JEFF STOCKWELL - Screenwriter
DAVID PATERSON - Screenwriter
KATHERINE PATERSON - Author
JOSH HUTCHERSON - Jesse Aarons
ROBERT PATRICK - Jesse Aarons Sr
KATRINA CERIO (Kate Butler) - Nancy Aarons
BAILEE MADISON - Maybelle Aarons
ANNASOPHIA ROBB - Leslie Burke
LATHAM GAINES - Bill Burke
JUDY MCINTOSH - Judy Burke
LAUREN CLINTON - Janice Avery
CAMERON WAKEFIELD - Scott Hoager
ELLIOT LAWLESS - Gary Fulcher
ZOOEY DESCHANEL - Miss Edmunds
JEN WOLFE - Mrs. Myers
Let me get into a discussion about this great movie by sharing a little about the author of the book upon which the screenplay was based.
AUTHOR KATHERINE PATERSON
Bridge to Terabithia was originally written as a book (1978 Newbery Medal for best children's novel) by Katherine Paterson, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. She wrote the story to help her young son, David (co-screenwriter), understand his best friend's death — Lisa Hill was eight when she was struck by lightening. Understanding such an event requires a worldview that is cogent, and good writers write what they know.
In an on-line interview (www.terabithia.com), Paterson states:
I think it was C.S. Lewis who said something like: 'The book cannot be what the writer is not.' What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I writeTHREE RULES OF STORYTELLING
Indeed, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is a rich Christian myth filled with symbols of faith and grace that undergird the moral premise. Fortunately, Paterson is a gifted storyteller who understands the first rule of good communication: (1) Entertain. She has the second rule of communication down cold: (2) Tell the truth. And she practices the third rule of successful communication: (3) Respect your audience.
Employing those three rules results in classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia. In all of these classic stories, truth resonates with audiences, even as the propositional statements of religious faith are avoided.
I do not mean that propositional statements of faith (such as you find in a catechism or the direct teachings from a religion's bible) are wrong or unnecessary. To the contrary, do I believe (said Yoda). But communicating truth to the masses is the place and time for myth (storytelling about truths), leaving catechesis (explaining the truth propositionally) for another, more analytical time.
In that regard, Paterson says in the same interview:
The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like a fancy dress.In other words, tell the story with humility and joy, and don't preach with arrogance a pomp de fear.
A final quote from Paterson's quiver is this arrow of encouragement to all of us who are drawn to create:
Unless I was willing to risk mediocrity, I would never accomplish anything. There are simply no guarantees. It takes courage to lay your insides out for people to examine and sneer over.Ah, yes, the drakes of mediocrity, we know thee well. (God, how I hate mediocrity, especially when I produce it myself -- see Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer and Kurt Mitchell.)
ON TO THE MOVIE
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA tells the story of tween Jesse Aarons, whose goal is to break free of the mediocrity of fifth grade. A nice boy with a great but stifled imagination, he turns to running and practices for a foot race at school. When the big race comes, he pulls into the lead against his bully nemesises, only to be passed by the friendly, new girl in school, Leslie Burke. That he got beat by a girl is bad enough, but it turns out they are neighbors, and in time develop a friendship.
The darkness in Jesse's life comes from several sources. We discover that Jesse's family is poor and a cloud of poverty and dullness hangs over his large family of five sisters, and a loving, stern father who works hard but without satisfaction. Their family seems to be on the edge of emotional and fiscal depression. Jesse is also the brunt of jokes and ridicule at school for being a little different— he's introverted, and not given to the cruelty of his "peers." Although we are introduced to Jesse's imaginary world through his drawing, it is a closeted imagination than lacks vitality and hope.
Leslie, on the other hand is a bright, confident, outgoing girl with a streak of compassion that is never-ending. She befriends Jesse out of a genuine respect for the dignity of another person and his drawings, which he tries to keep to himself. Leslie quickly makes friends with Maybelle, Jesse's younger sister, by offering Maybelle her collection of Barbies when Jesse rudely rejects Maybelle's tagging along. Where Jesse is good at drawing, Leslie is good with words. When Mrs. Myers (their English teacher) asks Leslie to read her essay on SCUBA diving, Jesse imagines air-bubbles coming from Leslie's mouth, and is further engaged when she tells him afterwards that she just made it up —out of her imagination — she's never been SCUBA diving before.
We are not introduced to Leslie's parents until later, but when we are we discover that they too, like Mr. Aarons, work hard, but their lives are alive with imagination, and are richer on several levels. One of the movie's moments of grace is when Leslie's father, after he and his wife complete their book and re-painting the dinning room (a family project in which Jesse' helps) -- happily quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.As the story progresses that attitude is adopted by Jesse who proudly delivers it to his dad, when once again Jesse is told to do his chores.
