Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bridge to Terabithia

I woke up a few days ago at three with a head cold and a sore back.  The cold I knew had been coming since early the previous night.  The back was from the way I had slept.  So, I went into my TV room and laid on the couch, because that’s the only way I know to cure a backache – my couch is apparently better for my back than my bed is.  In order to pass the time, I turned on the TV and find Bridge to Terabithia playing.  Well, I had just read that book a week and a half ago for class, so I thought it was a good opportunity to watch the movie and do my review on it.

Bridge to Terabithia is a novel written by Katherine Paterson and published by HarperCollins in 1978.  It is one of the most frequently banned books, ranking at number 8 on the ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990 – 2000 (over Heather has Two Mommies) and number 28 on the 2000-2009 list.  I read a synopsis of the book about a year ago, and to be honest I couldn’t see why it was banned so often.  The reasons for its banning have run the gambit from profanity, to religious reasons, to blurring fantasy and reality.  One list of banned books cited sexual content as a reason for its often challenged status.  What, I thought, were Leslie and Jess getting it on in Terabithia or something?

The book opens with Jesse Aarons on Summer break, getting up at the crack of dawn, his little sister May Belle asking if he was gonna go run. Jess has been practicing all summer, determined to win the playground race against the fifth grade boys in his school instead of just being that “crazy kid who draws all the time”. We get a look at his home life and introduction to his family. He’s the middle of five children, and the only boy. His mother is a Georgia raised woman much of whose page time is spent judging other people whilst worrying about other people judging her family, and his father is distant toward his son and doesn’t approve of Jess’s hobby of drawing because he doesn’t want Jess to become some hippie. His older sisters are bratty self centered teenagers and his littlest sister is a four year old crybaby. The only sister Jess has a connection to is May Belle, who idolizes him.

A new girl moves in to the farm next door and introduces herself as Leslie Burke.  On the first day of school a couple weeks later, Jess is feeling confident that he can win the race.  When recess comes ‘round Leslie kind of stalks Jess and hangs out at his shoulder to watch.  Jess breaks up an argument over a tie, and the bossy boy leading the formalities of the race teases him and his Leslie shadow that maybe he’d want a girl to race.  Angry, and seeing no harm in letting her race since there’s no way a girl would have any effect on the outcome, he asks Leslie if she’d like to.  So guess what happens next?  Leslie wins.

In class on Friday, we meet Ms. Edmonds for the first time.  Jess has thought about Ms. Edmonds a few times already, so we know she’s the young, pretty music teacher that is the only person that Jess shares his drawings with because she tells him that he has a special talent.  Yeah, Jess has a crush on her.  While she teaches the class to sing Free to be You and Me, Jess and Leslie’s eyes meet, and in the good mood they smile and become friends in spite of his bitterness at the whole race debacle.

A few days later, Mrs. Myers (the homeroom teacher) reads Leslie’s composition in class because of her excellent use of adjectives and having an unusual hobby “for a girl” – SCUBA diving.  This prompts Mrs. Myers to ask the children to watch a program on Jacques Cousteau.  Leslie explains that she can’t watch it because she doesn’t have a TV – not that she’s poor (quite to opposite, actually) but because she just doesn’t have one.  Because this is the most unusual thing this class has ever heard of, all of the kids except Jess tease her about it.  On the bus home, an upset Leslie sits in the back of the bus and is saved by Jess from being squashed by the school bully, Janice Avery, for sitting in the eighth graders’ spot.

Leslie and Jess hang out that day after school and end up in the woods near their houses.  After wandering for a while, they find a brook with an old rope hanging over it.  Leslie swings over and convinces Jess to do the same, and on the other side of the brook, they “find” the magical kingdom of Terabithia, a place just for themselves.  As the King and Queen of Terabithia, they have many adventures killing giant trolls, warding off invading armies, and building a “castle”.  And for the first time since he could remember, Jesse doesn’t really care what other people think.

