BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S.; U.S./1945 – 1991 & Virginia;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Grieving; Friendship;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring.
AGE: 10-13; MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril, and mild language;
2007, Drama; 96 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This film is an excellent adaptation of the award-winning children’s novel by Katherine Patterson. The book has become an important part of elementary school curriculum since its publication in 1977. The film remains faithful to the characterization and themes in the novel. As almost always, the movie should be watched only after the book has been read. See TWM’s Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays. This Learning Guide will be helpful in teaching the book as well as the movie.
Fifth-grader Jess Aarons is an artistic loner, the only boy in an economically stressed and culturally deprived rural Virginia family. He loves to draw, and he loves to run. When Leslie and her family move to an abandoned farm next door, Jess learns how friendship draws out the best in each individual, how other families operate, and how tragedy can be overcome. The film is true to the book, except that the filmmakers have made use of special effects to enhance the battles that Leslie and Jess fight against the imagined enemies of their fantasy kingdom of Terabithia.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 2008 Young Artists Awards: Best Family Feature Film (Fantasy or Musical); Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actor (Josh Hutcherson); Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actress (AnnaSophia Robb); Best Performance in a Feature Film – Young Actress Age Ten or Younger (Bailee Madison); est Performance in a Feature Film – Young Ensemble Cast
Featured Actors: John Hutcherson, Anna Sophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel;
Director: Gabor Csupo.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Students who have read the novel will enjoy seeing the images that Patterson creates in her writing appear on the screen. From this, they can learn about how ideas are shown rather than told. Watching the film will also repeat and confirm lessons based on the book. Jess’ bridge to Terabithia is of great value as a template for a healthy way to deal with a catastrophic loss. Two comments by the author, quoted in the Helpful Background section will teach important lessons about the origins of many fictional works and the process of writing fiction.
Before your child sees the movie, make sure that he or she has already read the book. Once the book has been read, there will be no need to prepare a child-viewer for Leslie’s sudden death. The death is disturbing, even to adults, when it is unexpected; the foreshadowing is somewhat better in the book than in the film.
Read to your child the two comments from the author contained in the Helpful Background section. Ask and help your child to answer the two discussion question set out after each quotation. See also the Quick Discussion Questions.
Students will gain insight into the origins of fiction and the process of creating fictional characters from the following comments by the author contained in the Reader’s Guide to the book at page 4.
“I wrote Bridge because our son David’s best friend, a girl named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightning. I was trying to make sense of a tragedy that seemed to have no meaning. Although Jess and Leslie bear some resemblance to my son and his friend, they live in quite a different place, have very dissimilar families, are ten instead of eight — in short, they have become different people in the story.”
Suggested Discussion Question:
In the life of Katherine Patterson the book entitled Bridge to Terabithia served a certain purpose. What was that purpose?
It was a way for her to work out her own grief at Lisa Hill’s death by telling other people about the wonderful friendship that her son and Lisa Hill had shared. It served much the same purpose as the bridge built by Jess in the story, although her grief was less intense than the grief felt by her son. It was making something positive out of a tragic situation. You could say that in one sense, the book was Mrs. Patterson’s own bridge to Terabithia.
“Janice Avery started out to be Pansy, the seventh-grade bully who made my life miserable when I was nine As I wrote, I realized I had to understand why Janice had become a bully, and I started to like her. It ruined a perfectly good revenge.”
Suggested Discussion Question:
Why did the character of Janice Avery change as Mrs. Patterson wrote the book?
There are at least two strong responses to this question. One is that Mrs. Patterson was now an adult and could look at Pansy from a different vantage point than when she was a child and Pansy terrorized her. Another is that as an author writes a novel, the characters can develop lives of their own because the author knows that the characters have a core personality and will act in certain ways. This may be different than the original conception of the character.
Young people can suffer terribly from the death of a loved one or even from the death of someone they know only on a superficial level. A celebrity’s death or the death of a character in a film, human or animal, can trigger a grief response in a child who cares deeply about the individual who has died or who harbors a fear of losing someone he or she loves. Grieving is a part of the human experience; if one lives long enough or well enough, eventually they will suffer from grief. For children, unresolved grief can be especially disturbing and the consequences can last a lifetime.
