Over Troubled Waters
Bridge to Terabithia / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | February 16, 2007 | Comments ()
For me, it’s fitting that Pajiba’s latest Guide had Dustin discussing the moments in film and television that reduced him to lacrimation. Had I been asked to produce a similar list and not limit myself by any kind of narrative, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia would be sitting at the top, no question. As a kid, the book left me disconsolate for days, devastated by a portrait of friendship and loss that we probably only experience as children. It was a story that reached past my sternum and squeezed, waking me up to the pendulous swings of joy and sadness life could offer.
So, needless to say, I approach any attempt to film the book with huge stores of skepticism. After seeing the trailer for the 2007 film, I was incensed by visions of Narnian battle sequences and CGI extravagance that was totally at odds with anything in the book. Despite later statements by David Paterson (the son of the author, writer of the screenplay, and on whom the book is based) that the trailer was misleading, I was convinced that the new Bridge to Terabithia would be a Disneyfied excess, an excuse to throw around visual malarkey while forgetting the core tenets of the story.
Thank God David Paterson knew better.
The film, though possessing the kind of visual ability that could easily have become a crutch, only uses computer imagery sparsely — as plot punctuations that all revolve around real events in the writing. Paterson and director Gabor Csupo both seem to understand that graphical flourishes may be impressive, but they’re a poor substitute for anything produced by a child’s imagination.
The movie begins in the home of Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), the only son amidst five siblings of a poor, rural family. Jesse is an unassuming, quiet kid at odds with life at home and at school; his older sisters are loutish and un-involving; his parents are too overwhelmed by the strain of poverty to pay much attention. At school, Jesse is ostracized for being poor and strangely self-contained. He’s usually left to his own devices, often sketching fantastical portraits in a notebook.
On the first day of school, Jesse participates in a playground race that he’s been practicing for all summer. His preparation allows him to soar ahead of the pack, but he and all the other boys are walloped by a newcomer — a girl! The new student is Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the only daughter of a pair of bohemian writers who’ve relocated to the country to live out their version of Emersonian idealism. Leslie is very much her parents’ daughter: Energized, imaginative and magnetic, she and Jesse soon strike up a natural companionship. She gives Jesse the validation he doesn’t even know he needs, encouraging him to develop his nascent artistic abilities.
To those familiar with the book, the film feels oddly removed from the original source. Katherine Paterson’s story is difficult to imagine outside the impoverished 1970s Southeast. The Aarons’ land, though called a farm in the film, possesses no barn or livestock, but rather a greenhouse used to grow their food. The Burkes, rather than the post-hippies weaned on Lewis, Tolkien, and The Wizard of Oz, just seem like bourgeois who’ve found self-actualization, with Leslie as their precocious indie-girl-to-be. Many will be quick to criticize the movie’s casual use of computer imagery as distracting, which is true to an extent. But the forays Jesse and Leslie take into the imaginary land of their creation aren’t an excuse for masturbatory visuals; they serve to illuminate their friendship. They’re unnecessary, sure, but they aren’t disingenuous.
But these are nitpicks. Both David Paterson and Csupo are operating in what they feel is a modern children’s film, so they embellish the story with the occasional silliness and theatricality that accompany the genre. Had I been at the helm, I would’ve aimed for a gritty, realistic, and more emotionally wrenching version of the story to heighten its gravitas. But that isn’t really fair. Katherine Paterson’s book is about and decidedly for children; it makes sense that this adaptation should appeal to them first and foremost.
But, of course, Bridge to Terabithia isn’t all fun and fantasy; in spite of the film’s lighter tones, Leslie’s death still feels like an alienating and unbelievably sad turn of events. The movie does seem to understate the tragedy a bit, not highlighting Jesse’s individual guilt over her death quite like the book does, but it still extracts a particularly innocent version of loss, complete with denial, rage, and catharsis.
This Bridge to Terabithia manages to get the basics right; Paterson’s screenplay does his mother’s beloved novel justice, and Csupo’s direction, though unremarkable, is honest. It isn’t as good as the book — how could it be? — but the story is more than strong enough to bolster the weaker elements, giving us a look at friendship and understanding that are probably lost to us after the self-destructive journeys of puberty. Would that we were all lucky enough to have something like that.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.