I watched Bridge to Terabithia last weekend. It is probably the saddest film I’ve ever seen, and despite all the plaudits it has received, it has at its core, I think, a heart of darkness. It is not a bad film, but it has a dark soul.
I came to the film cold. I’ve not read the book; indeed, I’d never even heard of it when the film came out. The book is described in terms of being ‘much-loved‘ and a ‘classic‘. It was published in 1977, when I was 12 or 13. So I expect I missed it because I was ‘too old’ for children’s books, and not yet old enough again for them. And I had other concerns in that year.
So all I knew about it was the ‘from the creators of Narnia’ tag line, a quick read of the blurb, and the fact that my daughter (6) was interested in it.
As the early scenes unfolded I realised that that I had read a review of it, though. All that I recalled was a complaint to the effect that in the book, the girl was supposed to be plain, even boyish-looking, while in the film she was Hollywood-pretty (if dressed a little unconventionally compared to her schoolmates).
I think that review explains why my opinion of the film differs so significantly from that of most reviewers: they all seem to have read the book. Inevitably they review the film in comparison to it, and fuelled by their knowledge of the plot.
So they can describe it as ‘bittersweet’, as having an ‘uplifting’ ending; even as ‘transcendent’ (I think that last came from one of the mini-documentaries on the DVD). Because as they watched, they knew what was coming.
I’ve often thought that some films — the later Harry Potter ones are particular examples — must be all but incoherent to anyone who hasn’t first read the book on which they are based. The Potters can get away with it, because so many have read the books first. But in general a film — or any adaptation from one medium to another — must work on its own. It is a separate, new creation, and has to stand or fall as such.
In one sense at least, Terabithia fails on this account.
The trouble is not lack of coherence; rather it is excess of impact, and lack of recovery time. There is certainly some foreshadowing: it is plain that something bad is going to happen. But the tragedy when it comes — and make no mistake, the story is a tragedy — is too deep, too dark, too sudden. Yes, true, that’s how it would be in real life; and I’m not suggesting that movie viewers, including children, should be completely protected from darkness, tragedy or loss. But here, suddenly, shatteringly, we are no longer watching the film that we thought we were.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the film’s fatal flaw — or at least the cause of its failure to achieve the uplift suggested by reviewers — comes after the plunge into darkness.
It is the lack of recovery time, and the content of what time there is. Yes, a significant amount of time for the characters is compressed into a few swiftly-edited scenes. Perhaps enough time is represented for the boy, Jess, to come to terms with his loss, or at least to begin to do so. But it is not enough time for us to do so.
And perhaps because the fantasy elements were (rightly) understated earlier on, we have what feels like a tacked-on fantasy ending. And it’s not even the tacked-on fantasy ending we might want. Me, I’d have liked Jess, the talented artist, to to have ripped out the page of the film’s continuity, said, “No!” and sketched a new one.
That, of course, would have made for a saccharine ending, like the false ending in Brazil, or the original cut of Blade Runner. It would have been deemed a mistake (not least because of differing from the book), or at least have been very hard to make work. It would have betrayed the story.
But the ending that we do have betrays the story too, I think, in a different way. The descent (ascent?) into fantasy may show that Jess had become closer to his little sister; but it writes Leslie out of his memories of Terabithia. It ceases to be their magical place, and therefore fails to honour her memory.
Of course it is all to help him to come to terms with his loss; but as his Dad tells him, it’s by remembering what was special about her that he can keep her alive.
Above all, though, it all happens too quickly: maybe we, the viewers, could have had just a little more time?
I can only assume that the book does, in fact, provide a more gentle exit for its readers, for it to be so popular. Though of course, you can take a book at your own pace.
Yet despite — or more likely, because of — all of the above, it’s a film that will stay with me for a long time; that I’ll probably watch again; and whose source-book I’ll certainly seek out.