Artie Dyregrov, in a book entitled Grief in Children, enumerates the stages children experience in grieving in the same way that Kubler-Ross wrote about the experience for adults in her work. He notes that children seek to be closer to the deceased individual in their lives by a process he calls identification. He writes that grieving children “build a kind of bridge to the deceased that eases the loss.” In the film, this building of a bridge is shown at the end, and the metaphorical meaning of the bridge matches perfectly the intent of Dyregrov’s words. He suggests that the shock and disbelief that follows the sudden death of a loved one will be met by refusal to accept the news, a fierce protest against the possibility that the loved one is gone forever, anger at the fates, anger at the person who has died and very often a strong sense of guilt for not having prevented the death. Sadness is straightforward; the rest of the responses can often befuddle a child and the adult caretakers who must help him or her through the experience of loss. The film addresses each of these feelings, without being didactic, and therefore can illuminate the process of grief for both those who have suffered a loss and for those who care about someone who is grieving.
For more on the process of grieving, see the Dealing with Loss section of the Learning Guide to “Fly Away Home.”
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION #1:
What are some of the recognized effects of grieving that Jess goes through as shown in the story?
Some of the recognized effects of grieving that Jess suffers are: refusal to accept the news and disbelief (pages 155 – 161); anger (page 156, 169 – 173); feeling that he was in a dreadful dream (page 159 – 161); feeling disoriented (pp. 159 – 164); thoughts that seem inappropriate and selfish in light of the loss (168 & 172); crying (p. 173); feelings of guilt for not having prevented the death (pages 159 to 160); and physical effects (pp. 160 – 161, 178).
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION #2:
What positive steps did Jess take to deal with his loss?
First, he went to see Leslie’s parents to pay his respects and acknowledge their terrible loss which was, in fact, even greater than his. Then he went to Terabithia, made a wreath and took it to the sacred grove. (p. 178 & 179). Finally, he built the bridge to Terabithia, led May Belle across it, and introduced her to the imaginary world that he and Leslie had shared (pp. 189 – 191). Jess will mourn Leslie for a long time, but after taking these positive, life-affirming steps, it will be something that he can accept as a tragic part of life and then move beyond.
1. See (1) the two discussion questions contained in the Helpful Background section; (2) the questions suggested in Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays; and (3) Questions Suitable for Any Film That is a Work of Fiction. There are also some discussion questions written by the author at the end of the book.
2. What are some of the differences between Jess’ family and Leslie’s family. How do the family differences account for the attributes found in each character?
There are many differences between the two families, but whether these differences account for differences between Leslie and Jess is less clear. Here are a few. Jess’s parents do not enrich their home life by introducing works or art and literature. They allow the television to dominate the cultural lives of their children. Leslie is an only child while the Aarons have five children, and as a result they cannot devote a sufficient amount of attention to any of them. Jess’ mother is frequently tired. Jess’s father clearly plays favorites and has questions about his son’s identity as an artist, but comes through in the end and comforts Jess when Leslie dies. The family bickers. The older sisters tease Jess. No one in the family, most importantly Jess’ father, seems to value his talent for drawing. The atmosphere is worsened as the father is out of work and struggling to support the family. Leslie’s family is financially secure and both parents are authors who, when they are not absorbed in a writing project, have time to spend as a family. The parents actively enrich Jess’s cultural experiences, introducing her at a young age to stories like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Melville’s Moby Dick. There is no television in the home. Leslie calls her parents by their first names. Leslie is not required to go to church. As to the effects of the different family situations on Jess and Leslie, it could be argued that Leslie was more self-assured and confident than Jess because of her upbringing. It is clear that Leslie is more sophisticated than Jess, but girls who are 11 or 12 are often more sophisticated than boys of the same age. Jess is more practical than Leslie, which is one of the reasons that he was reluctant to cross over the creek when the waters raged. Leslie has more imagination than Jess, except when it comes to drawing; Terabithia is primarily Leslie’s invention. Parents who have had more than one child will tell you that children from the same family exhibit markedly different personality traits beginning at birth and that these traits often stay with them all of their lives. This in-born personality can, of course, be affected by the way that children are raised and by situations they experience in life. This is the old nature vs. nurture argument. The strongest arguments for differences that the families create in the two characters are: (1) Leslie’s home environment is more enriched than Jess’ and (2) Leslie grows up with a great deal of confidence. She has learned to value herself from parents who clearly value her. Jess, however, seems to lack confidence. His sisters, except for May Belle, ridicule him and his parents do not seem to appreciate his talents. Other than Miss Edmunds, he is not appreciated at school. Confidence is an important aspect of bravery and overconfidence gets us into trouble, as Leslie’s overconfidence about her ability to swing over the raging creek contributed to her death.
