How Bridge to Terabithia Went From Book to Movie

When something terrible occurs, we often try to make sense of it. We ask, “Why did this have to happen?!” This is especially true when the tragedy was the result of an unfortunate twist of fate: a natural disaster. 

Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia is an attempt to make sense of an inconceivable situation, one few of us are ever prepared for. 

Writing a story is about answering a question. So that was what Paterson set out to do, she wanted to understand what we’re supposed to do in the aftermath of a tragedy. What can we learn after we have suffered a great irreparable loss? How can we go on? What she ended up creating was a story that gave the readers a rehearsal for the pains of life. 

But it wasn’t simply Paterson’s life: Bridge to Terabithia was about her son, David L Paterson, as a child. When David grew up, he adapted his mother’s story — his story and the story of his childhood best friend — turning it from a book in literature studies class to one of the highest grossing movies of 2007, a year that included Spider Man 3, Transformers, and The Simpson Movie. 

Lisa Christina Hill was eight years old on August 14, 1974. She was with her family: mother, brother and sister, at Bethany Beach in Delaware that sunny day. But on the horizon, a storm was brewing. Lisa was sitting at the edge of the water when a lightning bolt tore through the heavens and struck her. In an instant, Lisa, David Paterson’s best friend, was killed. 

Since second grade, David and Lisa were close companions. David had a lot of trouble adjusting to the new class at the beginning. It was Lisa that he found solace in. They developed a relationship that was unusual for children their age where boys tended to hang out with boys and girls with girls. They would spend their time playing imaginative games behind the house in the forest and feeling comfortable enough to tell each all their thoughts. 

While the whole community of Takoma Park, Maryland grieved for the loss of Lisa, David took the news as well as a boy his age could. His mother remembered him crying, knowing there was nothing she or anyone else could do to bring her son’s friend back.

In the following months, Kathrine Paterson wrote Bridge to Terabithia, a story about an artistic fifth grader, Jesse Aaron, and his neighbour, Leslie Burke, an eccentric and affable tomboy. Even with an overlay of fiction, Bridge to Terabithia was undoubtedly a story about David and Lisa. When she was finished with the book, she read it to her son. She wanted his approval, because it was ultimately his story to tell. One could only imagine that David was as moved as would the millions of kids that will soon read it. 

A major change that the editors requested was the Leslie Burke cannot die by a lightning strike. This was a case of where reality is stranger than fiction. The editors requested that the death had to be caused by a more likely circumstance. It needed to be believable. The change was made and — spoiler alert — Leslie’s death would come from drowning in a creek after swinging from a rope within the kingdom of Terabithia, a imaginated realm the two children had created for themselves. 

The novel was published on October 21, 1977 by Thomas Y. Crowell Co. It would win Kathrine Paterson her first of two Newbery Awards, an award given to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. 

Paterson had written Bridge to Terabithia as an attempt to answer a life question, but when children started asking her why Leslie had to die, Paterson forced back the urges to cry for that was a question she didn’t have the answer to — even though, she was the writer. People began to find their own answers, or as Paterson puts it, “people brought their own lives to the book, their own images that creates it.” 

With all the attention, Bridge to Terabithia began to receive some criticisms regarding the moral of the novel, becoming one of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the United States. There were references to witchcraft, atheism, satanism, and there was an ample amount of swearing. On top of all that, many adults didn’t want to put their children through such a heartbreaking story. 

Over the years, Paterson would hear people telling her that after facing an emotional experience, they would reach for the pages of Bridge to Terabithia. In certain cases, people have given the book to children like David, who experienced the loss of someone they loved. Paterson sadly believed that giving the book after the tragic event may be too late. Bridge to Terabithia was a book to be read before that. It was an emotional practice. It’s not meant to upset the children, but prepare them for all the sadness and disappointments they have to face ahead. 

While Bridge to Terabithia faced resistance, it also became a tool for English studies in many schools around the world including, Ireland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Philippines, Ecuador, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Panama, South Africa and the United States.

From 1984 to 1992, The Walt Disney Company and PBS teamed up to produce a made-for-tv-anthology based on the critically acclaimed children’s books. This series was called WonderWorks, and it included such hits as Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, and another of Katherine Paterson’s work: Jacob Have I Loved. 

On February 5, 1985, WonderWorks released the adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia. The 57 minute film was shot in Edmonton, Alberta. While Paterson got writing credits, the script was written mostly by Executive Producer, Nancy Sackett. However, the main criticism with the made-for-tv version was that the performances from the young actors were weak and unconvincing. On top of that, the dialogue was obviously dubbed over and gave off the impression of low production value. 

In 2007, David Paterson spoke about the 1985 WonderWorks version of Bridge to Terabithia and said that the film is “like the crazy cousin in a mental hospital that nobody talks about.” Neither his mother nor himself were much involved with the project or even happy with the result. 

At points, David felt guilty that now he was getting famous from the death of his best friend. David graduated from The Catholic University of America in 1989 and pursued a career as a playwright, with over two dozen published. Additionally, he holds the record for having three plays premiere on the same month in New York. 

