He has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the kingdom of his
beloved Son, in whom we have redemption,
the forgiveness of sins.
See that none of you repays evil for evil,
but always seek to do good to one another
and to all.
I Thessalonians 5:14
Director Gabor Csupo‘s film remains faithful to Katherine Paterson‘s classic Newbery Award book, unlike the PBS one hour version of some years back. Much of the credit for the film‘s faithfulness is due to the co-writer of the script David Paterson, son of the book’s author. It was for him that Ms. Paterson wrote the original story to help him (and herself) deal with a childhood tragedy many years before when he was in the second grade. Although the unfortunate trailer announcing the opening of the film suggests that the film is a fantasy story akin to Eragon, lovers of the book need not fear, the special effects taking no more than ten minutes of screen time.
The story centers on the liberating friendship of a farm boy and city girl Leslie, whose parents have moved to the country to protect their daughter from urban dangers. Jesse Aaron lives with his three sisters and parents on a Vermont farm generating a marginal income, so his father Jack (Robert Patrick) has to work in town. His family always short of money, the boy is embarrassed by having to wear his older sister’s hand-me-down gym shoes on the first day of the new school term. Jesse has not been popular, and so he is withdrawn, enjoying sketching in his large notebook, and going for early morning cross-country runs before breakfast and chores. His dream is, now that the bigger boys will be in the sixth grade, to be the fastest runner in his fifth grade class. That very day the boys will run races to see who is the swiftest.
On the playground as the boys line up, Leslie Burke, the girl who has just moved into the house near Jessie’s, joins in. When Jessie’s rival tries to push her aside, Jessie says to let her run. To his chagrin, Leslie outruns him. Defeated by a girl! After the race when Leslie tries to become friends, the disappointed boy rebuffs her.
Leslie herself turns out to be an outsider. Only child of a professional couple who have decided to quit the rat race of the city and raise their daughter in what they idealistically think is the simple purity of the countryside, she becomes the butte of ridicule and jokes when she tells Mrs. Myers (Jen Wolfe), the class teacher, that she cannot watch the assigned TV program because her family does not own a television set. No one, Jessie included, can imagine a family so kooky that they deliberately give up television. However, the persistent girl manages to dispel Jessie’s hostility and become his best friend. We might even call her a mentor because through her rich imagination she will expand the boy’s horizons, leading him into worlds that he had not dreamed of and do things he would have been too timid to dare by himself.
From a Christian perspective Leslie becomes an agent of grace, one of whom C.S. Lewis no doubt would approve, the great Christian fantasy writer placing such a high value on the human imagination. (Indeed, author Katherine has said that she apparently borrowed the name of the fantasy kingdom Terabithia unconsciously from one of Lewis’s Narnia books, this being the name of an island shown on a map in one of Lewis’s books.) The story demonstrates well the power of the imagination to enrich arid lives and to help in coping with the harsh realities of life, such as school bullies and lack of money
Before Leslie entered his life, Jessie’s world was very circumscribed, although there is a music teacher who thrills him by praising the drawings in his notebook. It is telling that when the two children are out running and come to the stream where an old rope hangs from an overhanging tree branch, it is Leslie who tries swinging across to the other side. Jessie is very hesitant when she tells him to try. It is a good thing that he overcame his timidity, because it is then that they discover the woods (of which also Jessie is fearful at first), and Leslie, enthusiastically declares that they have discovered a hidden kingdom—one which on a later visit she dubs “Terabithia.”
The Disney people have asked that reviewers not reveal an important plot detail, so I will only say that through the power of imagination Leslie leads Jessie in creating a magical kingdom in the woods. It is a land where they find refuge from a school bully, and, more important, inspiration as to how they can stand up to the bully. A film about friendship, loss and grief, and even grace and reconciliation, Bridge to Terabithia is a better family film even than last year’s Narnia. Indeed, I think I have to go back to Stephen Spielberg’s magnificent Empire of the Sun and E.T. to find a family film that compares, at least in regard to gospel values and themes embedded in a mesmerizing story! Another film in which imagination is crucial, and worthy of comparison, is Pan’s Labyrinth, suitable for adults, rather than families. What a coincidence that both films were released so close together in time.