Jess is, for the most part, a boy like most others in fifth grade: kind of self conscious, needing approval of fellow fifth grade boys.  He keeps himself out of trouble and only shares his artwork with the only person who he knows will praise it – Ms. Edmonds.  His father disapproves Jess’s hobby and his choice in friends.  While it’s not outright said, it is implied he is afraid that his son will turn gay or hippie or some other social outcast (keep in mind this is in the 1970’s) from drawing and hanging out with girls all day.

Leslie is highly imaginative (clearly) and non-confrontational, at least not in anger.  While she will bravely ward off giants from Terabithia, in real life she seeks a more creative and nonphysical way of dealing with conflict.  When Janice steals May Belle’s Twinkie she comes up with an alternate way of getting revenge instead of fighting.  Her parents are writers, and although we don’t meet them properly until about halfway through the book, we get the feeling that they are trying their best to be a better family unit, even if Leslie is a little bitter that they still don’t seem to have much time for her – at least for the moment.

Some of the reasons this book has been banned are actually kind of unclear to me.  There could be any number of reasons parents would want to ban a book; most of them, I think, are parents overreacting to a situation presented in the book, and some are parents thinking their kids are stupid.  The argument that Bridge to Terabithia blurs fantasy and reality is absurd to me, since kids should already know how to discern the two long before being able to read this book.  Even in the instances of either Leslie or Jess being imaginative, it is clear that’s what they are doing.  Complaints about vulgar language may be slightly founded.  There are a few instances that took me aback for a moment, but it’s along the mild side of anything fifth graders say and very sporadic.  Grief is a prevalent theme in the later chapters, and maybe some parents think fifth grade is too young for kids to deal with loss (sarcastic font: employ!)  And by the way, that’s a teaser, not a spoiler.

As far as sexual content… “Content” I think is the wrong word for it, and touches on the only problem I have with the book.  The relationship between Jess and Ms. Edmonds doesn’t seem to be handled correctly.  I think Katherine Paterson was going for a supportive teacher that wants to encourage Jess.  What it comes off as is Ms. Edmonds pays a bit too much attention to Jess, more than is natural for a teacher to her ten year old student.  But there is no blatant flirting, and no, Jess and Leslie do not get it on in Terabithia.

The book has been adapted twice: once in 1987 for a PBS made for TV movie, and also in a 2007 feature film from Disney directed by Gábor Csupó (of Rugrats fame).  The Disney version is the one I will review, since that’s the one I saw, but anyone who has seen the PBS one is more than welcome to add a comment about it. 

The story is mostly the same, so I’m not going to go into too much plot detail over again.  Some of the more drastic differences are forgivable but slightly annoying to the nit-pickiest of us, and are on the characterizations of Leslie and Jess’s parents, and the setting of Terabithia.  I do have an honorable mention for the handling of interactions between Ms. Edmonds and Jess.  It seems like a much more natural teacher-student relationship, even if the long-held trust Jess displays in showing his work to her is forfeited for an accidental glimpse of the drawings.

In the movie, Jess’s dad is a much more prominent character whose purpose is to teach Jess his place in life.  He is very harsh – overly harsh – to Jess while being very affectionate toward the girls.  There are two added subplots that seem to exist more or less just to show that Jess is berated by his father – one for releasing a possum into the wild instead of killing it, and later for losing his dad’s keys, which were actually taken by May Belle.  This alternate dad characterization actually leads Jess to shoot down Leslie right before he finds Prince Terrien (read the book to find out who he is), giving us a pointless U-turn in the plot that is reversed three minutes later.  While this change in character does give the same vibe that Jess is unsatisfied with his relationship with his dad, his dad comes off more as a jerk than just a guy who is afraid his son is turning into a gay hippie.  There is a bit of a character change in Jess’s mom, too; she’s downplayed and what we do see of her is much more warm and accepting and more like a normal modern mom than the Georgian hypocrite she is in the book.  Not that it matters much to the plot.

