Wolves, Tigers, and Blumes, Oh My!
At long last Judy Blume has hit the big screen with a much-anticipated adaptation of her 1981 novel, Tiger Eyes. You can read my review of the book here.
REPEAT OFFENDER: Tiger Eyes (2012)
THE REVIEW: I had the good fortune of seeing Tiger Eyes at an advanced screening at Hampshire College. I watched it again after it’s recent official cinematic release and am happy to say it was just as good the second time around. Based on the book by Judy Blume and directed by her son, Lawrence Blume (himself a Hampshire alum), this small-budget film was truly a labor of love.
In a world saturated with teen movies based on books, Tiger Eyes is that rare film that provides all of the requisite drama and heartthrobs but with the heart and soul (and most importantly brain) that many teen-oriented films so sorely lack. Despite ruffling some conservative feathers, it is also a movie that multiple generations could watch together without any party feeling uncomfortable or unengaged.
First off, this film has an excellent cast. Arrow’s Willa Holland (Davey Wexler) is at the helm of this character-driven story and proves worthy to the challenge of her first starring role. She is backed by a support cast that is nothing short of perfect. I can’t complain about anyone, although Davey’s dad is inordinately attractive for a former teen dad working a deadend job.
Cynthia Stevenson embodies the neurotic but nurturing Aunt Bitsy, Forrest Fyre is a spot on Walter, and Lucien Dale is an absolutely adorable Jason. Amy Jo Johnson (though absent for much of the film) gives a numb yet vulnerable performance as Davey’s depressed and drug-addled mother. 90s children may be distressed to learn that the Pink Ranger is playing a teenager’s mother, but let’s face it, the Power Rangers were probably old enough to be parents back when they were pretending to be high schoolers. Elise Eberle (who looks astonishingly like Teen Wolf’s Holland Roden) allows Jane Albertson to unravel before the audience’s eyes without ever losing sympathy. Though very small roles, Jane’s friend and the Creative Anachronisms girl both shine in the brief moments they are given the spotlight.
Then there’s Tatanka Means. In addition to perfect cheekbones, Tatanka breathes an understated liveliness into Wolf/Martin Ortiz. His easy presence provides a perfect foil for Davey’s spiraling anxiety. Tatanka is joined by his real life father, Russell Means (best known for Last of the Mohicans). The fact that Mr. Ortiz is dying of cancer became bittersweet when Russell Means was diagnosed with cancer soon after filming. Tiger Eyes is one of his final performances and one that suddenly hits much closer to home.
Though a very faithful adaptation, I was surprised upon reading the book (yes, I’m a heathen and I saw the movie first) to learn that all of the scenes on the pueblo were added. In fact, Wolf is never stated to be Native American in the book at all. When he first appears, his ethnic background is not stated, a rare move in the literary world, where characters are unfortunately assumed white until otherwise specified (and even then still sometimes assumed to be white if The Hunger Games debacle is anything to go by). Wolf is later stated to be Hispanic. However, Hispanic and Native American are by no means mutually exclusive, particularly in the American Southwest.
There was a great deal on the race relations of Los Alamos and its surrounding area in the book, perhaps best displayed by the shopping trip. The so-called “Anglo” population of Los Alamos is a privileged group employed by the lab (or married to those employed by the lab). They live in an isolated, safe community yet are terrified. Jane is so afraid of the local men that she won’t go near them, even in public, and Walter carries a gun whenever he leaves their neighborhood.
Given that Los Alamos developed the bomb and Walter designs weapons, it’s a potent examination of how those with all the power and weapons still feel powerless and afraid. The Anglo and Hispanic communities both distrust one another and both perpetuate each other’s resentment and fear. Davey is able to see this cycle for what it is as she is an outsider who does not share the inherent prejudices of those born and raised in Los Alamos.
Nearly all of this is gone from the movie, though inequalities of opportunity and economics are implied, as Mr. Ortiz was a janitor at the lab and Wolf is the first of his family to go to college. The prejudices of Los Alamos, though diminished in the film, are clear in the scene where Davey is driven home by Wolf. Aunt Bitsy demands to know who Davey was with, chiding her for getting into cars with strange boys, not knowing Wolf is a better friend to Davey than Jane. Aunt Bitsy is scandalized to learn that Wolf’s last name is Ortiz and, when told he no longer attends the high school, assumes he is a dropout when he is actually a student at CalTech. This credential satisfies Walter, whose classism takes priority over his racism, at least in this instance.
