Finding Neverland, er, Terabithia
And now for the Bridge to Terabithia movie review. The book review can be found here.
REPEAT OFFENDER: Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
THE REVIEW: This movie is set in that same unclear netherworld as many a comic book or teen movie. Parts of it seem like they could be the 70s rural setting of the book, but other aspects seem modern. Leslie’s clothing has been updated to fit the modern idea of eccentric misfit (although the eccentric misfit look she rocks is pretty trendy at the moment), as a girl with short hair who wears pants instead of a dress is hardly gossip-worthy these days.
Whether due to the (potential?) change in time period or for the sake of brevity, much of the political, sociocultural, and economic tensions of the book have been played down or dropped. These complex issues have been largely simplified into a message of allowing yourself to be creative/an individual and keeping your mind open. While cutting the deeper issues is a shame, the heart of the story remains. Said heart hinges on the performances of the actors and, given that most of them are children, could have been a disaster. However, the child actors all hold their own.
Bailee Madison, best known as an eerily perfect young Snow White on Once Upon a Time, brings life to May Belle in the same genuine, adorable way. AnnaSophia Robb may not look at all like the book’s Leslie, but she perfectly embodies the quirky, offbeat girl brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. She and Josh Hutcherson (you might recognize him from The Hunger Games and then feel terribly, terribly old) carry the movie and work well together.
Their acting suffers in the actual Terabithia scenes, but this could be authentic to children playing-acting. Zooey Deschanel’s casting threw me when I first saw the movie, but the description of Miss Edmunds in the book sounds exactly like her. She essentially plays a more together version of her New Girl character, Jess. The supporting cast are all solid, grounding this very human story.
The way reality and the fantastic are blended differs from the book. For starters, we actually see monsters and creatures, whereas in the book we just see the kids playing at regal ceremonies. Giving the movie licence to get creative seems in keeping with the book’s spirit and its interesting to see where they went with the creature design when they had no specific descriptions in the book to work from.
Some of the monster fights are kind of lame but, face it, so were your childhood fantasies. Jess’s mechanical arm, which at first had me rolling my eyes, was particularly authentic once I considered the middle school sketchbook contents of any of my male friends or neighbors. This visual representation of what existed only in their heads in the book may be the source of the confusion for some reviews (discussed below), as it does blur the line between imagination and real life more than the book’s clear-cut child’s play.
The Terabithia of the movie more overtly mirrors the kids’ real life problems, which I love. I have always wanted to teach a class on fantasy as a means of processing stress or traumatic events. For example, A Little Princess, Narnia, and Pan’s Labyrinth all feature young girls under stressful circumstances and a second fantastic world/story that parallels their real-world concerns. In A Little Princess the fantastic story is clearly not real, in Narnia it is presented as completely real, and in Pan’s Labyrinth it’s up for debate.
However, real or metaphorical, it makes no difference . The story still allows the character to process, come to terms with, and grow from whatever experience or outside forces are impacting their lives. This take on Terabithia fits easily in with these three tales, using Terabithia to explore fears Jess may otherwise not admit to or be consciously aware of.
In a study of PTSD patients (that I can’t seem to track down for you at the moment), those suffering from traumatic stress found things such as art therapy or writing therapy more effective than traditional treatment such as medication or counseling. Jess uses Terabithia much like art or writing therapy to process his emotions and find a way to heal and move forward. Perhaps because of this, Jess’s issues with his father are more present. The Dark Master turning into Jess’s father was an excellent choice that took perfect advantage of the fantastic elements in the film to tell a resonating truth.
The religion discussion is not all that different from the book, but Bailee’s matter-of-fact innocence is spot on and really brings home how children view religion. It reminds me of more than a few awkward conversations I had with other children growing up.
The movie also makes it more overt that Jess left Leslie behind when he was invited on an impromptu field trip. In the book he doesn’t think to ask Miss Edmunds until they’re pulling away from the curb and he does not want to be rude. In the movie he makes the active decision not to invite her and later admits to wanting this one special thing to be his alone. This makes his guilt more valid. I’m not sure why this change was made, but it’s not bad at all, just different.
