I first read Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Award-winning novel Bridge to Terabithia in fifth or sixth grade, I guess, not long after its 1978 publication. I sort of related to the protagonist, Jess Aarons. Partly because of his thing for drawing, which I shared. Partly because he was a loner at school, like I was. And partly because illustrator Donna Diamond gave him a bowl of straight white-blond hair, like I had. A few years later, I had a crush on a pretty teacher who praised my drawings, kind of like Jess’ beloved music teacher, Miss Edmunds.
Rereading the book now to my own children, I realize I also related to Jess’s friend Leslie, the new girl at school, the storyteller and inventor of imaginary worlds. I didn’t have a friendship like theirs, but I told stories to my younger brother and created various secret worlds and magical alter egos for my siblings and myself. Certainly I never went through anything quite as overwhelming as what happens in the last third of the story; but the event and its aftermath has always stayed with me. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the book before you or your kids see the film.)
Paterson’s poignant, unsentimental story speaks about real life in the real world, the world I grew up in and still live in today. The new Walden Media film version, directed by Gabor Csupo from a screenplay cowritten by the novelist’s son, adequately captures key episodes from the book, but resituates them in a fantasy world in which a rope swing over a stream really might be the doorway into a magical realm inhabited by fantastic creatures. As with Walden’s recent Charlotte’s Web, the key points of the book are here, for the most part, but hampered by irrelevant “family film” clutter — in this case unmagical fantasy sequences jarringly at odds with the story’s most significant plot point.
In Paterson’s book, as in real life, magical lands like Terabithia exist only in imagination and in books. Not books like Bridge to Terabithia — other books, like Lewis’s Narnia stories and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain tales, both of which are explicitly invoked in the narrative. (Although Paterson says it was unconscious, the name Terabithia was evidently inspired by the nearly identical Narnian-world place-name Terebinthia, which in turn was probably borrowed from the biblical terebinth tree. Similarly, Terabithia’s Prince Terrien may have been suggested by Narnia’s King Tirian from The Last Battle.)
The film, though, takes us to a world in which imagination comes to life, with lavish CGI special effects giving the magic of Terabithia a palpable presence it never had in the book, even in Jess and Leslie’s imaginations.
As played in the film, this is more than a mere stylistic conceit, a magical-realist gloss on childhood imagination. When Jess (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Because of Winn-Dixie) are under attack by magical creatures in Terabithia, they don’t act like children playing at being attacked by pretend creatures that we “see” through the eyes of imagination. They behave, well, like actors in a fantasy film action sequence really being attacked by real creatures. It’s like they step out of being the real Jess and Leslie, and become characters in one of Leslie’s stories.
These intrusions of action fantasy clash glaringly with the unyielding hardness of reality that is at the very heart of Paterson’s story. Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene in which Jess falls out of a tree. The fall should be fatal — but this is the film’s fairy-tale Terabithia, and a benevolent magic is at hand to save him.
Fans of the book will know that later in the story is a critical event in which no such deus ex machina intervenes. (Yes, it did occur to me, watching the film, that this later event occurs, as it were, on the frontier between Terabithia and the real world, so perhaps one could posit a defense for a different set of rules applying. But this whole line of thought about “rules” is already out of step with the essential issue. The two events just don’t belong in the same story.)
In spite of this miscalculation, the strengths of the original story carry over into the film to a sufficient degree to make it a worthwhile experience.
Cautious, quiet, poor, Jess doesn’t fit in anywhere — not at home, with four girly sisters and hard, remote father (Robert Patrick) whose way he tries to stay out of; and not at school, where he has rivals and enemies, but no real friends. His obsession with running — he’s been training all summer, and is determined to be the fastest kid in the fifth grade — is partly driven by youthful competitiveness and desire to prove himself, but it also seems to reflect a desire for escape, for freedom, as if he were trying to outrun the harsh realities of his hardscrabble life.
He can’t — but then he meets someone even faster.
Leslie, with her odd clothes, imagination, and genuine manner, is even less able to fit in than Jess; but if she lacks his survival skills, she possesses inner resources he doesn’t. Her imagination, fearlessness and gift for words open new worlds for Jess. In a nice touch, their Terabithian castle becomes a tree fort, which they stock with pine-cone grenades.
Only when under attack by mutant squirrels, raptors and trolls — most of whom are explicitly tied to real-world adversaries — does the story feel forced. (Why are these creatures are viscerally depicted while the treehouse, for instance, never becomes a real castle? Such questions aren’t explored.) Then there’s an odd scene in which the treehouse is almost crushed by a falling tree. An alarming real-world threat like that ought to snap the kids out of their games, but Leslie incorporates it without missing a beat, blaming the falling tree on trolls. “No,” Jess protests, “a falling tree almost killed us!” Leslie’s reaction is odd enough to make one wonder for a moment if there’s something wrong with her, which surely wasn’t the intent.
The real-world conflicts are better handled. There are occasional effective touches like Jess using a Sharpie to try to blacken the pink trim on hand-me-down sneakers from his older sisters, and bullying Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton), alternately intimidating, humiliated and finally humanized, gets a quasi-redeeming moment toward the end worth a smile. (Yet Janice’s humanization is undercut by its anticipation in the Terabinthian fantasy world.)
A visit to church (an ordinary Sunday service rather than Easter as in the book) raises questions of faith and spirituality, with the agnostically raised Leslie strangely attracted to the Jesus story in a way that Jess the believer doesn’t quite understand. On the other hand, the film omits the incipient spirituality of Leslie’s Terebithian prayers to the “Spirits” of the pine grove in the book.
The book’s 1970s setting, with its references to Vietnam and peaceniks, has been gracefully updated, with only occasional references to the Internet and handheld electronic devices and the like. Jess does still tell Leslie that she can’t wear pants to church, but I guess such churches can still be found.
One unfortunate shortcoming is Jess’s crush on Miss Edmunds (ideal Zooey Deschanel), which isn’t adequately established in the film, sapping Jess’s “perfect day” with her — and the implicit conflict that follows — of much of its significance. And when a crucial climactic event occurs, there are some odd creative choices, such as the omission of Jess’s initial reaction from the book, which ties in with his established passion for running and would have been much more cinematic than what he does in the film.
The last scene, too, is somewhat off, going for a triumphant magical finish when it should settle for bittersweet effectiveness. Even so, the power of the book’s story comes to life in fits and starts. It’s worth catching with your older kids, maybe, if you and they appreciated the book. Those who haven’t read the book should probably postpone seeing the film until they have.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.