that still carries personal meaning for both the author and her son, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with his mother.

“This one has always stayed with me,” says Judy Blume, 74, in a phone interview from her home in New York. “It’s so much about a young woman who is lost when she suddenly loses her father, the adored parent. I was a bit older, I was 21 when my father died [at 54], and I don’t know if I knew I was writing about that at the time, but it’s absolutely about the loss of my father — and my mother in a way as well. She was never able to talk about it.”

The film’s setting — the dramatic cliffs and open skies of the Southwest, in stark contrast to the Atlantic City community — also reflected a personal reality for the family. Blume’s brief second marriage, in 1976, was to a physicist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory; she moved to New Mexico along with her two teenage children.

Willa Holland stars in “Tiger Eyes”

“By the time the book came out,” says her son, “I was a teenager on my way to college … but to me it absolutely reflected the story of my family’s journey from New Jersey to New Mexico,” which he says is why he has always connected with the novel. It was his first choice when he was approached by a British producer about adapting one of his mother’s books. “The experience of having to start again, with a mother who was also trying to start again, was so fresh for me when she wrote it.”

The 49-year-old director says his priority was being as faithful to the book as possible, right down to its loose ends. He also was able to capture the Judy Blume trademark —  an ability to touch on issues such as class and race and teenage alcohol abuse, without seeming heavy-handed.

In one subtle scene, Davey lights a candle alone in her room and wishes her late father, who was Jewish, a happy Chanukah while the rest of the clan is celebrating Christmas in the next room. (“I’ve always said being Jewish is just part of me, like having brown eyes,” says the author about Judaism’s recurrent appearances in her books.)

 “In everything I do, I just try to be authentic. And I’m still completely in touch with who I was as a teenager, so I know not to sugarcoat anything, ” says Lawrence Blume, who a decade ago was named one of the rising stars of comedy by the Hollywood Reporter for his first feature-length film, “Martin & Orloff.”

 “I certainly don’t like films where you know exactly what’s going to happen to every single person when it’s over… I suppose I inherited a sort of built-in B.S. detector,” he says with a laugh.

While his mother might primarily write for kids and young adults, he says, audiences of all ages are responding to the film’s themes. “At festivals, we’ve had women in their 50s and 60s coming up with tears in their eyes to say how much they could relate,” says the filmmaker. “I think anyone who’s lost someone will find something familiar.”

As for the author, she agreed to help make the movie in large part because of her son’s love for the book. Despite decades of turning down filmmakers who approached her about adapting classics such as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” she says she’s never been anti-movie: It just needed to feel right.

“I adore movies, I grew up with movies,” says the author, whose husband of 34 years, George Cooper, founded a nonprofit movie theater in Key West, Fla., where the couple spend their summers. “It’s never been about saying no — it’s about having passion for the

project. Larry always had the passion for ‘Tiger Eyes.’ ”

The filmmaker also saw to it that his co-writer was on set for every day of filming in New Mexico, a grueling experience that filled the elder Blume with pride — though she’s not eager to do it again anytime soon.

 “I enjoyed it, but I really just want to write!” says the author. She’s already working on her next novel, which takes place in New Jersey in the 1950s — but so far it’s just a “very rough” first draft.

“I’m sitting here looking at two great beautiful blank notebooks,” she says. “This part never gets any easier.”

“Tiger Eyes” screens at 3:55 p.m. Sunday, July 22 at the Castro.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.