Internet, remember back to when you were a kid. Was there ever a book that you just loved beyond all reason, that you read over and over again, that had so many good parts to balance out any of the bad parts that when you finished reading it you’d sigh?
I had lots and lots of those books. (I still do, and I’m not even remotely a kid anymore.) I love kids’ books so much to this day that I have two whole shelves of ’em, books that maybe will belong to my someday children but then again, maybe not. Maybe I just have them because I love them too much not to have them around for when I want to pick one back up and re-read it again.
A few of those books stand out more than the rest. Some of them I loved so much that I was able to include them in my undergraduate thesis. One of them in particular I love so much that I still cry each and every time I re-read it, even though I know exactly what is coming because I’ve read it so many times and because it’s such a quick read. That book? Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson.
I can’t really put my finger on why I love this book so much. Maybe it’s the language, or maybe it’s the characters, or maybe it’s that it was the first book I remember reading that really didn’t pussyfoot around the idea that sometimes young people die, too. A lot of books were written in the late 60s through the early 80s centered around the very idea that kids shouldn’t be sheltered by life’s problems – death, divorce, drugs, etc. (I could go into further detail about this, but then I’d have to just refer you to my thesis which I still intend to scan because I think it’s pretty good, even 10 years later.) But the point of the books isn’t usually to ruin childhoods or to drive home LIFE’S NOT FAIR, but to show how the main character deals with whatever the problem is. In Bridge to Terabithia, there’s a poor kid who makes friends with a new kid and together they create an imaginary life for themselves outside of the mundane world. There’s no shying away from the fact that Jess, the main character, is poor, or that a lot of the kids at school have family problems. The dialogue and characterization is totally believable. And after Jess’s friend dies (offscreen, as it were), the rest of the book shows him coming to terms with it, with what it means for his life, and what happens next.
A few years ago, when we were in the movie theater, we saw a trailer for Bridge to Terabithia. The trailer looked so incredibly disappointing, as though they’d taken one of my favorite childhood books and transformed it into something totally Disneyfied and not at all the point. In fact, seeing the trailer made me actively angry and I decided that not only would I not go to see the movie when it came out but I’d avoid seeing it in any other fashion as well. It would serve them right, it would, ruining one of my favorite childhood books for the purposes of greed.
I didn’t give it any additional thought, really, until last night when I was flipping through channels and realized Bridge to Terabithia (the movie with the awful, awful trailer that so enraged me) was on the teevee. More out of morbid curiosity than anything else, I decided to see just how bad it was and started watching it while Dan was still making dinner. I was all prepared for righteous indignation and a bit of PALATR, but from the opening credits I realized I had been All Wrong about the movie. Seriously.
The kid who played Jess was perfect. The kid who played Leslie was just fine. There were so many places that they could have changed the story, but didn’t. And even the parts that had been in the trailer, with CGI used to show what Jess and Leslie were imagining, totally fit in the context of the rest of the movie. They even got the casting perfectly for two of the best characters in the book, Janice Avery and May Belle. They showed and didn’t tell, about Jess’s family’s poverty and what an amazing treat it was for Jess, a budding artist, to be allowed to go to a museum in a big city. The characters I’d read and re-read and loved for at least 25 years came alive on my screen and were everything I could have hoped for in a Hollywood movie. But I knew, I just knew, that even though they’d gotten everything right that they’d find a way to screw up.
I waited and I waited, but it didn’t happen. The movie was about as faithful an adaptation of a book as I’d ever seen. There was no hiding of or shying away from the bad things in the story. And the part of the movie that I was convinced they would completely ruin made tears run down my face. I cried and cried, watching that part, and I think it wasn’t because the movie had done it well (though it had) but because they had done such an amazing job bringing the story to life that all my memories of crying over the sad parts of the book came back. 31 years old and I cried at a kids’ movie. On the teevee. With commercials for horrifying toys and breakfast cereals. I dried my tears just in time to see the best part at the very end, the part where Jess shares his secret magical world with his little sister, and it was everything it needed to be.
So there you have it. Every once in a great while, Hollywood gets it right, and I guess I can’t always say that I’ll never see a movie based on its trailer because I may be wrong about it. I was wrong about Bridge to Terabithia and I encourage anyone else out there who loved the book and was afraid of how bad the movie would be that no, really, it’s worth watching. They get it right.