Speaking of college, in the book Davey’s father was supposed to go to college and be a big basketball star, but a surprise pregnancy left him supporting a family on only a high school education. Davey thinks she is the reason he has to work in the store instead of following his dreams and, though never stated, may, by extension, blame herself for his death. This is never mentioned in the film.
There is also a great deal more about Jane’s pressure to be a perfect, high achieving, Ivy League daughter in the book. I’m surprised this was less present in the movie, as that pressure to succeed seems even more prevalent and topical now. I do wish they would have played down her alcoholism just a bit, as I think how alcoholism is portrayed in film gives people the mistaken idea that if you’re not passing out in a pool of vomit you don’t have a problem.
However, Jane’s arc is still a powerful one and an interesting counterpoint for Davey’s lack of emphasis on formal schooling and resume-building. The scene in which Bitsy praises Davey for befriending Jane and Walter hopes some of Jane’s academic focus can rub off on her is ironic, given that Jane is far more self-destructive and dysfunctional than their “piece of work” niece. This tension boils over when Walter and Davey argue about her future and Walter says her father lived a wasted life and failed his family. This scene showcases Walter’s faults and offers the viewer two differing views of success, neither of which seem to have panned out well. Again, Walter has all of the power but feels as though the world is beyond his control.
The PTSD aspect is played down and neither Davey nor her mother see a therapist, but the overall feeling and message of Tiger Eyes not only remains, but has been lovingly polished. Despite missing the aforementioned components, some of the added scenes were the ones that stood out the most. Making Aunt Bitsy the mother’s sister made more sense to me and Davey’s quiet “Happy Chanukah” as she lights the candle for her father while her mother is lost to the picture perfect Christmas party downstairs is a darkly moving one that elicited a strong reaction at the advanced screening.
In addition, the ritual in which Wolf is taken in by all of the tribe since the loneliness and isolation of one affects the well-being of the whole is a wonderful addition to a story about healing, family, and how the disconnected and the hurt can find and help one another. In the end, it’s hard to say which I enjoyed more, the book or the movie, though Tatanka Means does give the movie an edge.
Tiger Eyes is a great coming of age film with a strong script, inspiring story, and superb casting. I highly recommend it to teens and anyone who has ever been a teen. Though not a high-profile film, Judy Blume has made a memorable entrance into the cinematic world and I look forward to many more adaptations of her works.
Tiger Eyes, como vida, es una buena aventura. (Forgive me if I’m a bit rusty. It’s been five years since last I took Spanish.)
THE CONTROVERSY: As this article points out, Judy Blume is an unused goldmine of potential in a time when YA is proving a reliable cash cow in the box office. In fact, many profitable YA film adaptations such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are also banned books. The article suggests Blume’s foray into film will be heralded by generations of girls but likely lamented by conservatives, who have long taken issue with Blume’s honest portrayals of puberty, sex, and the trials and tribulations of moving from childhood into adulthood in a confusing world.
However, the modest nature of the film means less controversy than its big-budget peers. So far the movie has only led to an increased awareness of the history of controversy surrounding Blume’s books and her years of advocacy against censorship. It is more than a bit odd that it took so long for such a beloved, enduring author to hit the big screen and perhaps this was out of fear of said controversy (though, as stated above, that didn’t stop J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer from getting movie deals).
Some have suggested that Blume’s work has not been previously tapped by the film industry because her legions of fans are girls. The majority of decision-making positions in the entertainment industry are men, so they may have been completely unaware of Judy Blume’s iconic status, just as many outside of the nerd/YouTube spheres may have no idea who John Green is, despite his die-hard fans and one million Twitter followers. Whatever the reason for Blume’s late cinematic blooming, we can only hope the film industry has realized the error of its ways.
Tiger Eyes is currently playing in select theatres and is available for rental and purchase on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and OnDemand. Follow Tiger Eyes on Facebook and Twitter for more information.