JULY 20, 2013
JUDY BLUME had Twitter aflutter. She was on location in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tweeting the play-by-play as her beloved novel Tiger Eyes was brought to life in a full-length feature 30 years after its publication — and her son, the director Lawrence Blume, was behind the camera to boot. Who was playing Davey? What did it feel like to return to Los Alamos? Blume graciously responded to fans’ tweets, and I understood the mix of excitement and trepidation that seemed to underscore their questions. Readers often hold fervent hope that a film will substantiate, and perhaps even enhance, the reel they project between the lines. So when a director — no matter how well intentioned — fails to capture the story in the mind’s eye on the big screen, it’s no wonder some readers feel a personal sense of betrayal.
Of course, that’s the downside of all adaptations: a book unfurls across the endless expanse of the imagination, while a film is firmly rooted by the coordinates of place and time. As the author John le Carré put it, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” (Though The Constant Gardener made for great cinematic soup).
Story integrity is paramount to die-hard fiction fans like Judy Blume’s, who honor the author with an annual “Blumesday.” Their devotion is justified by Blume’s ability to nestle within the deepest folds of adolescence, which distinguishes her young adult novels to this day. In Tiger Eyes, 15-year-old Davey Wexler is struggling to move on after her father is shot and killed in a holdup. Legions of readers revered Davey for her courage and unrelenting quest for understanding in the face of death. In an intimate first-person she confided in me, a 13-year-old reader, the secret adults were unwilling to admit: some things you don’t get over and some pain never goes away, but somehow, you learn to move on.
Blume’s unique brand of searing self-reflection works wonders in novels, but how to translate that interiority to film — especially in an era of big-budget YA blockbusters? Twilight was practically made for the screen, thanks to its surreal action sequences, but even The Hunger Games, which is equally epic in scope, suffered in translation. While the aesthetics made for an entertaining movie, the film was unable to recreate the intimacy of Katniss’s first person narrative. Tiger Eyes is a straightforward story about a real young woman going through a complicated time, and when I spoke with Lawrence Blume, he told me he wanted to keep it that way.
“I thought it was very cinematic and very visual, and it was about a place I knew. I knew the canyons, and I knew the caves, so I felt a very personal connection to the story,” he says. Having moved to Los Alamos after his parents divorce as a teenager, there was plenty Lawrence identified with in the novel: the sense of loneliness, isolation, and being torn away from everything familiar. In that sense, Davey’s story was his own.
“The first thing I learned [from my mother] about storytelling is that it’s just damn hard work, no matter how talented people are or not,” he continues.
[The second thing] I learned was story integrity, and that you must remain focused on the story at all costs. That’s something that, for a filmmaker, is one of the hardest things to learn. You have a lot of noise, and you’re surrounded by people who are trying to make your vision come to life. Thinking of the integrity of the story is paramount.
For Lawrence Blume, that meant toying with the novel’s structure to keep the essence of the story intact. With so many subplots and peripheral characters, Blume threw out a lot of bathwater to keep the baby. He jettisons the first chunk of the book set in Atlantic City, since “an audience would never sit still for 40 minutes before you got to the crux of the matter.” After a brief but poignant funeral scene and a few establishing shots of the ocean, the film jumps to the ochre and beige palette of Los Alamos, where Davey’s mother exiles the family to live with an aunt and uncle in order to heal.
Davey’s journey really begins with the proverbial trip west, but those familiar with the novel may miss the symbolic juxtaposition of Davey’s lush life in Atlantic City — the endless ocean at her doorstep, the vibrancy of the boardwalk — with her new life in arid New Mexico. According to Lawrence Blume, those early scenes of extreme grief weren’t integral to the story.
“[For me] the book was about a young woman discovering who she was, and that was the part that excited me. I didn’t want to make a depressing downer of a movie. I wanted it to be about that moment when you discover for the first time you’re in control, and you’re going to shape how your life goes, not the adults around you.”