To escape the occasional persecution that both Jesse and Leslie endure at school, and because they are next-door neighbors in a rural setting, they run into the woods to play. Leslie is the leader here, and freely engages her vivid play imagination, inviting, and coaching Jesse to play along. She knows he has it in him (from his drawings). But to Jesse his imaginary world is something to escape to and keep private, and not something to exhibit by swinging from trees, or to yell about from mountaintops. But that is what Leslie teaches him.
When they find a rope that swings across a small river, she encourages him to give it a try. She does and freely enjoys the freedom of looking up into the clouds. He's afraid that the rope will break, but she tells him it won't. He swings, and listening to her exuberant hope, throws his head back and looks at the clouds above. It's a rush of excitement he's rarely felt.
On the other side of the river, they establish their own imaginary land—Terabithia she calls it. A place where they can be King and Queen, and where their imagination conjures up a land of the supernatural.
Now, in the supernatural world, we are closer to what the movie is really about — the need for hope, a virtue that allows us to see what naturally is invisible. In a Christian context, the key ingredient is "faith." And it plays significantly in the story. Hope results from understanding who we were meant to be, and seeing a way to express it in the larger world.
Early during their creation of Terabithia, Leslie challenges Jesse: "Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open." They are surrounded by creatures of the imagination. She asks him "Do you see them?" He says "yes" but he sees only the natural world of birds and squirrels. She asks again, "Do you REALLY see them?" And then he sees the supernatural world of squogres and giant bats that only hope and their imagination can bring...what the movie is REALLY about.
Shortly thereafter, Leslie raises her arms in a prelude to the movie's triumph and announces:
"Prisoners of the Dark Master, we've come to free you."And the wind blows, like the Holy Spirit entering the Upper Room where the Apostles huddled in fear of the dark forces that surrounded them. But in our movie, the proclamation by our Terabithia Queen is aimed directly at the Terabithia King, Jesse, who is a prisoner of the dark master, of which she's come to free him.
Terabithia comes from the name of the Terebinth tree found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and the Old Testament. The Terebinth is mentioned in Sirach 24:
Like a Terebinth I spread out my branches, and my branches are glorious and graceful. Like the vine I bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit" (16-17).The on-line Jewish encyclopedia states that:
Both the oak and the Terebinth offered favorite resorts for religious practices (Isa. i. 29, lvii. 5; Ezek. vi. 13; Hos. iv. 13), and are employed as emblems of strength and durability (Amos ii. 9; Isa. lxi. 3).When life is difficult we gather strength and durability from hope and our imagination to see what could and will be. Thus our ability to imagine becomes a key component of Catholic sacramentality, where we experience the presence of God in all creation, in our contemplation, and in the Mass. Specifically, imagination is necessary to understand the Mass, its connection with eternity (where there is no time), and the meaning of life. Only then are we able to embrace hope for a better tomorrow.
ROLE OF THE PRIESTHOOD
In Bridge To Terabithia we see the beginning of that kind of sacramental, supernatural imagination in Jesse Aarons' life. For Jesse Aarons is a special person called to that imagination and hope. Jesse is our everyman, the person we identify with. Jesse is us. And as Jesse has a special role in the movie's story, so we have a special role in our personal story. This becomes a story of the priesthood of all believers, and perhaps a little about how someone is called to the vocation of the sacramental priesthood. Thus, it is not insignificant that our protagonist is Jesse Aarons.
The name is significant. Aaron is the name of Moses' brother who becomes Israel's first high priest, who is the first to venture into the Old Testament Tabernacle's Holy of Holies. In that sacred place he confronts God, and brings Yahweh's grace and hope back to the people. And that is what Jesse learns to do in this movie. He enters Terabithia, a sacred and magical place, and brings back hope for his sister, Maybelle, and his Dad.
But that's not all, consider our protagonist's first name: Jesse. In Isaiah 1:11 it says, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse..." That is, from Jesse's blood we get King David and Jesus Christ, both Kings. Jesse Aarons is the King of Terabithia and called to be a priest to bring hope to the kingdom of man.
Leslie Burke, for me, is an angel, if not the Christ figure, that is sent to Jesse to teach him and prepare him for his role to change his world view. Until Leslie suddenly shows up, Jesse is being crushed — by his stern but loving father, by Mrs. Myers his good English teacher ("If you down load this essay, you'll be downloaded into detention"), by the bullies at school, by his family's financial situation, and by not having any hope for his future. But Leslie brings to Jesse the gift of faith in the imagination and the hope that is suppressed within him. Leslie also brings that hope to others in the story by showing them compassion.