As a form of healing and honoring Lisa, and all the fortune she had given him in her passing, David approached his mother and asked for the right to adapt her story of Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. His mother granted his wish not because it was his story, but because of his abilities as a playwright. With the confidence and blessing of his mother, David went off to translate the emotional story from page to screen, having already seen how it could turn out. The adaptation became a project that consumed him for 17 years. He wanted to do it right. 

Staying as true to his mother’s story as possible, David didn’t have the easiest time writing or selling the screenplay. At many points, he found that the story was too close to him. He approached screenwriter Jeff Stockwell to cowrite, as he would offer an outsider perspective to the story. What was most important to David was the spirit of the story and adapting a novel that spent so much time in a character’s head was not easy.  

Selling the script posed another hurdle. Many production companies had a problem with Leslie’s death. In some cases, the executives even suggested to David that perhaps she didn’t have to die and that Leslie can simply fall into a light coma — and then she’ll wake up. 

David took the role as a co-producer to ensure such a change would not happen at any stage of the process. But it was the president of Walden Media, Cary Granat that suggested Gabor Csupo to direct the movie. If you don’t know Gabor Csupo as a director or musician then you would most likely know him as the co-creator of Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and animator for Hanna-Barbera. 

Gabor Csupo had an interesting career, but he had yet to direct a live-action movie. This was not a concern for Granat who saw the little kid inside of Csupo and knew that he would have the perfect approach to the story. 

According to producer Lauren Levine, Csupo was inspired by the opportunity to create Terabithia. He wanted to approach it in a Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam type of way, going for a creative representation that went beyond the usual cliches of an imaginary environment. This got everyone very excited. 

Casting was a difficult process and required compromise. Csupo didn’t have any particular actors in mind when he set out on the search, so that opened the door to discovering new talents

AnnaSophia Robb had been a fan of the story and wrote a letter expressing her love for the book and the character to Csupo and the other decision makers of the film. Before casting began, Robb met with Levine to discuss the role. In that meeting, Levine was convinced that Robb would be perfect. She had the enthusiasm and the magical presence — the spark — that was Leslie. Csupo was onboard and AnnaSophia Robb was the first to be cast in the movie. 

Finding the perfect Jesse was more of a challenge. It was difficult finding a young actor that can go through the transformation of an isolated introvert to someone who exhibits courage and leadership, along with the imaginative whimsy needed. Josh Hutcherson was not the first choice, but won the job because of his chemistry with Robb. 

The leads and the characters in the movie were a few years older than the characters in the novel, but Csupo said that that change was perhaps advantageous as the story bordered on the idea of an innocent first love and upping the age allowed for that theme to rise to the surface a bit more. 

The movie began production on February 20, 2006, with a budget of $20-25 million. In 60 days, they completed principal photography. Bridge to Terabithia was the last film for cinematographer, Michael Chapman who had been behind the camera for such classics as Taxi Driver, The Fugitive, and Space Jam. Chapman said that he wanted this movie to be his last because he wanted to end his career with a happy experience. 

Post production took 10 weeks to complete and Csupo made every effort to keep the special effects minimal. Working with Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s company famous for producing the special effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Csupo had a hundred team members working on the project with many of them on set during production to help create the unique creatures of Terabithia. 

Perhaps the special effects got too much of a spotlight, this was a criticism during the marketing phase of the movie. As you may know, a trailer for a movie is often created by a separate organization that takes clips here and there from the movie to get the people who see the trailer to buy a ticket and see it in the theatres. The trailer for Bridge to Terabithia was laden with special effects moments in the movie to a point where many consider it to be false marketing. If you had read the book, the majority of the story takes place in the real world and is mainly a relationship between two pre-teens. 

Many who were loyal to the book were appalled by how the story they loved was being presented on screen. It was a gross attempt at trying to sell computer-generated effects as opposed to the unpretentious story of loss. 

When Katherine Paterson saw the film she cried — in fact, she cries every time she sees it. She sang praises to the cast and was impressed that such a movie was possible within their indie movie budget. She also spoke about the sacrifices and changes necessary in the movie, none of which spoiled her taste for it. She regarded her son for standing his ground and keeping the movie as loyal to the novel as he could. 

Many writers can’t stand to watch the adaptations of their novels, because it feels so far removed from what they have created. Beside the age of the characters and the physical appearance of Leslie, perhaps the most notable change from the book was the time period, as the movie took place in a more modern era where Internet and cellphones exist. 

Bridge to Terabithia was released on February 16, 2007 and earned a total domestic gross of over $82 million, $137 million worldwide. The movie cemented AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson as young stars and household names. Additionally, it brought the novel back onto the New York Times bestsellers list, which Katherine Paterson commented to writers reluctant to sell the film rights thinking nobody would read the book if the movie was released, as being untrue. Lastly, the movie brought closure for David Paterson, who’s always thinking, in the back of his mind, about his friend Lisa, and how death lies behind every beautiful moment. 

Every adaptation has a unique story, if there a book to movie that you’re interested in learning more about? Let me know in the comments below. 

For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.

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