So Lawrence shakes things up a bit. In the novel, Davey’s flashbacks to the night of her father’s murder haunt her. First there’s the thrill of a date on a sultry summer evening, then she’s kissing a boy’s salty lips behind her father’s store as the sound of gunshots permanently shatters the mood. Slowly, chapter by chapter, we learn Davey runs into her father’s store after hearing the fatal shots and clings to him as he struggles for life. The mix of sexuality and violence is a menace in her memory, and her flashbacks make for a chilling refrain that creates tension early on.
In the film, the structure is inverted. Flashbacks are used sparingly (Lawrence finds them “hokey” on screen) and he reconstructs what happens on that horrific night in abstract fragments that amplify the atmospheric quality and suspense in the book. Viewers don’t know that the brown bag the camera keeps panning over is filled with clothes caked with her father’s blood, as we do in the novel.
“What actually happened that night is the one thing I have to bring forward,” says Lawrence. “So I structured the film to wind itself up to that climactic moment, which you don’t need to do so much in the book form. [In a film] if I have the sense of knowing what’s going to happen, I lose the sense of being propelled forward moment by moment.”
Blume’s direction reflects his commitment to telling a story of discovery, not loss. Yet the places where Judy Blume is at her finest — channeling Davey’s innermost thoughts — presented a challenge for a third-person medium. For Lawrence, expressing Davey’s interiority without making her meditations on death saccharine or heavy-handed required some judicious camerawork.
“I wanted to make it feel like a first-person movie. For that, Davey had to be in every scene and almost every shot, or suddenly you’d feel like you were outside of her experience. Then you’d lose the first person point of view about what this girl is going through,” he says.
Blume ended up cutting the few scenes he filmed where Davey wasn’t involved because he felt the dramatic momentum stalled. In the final cut, she’s not only in every scene, but the camera is often tracking her face. The camerawork transforms her ruminations in the novel, like this one as she’s climbing the Los Alamos Canyon for the first time, with a tender elegance:
I want to talk to him so badly I ache. I want to tell him how I climbed down into the canyon by myself. That I wasn’t afraid. I want to tell him everything. Everything that had happened since that night. Everything I am thinking and feeling […] I wish I could feel his kiss on my forehead again, light and loving […] and then it hits me, the realization that I’ll never be with him again. Never. That he isn’t coming back.
Instead of using the monologue (which, as a voiceover, would reek of melodrama) Blume translates this passage into the visual language of film: crouched on the cliffs, staring forlornly out into the vast canyon, Davey appears small and vulnerable against the towering bluffs behind here. (Here it must be noted how much Willa Holland’s subtle performance tells the story; there is always something churning behind her eyes.) When she shouts “Daddy?” her unanswered question echoing into the emptiness, the moment has the same chilling impact it does in the book — even though whole pages are reduced to a single tableau.
Blume attributes his dedication to sussing out the shots that would tell the story accurately to his mother:
We were on the set, and she [Judy] sat next to me every single day. There were a lot of times when things were going on that were difficult or distracting, and I’d turn to her and say well, how was that take? And she always was entirely focused — because she had the luxury — on “What’s inside Davey’s head? What’s the story?” Regardless of what was going on around us.
Davey’s story — both onscreen and on the page — is identifiable because there is no happily ever after, no tidy epiphany. There are only the unwieldy processes of growing up and moving forward. But unlike the clichéd angsty teen or the manic pixie dream girl (she who exists merely to complete someone else’s fantasy) Davey is charting her own course. Tiger Eyes the novel illuminates the process of navigating through grief and coming into one’s own. The film makes the process palpable through the authentic depiction of an intelligent, sensitive, and tough young woman. A strong female protagonist who remains central to film is quite refreshing, even in an industry that often prefers otherwise, and even in 2013. It’s a testament to Lawrence Blume’s vision of Davey, but that insight was something that came naturally.
“I was born into a world of strong women,” says Lawrence Blume. “I just like women strong, and as tough as nails and tough as men. I don’t see enough of that. Even when Charlie’s Angels are going around kicking butt, they still need to go back and get Charlie’s approval. And I don’t always think that’s necessary.”