And once Leslie has firmly established those virtues of faith, hope and compassion in Jesse, the story transitions. Ms. Edmonds takes him to an art museum, which he has never seen before. He's awed -- and sees the world in a new way. When he's caught the vision of his calling, Ms. Edmonds proclaims over him like a prophet: "You can change the world."
The next thing we know, Leslie and her parents are gone from the scene, leaving behind a pile of lumber.
Now it is up to Jesse to find work that is worth doing and change the world. After a short period of grief and mourning for Leslie, Jesse wastes little time.
The first thing he does is asks his little sister, Maybelle, for forgiveness. On numerous occasions he's been rude and excluded her from following Leslie and him into Terabithia. Then, he works toward a grand restitution, and builds a wooden bridge to Terabithia, and in the arch over the entrance, he hangs a coat of arms that reprises one of Leslie's proclamations, "Nothing Crushes Us." When it's done, Jesse becomes the priest that ushers his little sister into the land of hope; and as they enter crowns appear on their heads, the wooden bridge behind them glistens with gold, and beautiful and clever mythic creatures, including Janice as a Giant, greet them.
JESSE'S VOCATIONAL CALLING
In retrospect we see that Jesse has a calling to faith, a faith so great that it can change the world. It's a calling to the "real" world. For Terabithia is more real than the dark world he comes from. This harkens back to C. S. Lewis' "reality" in THE GREAT DIVORCE where the natural world is no longer as real as the supernatural experience of heaven.
We identify with Jesse, because we all have gifts that God has given us, but until we are encouraged to trust the Old Swinging Rope ("The Old Rugged Cross" is sung in the one church scene) that dangles across the river, we cannot swing across the river of baptism to the supernatural land where squirrels becomes squogres, and dark despair becomes a gold covered bridge to hope.
Leslie teaches Jesse Aarons to have faith, cross over the river, and enter the world of imagination, and hope. As Jesse embraces that lesson, his eyes are open (he's blind no more) and he discovers who he was truly meant to be—a person of hope, a person of vision, and a person of compassion.
Likewise, we are blinded until someone leads us to faith on that rope, and into the land of imagination and hope on the other side of the waters of baptism.
...A BROKEN ROPE
At the end of the movie, it is implied that it is the breaking of the rope that leads to Leslie's death. But, isn't it interesting that it is the rope again that brings her to the "other side" and assists in the transcendence from the natural world to the eternal world of the supernatural. And it is in the image of the broken rope that results in a physical death that reminds us of the Old Rugged Cross that resulted in another physical death, and gives us all hope of eternal life in the realm of the supernatural.
Terabithia, then becomes a sacred place. It's a place of imagination that can only be brought about by faith, hope, and charity.
THE MORAL PREMISE
Bridge to Terabithia has dual moral premises that support each other.
The first is seen significantly in the arc of Janice, the 8th-grade bully who forces kids to pay money or give up their lunch treats in order to use the playground bathroom. She also plays dirty tricks to get Jesse in trouble. But later when Leslie shows Janice uncommon compassion during a dark time, Janice's meanness is turned around, and then shows compassion toward Jesse. It is shortly after that show of compassion that it is Janice who becomes the inspiration for Terabithia's gentle and protective giant.
In this way, the sub-moral premise can be stated like this:
We see the meanness (and sternness) of Janice, Scott, Gary, Mrs. Myers, and Mr. Aarons converted or challenged by compassion, and when compassion (which is charity motivated by confident hope) is promulgated, grace and acceptance are the result.
Meanness leads to a curse of rejection; but
Compassion leads to the grace of acceptance.
But more importantly the movie is about how meanness is related to skepticism, which embraces the dark forces in our lives. Remember Leslie's call: "Prisoners of the dark master, we have come to free you!" That freedom from meanness, which is the result of skepticism, can be relieved only by hope that comes through faith, in the Old Rugged Rope to carry us to the other side. The broken rope gives transcendence to the story's arc, and motivates Jesse. It is because of what Leslie has taught Jesse that he is able to build a more substantial Bridge to Terabithia, and begin to usher others across it
So the more significant moral premise, about which the entire movie is really about, can be stated like this:
And the last shot of the movies, we peer into Jesse's eyes. He sees now, that which before he was blind to, now he sees clearly a vision for what the world can be. He doesn't know what he'll do next, but he'll think of something with his eyes wide open and full of hope.
Skepticism leads to dread of a dark tomorrow; but
Faith leads to the hope of a bright future.