3. How did the experience of running bring the friends together?
Running is important to Jess because he was trying to use it as a way to distinguish himself at school. It provides escape from the family and gives him a sense of power. When Leslie enters the race, it accidentally brings Jess to her attention since he supported her desire to run. When Leslie outruns every boy in the class she becomes an outsider, just as Jess is an outsider; this gives them something in common at school. When they start to become friends, running is something they like to do together.
4. In the book and the film, there are other references to running. In fact, running is what is called a motif, a repeated element in a work that points in the direction of a theme or that serves as a unifying agent. Give an example, not discussed in the preceding question, of references to running in this story?
Jess notices that Leslie is a naturally graceful runner; Jess runs along the road when he learns that Leslie has died.
5. The struggle that Leslie and Jess have with the fantastic beings of Terabithia is seen more clearly in the visuals provided by the film than in the verbal descriptions in the novel. It is the nature of film that this is possible. What ideas did you get from the visuals that you were not able to get from the reading?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Note that the visuals show imagination, fantasy, aggression and what could be called “the dark side.” These images reflect the struggle Jess and Leslie face as young people growing up in a rural town where bullies dominate and appreciation for inner qualities is rare.
6. The music teacher in both the film and the book offers Jess a source of support and his adoration of her is clear. What ironic situation does this lead to in the story?
Before Leslie, Miss Edmunds was the relief from the boredom Jess experienced at school. When she takes him to the city to see the museums, she introduces him to a whole new world. Ironically, this exploratory experience happens when Leslie is left alone, not having been invited, and she is killed when she tries to cross the creek to Terabithia. Jess feels responsible for Leslie’s death; he feels guilty that he wanted Ms. Edmunds all to himself and didn’t ask her to invite his friend.
7. What is suggested about the nature of bullies in the scene in which Janice Avery is crying in the bathroom and Leslie is pressured by Jess to go find out what is wrong with her?
Jess and Leslie seem to know that bullies are troubled by something. They are open to Janice even though the girl has been mean to them and they have managed to get even with a bit of cruelty of their own. Jess and Leslie discover that Janice has a terrible home life and has violated an unwritten but firm rule not to talk at school about trouble that happens at home. The idea here is that many kids who bullies others face misery of one sort or another.
8. When Jess helps Leslie and her parents paint the room, her father tells him that “The best prize that life can offer is working hard at work worth doing.” Do you see this in your own life and in the lives of others around you?
Answers will vary. Should students determine that the work they are doing at school or around the house is not especially worth doing or that it offers no prize, point out to them that school work and chores at home are practice for the work they will one day do out of choices they make. Respect for all work can serve to develop an attitude that will serve them well in the years of work they face ahead of them.
9. Leslie is open-minded. Her attitude toward church reveals this mental attitude. What do you think about her observation that Jess must go to church and believe what he hears and he hates it while she is not forced to go to church and she loves it?
See pages 126 – 128. Answers will vary. Two of the points that can be made are: (1) Leslie might not like going to church so much if it was something she had done for years. (2) Leslie might not have wanted to go to church if she had been required to go. Having choices in life about abstractions such as the concept of God, can enable individuals to come to beliefs on their own and thus enable them to feel a sense of ownership rather than obligation.
10. The book foreshadows Leslie’s death to a greater degree than the film. What was your response to her sudden death?
Answers will vary. Point out how Leslie’s death itself was sudden and dramatic to Leslie, to Jess and to Leslie’s parents and thus needed to be presented this way in the film. Ask students how they may have included clearer hints in the film that a tragedy was coming so that the surprise of Leslie’s death was not so dramatic. Note: examples of foreshadowing in the book can be found at page 116: “Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was as delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction and it was blown to bits.” On the next page the water-swollen creek looks “a little scary” as they swing across. At page 128 when Leslie says that she doesn’t believe “that God goes around damning people to hell” May Belle is shocked at her disbelief in Christian doctrine and having listened for years to people saying that non-Christians cannot go to heaven, asks Leslie “What if you die. What is going to happen to you if you die. There is foreshadowing of Leslie’s accident in the description of the trouble Jess had crossing over the stream at page 134: “
11. Jess feels responsible for Leslie’s death. He thinks that he could have prevented the accident if only he had asked Miss Edmunds to invite Leslie to go on the trip to the museums. He feels guilty because he wanted to go alone to the museums with Miss Edmunds. How will he be able to get over these feelings?