In the end, this movie is a surprisingly heartfelt exploration of creativity, imagination, friendship, stress, loss, and recovery with solid acting and effects that, while not exactly inspired, work for the mind of a young boy. My only complaint is the hint of a budding romance between Jess and Leslie, as I preferred them a platonic friendship. Jess clearly admires Leslie and is smitten with Miss Edmunds in the book, but it seemed, to me at least, that he was more enamored with the possibilities they represented than any personal attraction.
THE CONTROVERSY: The screenplay for Bridge to Terabithia was a hard sell for one of the reasons the book has been banned: the death of a main character. Production companies balked at the ending, some even requesting a change to only injure Leslie, rather than have her drown. As it was author Katherine Paterson’s son, David, who wrote the screenplay and the book was inspired by the death of his real life childhood friend, this is not only ridiculous but insulting.
Death and loss are realities that many children deal with or will deal with, regardless of how much cowardly movie producers and coddling parents try to soften life’s blow. This helps no one but instead denies children the chance to feel understood, understand the hardships of others, or attain some kind of catharsis or message of hope.
Perhaps it boils down to my pet peeve: that many foolishly expect fantasy, particularly children’s fantasy, to be a fluff medium and so are unprepared for actual depth or human emotion. This misconception was not helped by the film’s marketing. The trailers pushed the movie as a B version of Narnia, emphasizing the less than LOTR-quality creature design and somewhat corny action sequences (a very small part of the film) over any actual plot or any inkling of what the story is really about.
Advertising Bridge to Terabithia as a rompy secondary world fantasy film with neither real world drama nor the complexity and world-building of quality fantasy did a huge disservice to movie. Had I not known anything about the book, I would have skipped it entirely (unless dragged by the friend who dragged me to Spiderwick). In fact, not having yet read the book, I did wait until the DVD was on sale at my school store to check it out, which is a shame as it is a well done, meaningful film.
Despite this error in judgement, the film received positive reviews. However, some of the more mixed reviews were antagonistic towards the fantasy elements or just confused. One review complained that too much time was spent away from Terabithia and was annoyed that Jess was more surprised by Zooey Deschanel’s hotness than the magical kingdom he discovered, apparently completely missing the part where Terabithia is not real and there are no actual tree-men to blow Jess’s mind. Said review also revealed its ignorance in their critique that the movie “never decides if it’s a fantasy or coming-of-age story” (“Movie Review: Bridge to Terabithia“).
Um, as someone who has studied Joseph Campbell and Otto Rank extensively, I can safely say this is one of the most idiotic things I’ve heard. The majority of fantasy follows the Heroic Quest Formula or Hero’s Journey which IS a coming of age story. It’s THE coming of age story. Fantasy is chock-full of the young and inexperienced discovering the world, growing into themselves, and becoming the competent adults/Jedi/knights/heroes/kings/chosen ones they were meant to be.
For god’s sake, Atonement With the Father is one of the steps of the Heroic Quest Formula! Luke and Vader, Simba and Mufasa, Hamlet and the King of Denmark, Jess and his father, it’s all the same story. Because it’s the story of us. Its universal truth resonates with us, whether the story is in Middle Earth, modern-day Tokyo, or a Civil War battlefield.
Another review thought that the movie was trite and generic, asserting that the adults were caricatures. I think this misses the point of both book and movie, as part of Jess growing up is learning that his parents and teachers are people, people with their own problems, who make mistakes. Besides, like with A Wrinkle in Time, the adults are portrayed more forgivingly in the movie.
In addition, one of the more moving scenes is when Jess talks to Leslie’s grieving father, who is unwilling to give up P.T. Suddenly whatever about him captivated Jess or disappointed Leslie does not matter. He’s no longer some symbol of unattained parental attention or a life other than what Jess knows. He is now a fellow human being, who is hurting and clinging to a puppy, that Jess can speak to honestly. The same lesson is brought home by a conversation with Jess’s teacher and echoes the earlier themes of Janice going from caricatured bully to person with depth. We’re all human beings with feelings and hardships; it’s just a shame it takes something like death for many of us to realize it and be a little gentler with each other.