Thirty years ago, a young mother named Katherine Paterson wrote a book to console her son David after his close friend was killed in an accident. That book went on to win the Newberry, children’s publishing’s highest honor, and to become a schoolroom classic for its vivid portrayal of the enchanted land of friendship and sensitive exploration of the range of emotions that accompany a wrenching loss. Now David Paterson has lovingly adapted the novel into a first-rate family film that does justice to the novel and its characters and themes.
Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson of Zathura) feels isolated though he lives with his parents and three sisters. His family is struggling and no one seems to pay much attention to him except to bark at him about chores. He practices running because he wants to be the fastest kid in his class. And he draws pictures because there is something in him that loves to put the images that fill his eyes and heart on paper.
The first day of school there is a big race. A new student — a girl named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb of Because of Winn-Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) — enters, and wins. She and Jesse become friends and together they imagine a magical land they call Terabithia. Jesse is happy. Together, their adventures teach them not just about imagination and exploration but about bullies, different kinds of families, growing up.
But Leslie must also teach Jesse the hardest lesson of all about growing up, the pain of loss.
One of the great strengths of the book is its perfect pitch in exploring Jesse’s thoughts and reactions, all presented in a matter-of-fact tone of understanding and acceptance. It is a very interior story, an enormous challenge for adaptation to film. The movie gently makes all of that work on screen through an understated screenplay and sensitive performances by its young actors. And Terabithia itself, only imagined on the page, is brought to life with imagination and heart. We only get glimpses, but they are tantalizing and witty, with glimmers that show us how even the most fantastical creations are grounded in our own thoughts and experiences.
Parents should know that the movie includes the very sad death of a child. There are also some family tensions, including money problems, and a reference to child abuse. The movie’s strengths include the portrayal of intelligent, kind, imaginative, and capable female characters and a rare Hollywood portrayal of sincere religious faith and the kinds of questions that concern children (and adults).
Families who see this movie should talk about what was most special about Leslie and why her friendship was so important to Jesse. They should also talk about what their own Terabithias would look like and draw some pictures. Why didn’t Jesse invite Leslie along on the trip with Miss Edmonds? Jesse had many different feelings about what happened to Leslie. What were some of them? Why is the title about the bridge?
Families who enjoy this film should read the book and some of the author’s other popular titles, including The Great Gilly Hopkins and The King’s Equal. They might also like to see the PBS version of the story. Other classic books that deal with sad losses include Roller Skates and The Yearling.