Answers will vary. An important point is that the rope would have broken at some time, and an empty creek-bed is as dangerous, in its own way, as one filled with raging water. Even if Jess had been there when Leslie fell and hit her head, there was only a limited amount that he could have done to help save her. He couldn’t swim. Despite these facts, and although his father assured Jess that he was not responsible, it will take time and maturity for Jess to realize that he does not have the power over life and death that he may think. Moreover, it is important for children with best friends to know that they can have activities and relationships aside from best friends and that this is not betrayal of friendship but assertion of individuality.
12. In building the bridge that Jess and his sister cross to get to the fantasyland he and Leslie shared, Jess is beginning to accept death and to take the first steps in getting over grief. How does building the bridge and introducing his sister to Terabithia show this?
By building the bridge, using wood from the home that Leslie shared with her parents, Jess is creating something. Actively creating something is one of the best antidotes to grieving. By making something new as a link from the past rather than focusing on the past as it was, Jess is affirming the continuance of life, of his life. In addition, building the bridge is work. It is worthy work as Leslie’s father had mentioned. It distracts him from his loss. By taking his sister to the bridge, Jess is passing the secret beauty of Terabithia on to someone he loves and keeping the fantasy world he and Leslie shared alive in a new way.
13. How did Jess change as a result of his friendship with Leslie?
He became more confident in himself. As he put it, Leslie “had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king.” (p. 187) Jess also learned that there was a way to organize a family and have relationships with adults that was different than the way his family operated. Leslie also gave him books to read.
14. Jess’ fear of swinging over the raging creek was clearly justified, but he tortured himself about it, thinking that he was a coward. Have you ever had an experience in which you thought something was dangerous but were afraid and thought you were a coward?
There is no one correct response. The purpose of the question is to allow children, boys especially, to be honest about their fears and misgivings. Boys should know that they should not be intimidated into doing foolishly dangerous things in order not to be called a coward. Teachers might get the ball rolling by relating one of their own experiences in this regard.
15. Another motif or repeated theme that ties the story together, is Jess’ desire for his father’s attention and approval. This is also clearly shown in the film Give some examples of this motif in the book?
Jess’ name is Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr. Tis shows that his family was putting a lot of energy into the fact that he was to be like his father, the second identity of his father. As he contemplates being the fastest runner in the 5th grade, Jess thinks, “Even his dad would be proud.” Jess notes at page 16 that his father didn’t like that Jess loved to draw; didn’t think it manly enough. At page 23 Jess watches the open display of affection to May Belle and his “aches inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.” At page 69 Jess’ mother comments that his father was fretting over the fact that Jess’ best friend is a girl. All of this makes it more touching and poignant when Jess’ father comes through and comforts him when Leslie dies.
See also the questions about Grieving under Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions.
See the Quick Discussion Questions and Discussion Questions 10 – 12.
1. In the book, after Leslie has died, Jess talks to her. Why does he do this? Suggested Response: It’s just a way of working out that she’s not there anymore. After all, he used to talk to her all the time. Now, suddenly, she’s not there. He still has a lot to say to her.
2. By sharing the secret of Terabithia with May Belle was Jess being disloyal to Leslie? After all, they had promised each other that no one else would know about Terabithia. Suggested Response: On the contrary, Jess was honoring Leslie’s memory by sharing their imaginary world with May Belle. It’ was too valuable to restrict it just to them.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See Discussion Questions 3 and 11.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
See assignments relating to cinematic adaptations of written works in Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays, and Questions Suitable for Any Film That is a Work of Fiction.
The following assignments can be differentiated to appeal to the age and skill level of the students in any class. They are focused on values and personal experience rather than analysis of the literature. The empathic reaction to the literature, always an important aspect of reading, triggers each assignment.
Select from the following topics one about which you feel you could write freely. Describe in detail everything you want your reader to see or hear as you make clear everything you feel in the given situation.
1. A special place;
2. A fantasy world you have known;
3. A bully in your class or school;
4. A special friend;
5. A friend you lost through any number of reasons such as going to a new school, a change in interests, or possibly a death;
6. How you cope with annoying siblings;
7. A situation in which you had to be brave;
8. A different sort of classmate, such as one who has no television or is a vegan;
9. Any experience you may have had with death.
BRIDGES TO READING
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
For parents or teachers seeking to help a child cope with grief, Hospice is an excellent source of information which can be accessed by, clicking here.