The filmmakers come close to ruining the book by using CGI special effects to transform a squirrel, birds and schoolyard bullies into attack creatures so that we viewers see what Leslie and Jessie conjure up in their minds, but fortunately there are only a few minutes of screen time given over to them. And I believe that fans of the book will agree that the finale of the CGI-enhanced scene, which gives the film its title, involving Jessie and his little sister May Belle really is a beautiful moment. Every parent, teacher and pastor would do well not only to see this film for themselves, but take individual children and classes to a matinee showing and talk about it afterward. No wonder author Katherine Paterson has expressed her satisfaction with the film: I believe that we have a new classic film in the making here.
The following contains spoilers, so see the film before reading further.
1) In what ways does Jessie feel like an outsider at home and at school? What does he turn to for meaning? Does any aspect of his situation remind you of your own experience at school? How can children be as cruel as adults in their treatment of others? When and where have you felt like an outsider? Who first made you feel welcome or a part of the group?
2) Have you overcome a bad first impression of someone, as Jessie did with Leslie? How is it important always to give such a person second chance(s)? In what ways are the two children different from each other? Yet, what unites them—their artistic interests? Their both being looked down upon by their classmates?
3) Another case of bad first impressions is how Jessie feels about Mrs. Myers: when does his opinion of her change? How is that scene, late in the movie, a moment of grace? What is it that she says that is exactly what Jessie needs to hear at the time?
4) Which of your teachers touched you in a way similar to music teacher Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel)? Why are such teachers so important, especially in the primary grades?
5) Think/talk about Leslie as an “agent of grace” ? Martin Luther taught that Christians must be “little Christs” for one another: how is Leslie’s effect upon her friend similar to what the author of Colossians 1:12-14 wrote? How is Ms. Edmonds, when she takes Jessie to the art museum, also an agent of grace? In what way do you think that the world of art Jessie discovered is similar to Terabithia? How do you think his exposure to world art will expand his horizons?
6) What do you think Terabithia means to the two friends? Do they have much power in the real world? What about in Terabithia?
7) How is Leslie and Jessie’s revenge upon Janice an example of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” ? Who is it that breaks through this? What was it that leads to looking at Janet through “new eyes” ? Do you think that the children have arrived at a point in their moral development close to what the apostle wrote in I Thessalonians 5:14?
8) After Leslie attends the Easter Sunday service with the Burkes, she, Jessie, and May Belle talk about God. Who has the view of a very judgmental God? How would such a view go against the grain of someone like Leslie? How widespread do you think that May Belle’s view of God is? Were you ever enslaved to such a view? How is belief in an angry, judgmental God truly “enslaving” ?
9) Do you think that Jessie is right in feeling partly responsible for what happened to Leslie?
What did he do, or rather not do, when Miss took him to the art museum? How do his parents as well as those of Leslie’s help him cope with his grief? How is his response to Mr. Burke concerning the dog an act of grace?
10) How is Jessie’s last act a passing on of the spirit of Leslie? What meaning now do you see in the title “Bridge to Terabithia “? How is what he is doing for May Belle a “passing on” of what Leslie had done for him? In what ways have you been a link in the long chain of “passing it on” ?
11) Have you enjoyed a Terabithia in your own childhood? (For this writer there were three, shared with friends at various stages in my young life: one was the woods where we played Tarzan, swinging on vines and facing imaginary foes, animal and human—we even learned the “ape language” found in the Tarzan books and the back page of Tarzan comics; the second was a medieval kingdom represented by toy knights, many of which were homemade; the last one was the planet “Korta” during my teen science fiction days, with all sorts of details drawn out—costumes, maps of planetary systems, even four foot-high models of space battleships.) What do you think you gained from such imaginings? How have the novels of Katherine Paterson informed or stirred your imagination?