Leslie is a bit more proactive in defending herself and the other students.  She confronts Janice about bullying early on by likening her to a troll asking girls to pay a toll of lunch money to use the loo.  Later when Janice is picking on May Belle, she leads the little girls in a “Free the Pee” march.  Instead of making her someone Jess thinks is amazing for all the experiences she has had, she is just a girl with an imagination vivid enough to make up a story about SCUBA diving.  But, again, this really doesn’t hinder the story too much.

The setting of Terabithia to me was sometimes confusing.  The physical place in the woods is much deeper than it is in the book.  Book Jess was too afraid to go that deep in the woods on a regular basis.  Movie Jess is just fine with it.  The movie places Terabithia on the other side of the territory of the imaginary Dark Master, who takes the form of a dementor (apparently).  Along the way they find an abandoned pickup truck, and in Terabithia there is already a tree house which is a short montage and some nasally Disney-pop away from being their castle.  It feels more like Leslie and Jess invade and take over Terabithia rather than them building it themselves.  The thought did occur to me, though, that maybe these things were left by the Leslie and Jess in the book, since the truck looks kind of like a 70’s model and the tree house is run down enough to have been there for 20 or so years.  But then there’s the space-time continuum to think about, so maybe not.

The Dark Master’s minions are what confuse me most.  While the CGI is visually pleasing for the imagined monsters and likewise defenders of Terabithia, there is much more of a blur between fantasy and reality in the movie.  There are plenty of battle scenes where the characters, including Prince Terrien (ok, he’s a dog, P.T. for short) interact cooperatively with something imagined.  At one point, Leslie gets attacked by a ROUS, and Jess tries to fend him off and fails – ok, I’m good so far – but then P.T. bites the imaginary thing of Leslie’s (that he can somehow see) in the butt (meh, kid humor).  There’s where I get confused.  How can P.T. see something that’s in Jess’s and Leslie’s minds?  Is there something actually there?  Later, retrieving his dad’s keys, Jess falls out of a tree about 20 or so feet.  He is caught by a troll they had sort of tamed.  How?  Was the fall really not as long as it was imagined to be?  Did a tree branch break his fall?  It is as if the movie sometimes forgets that Terabithia and its inhabitants weren’t real.

Squogres?  I don't think they exist...

This is one of the better movie adaptations I have seen.  It’s pretty faithful to the story, what changes exist seem to be either for budget purposes (perhaps they spent too much on CGI that they couldn’t afford a cow, so they went with a greenhouse instead) or for time-constrained understanding of the symbolism, such as in the enemies of Terabithia (who often take the form of school bullies), and ultimately don’t affect the plot or the themes of the story.  If you have kids (or are a big kid yourself) and feel that they are mature enough to know the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy, I’d say give both the book and the movie a go.

Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, baripity, baripity, baripity – Good.  His dad had the pickup going.  He could get up now.


  1. I actually had a really hard time reading this book. I love the story, and actually think it's a GOOD idea to expose children to books with themes including grief and loss (clearly I'm going to make a terrible mother one day), because that's a safe form for them to deal with them in. But I think it was just something in the style or maybe with all the Southern-ness of it all that I didn't care for...I'm not really sure what it was, but I liked the plot and story much more than the actual writing style.

    As far as the movie's interpretation of the fight scenes go, I think that's something that can be chalked up to their imaginations. Jess and Leslie wanted P.T. involved, so he was. Even if in real life he was just running by their side or even sitting under a tree, when they were playing maybe Leslie shouted, "P.T., bite him!" so he did. Same goes for the fall; Jess may have jumped 6 inches and didn't get caught by anyone, but in their minds it was a huge fall and a heroic save. I think that's just something the movie can do that the book couldn't do as well; totally show everything how Jess and Leslie saw it, without having to explain how it really happened. It opened the window into their imaginations.

  2. I've never seen the movie so I dunno much 'bout it, but I'm not surprised they CGI'd the thing six ways from sunday and blurred the line between reality and fantasy for the sake of special effects. Big ol' battle scenes and monsters sell movie tickets I guess.


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