Bridge to Terabithia – Bridge to the Heart

Warning: This post reveals an unexpected plot development that takes place in The Bridge to Terabithia. If you have not seen the movie or read the book, and you do not want to know what happens, please do not read any further.

My wife and I went to see The Bridge to Terabithia last week. I had never read the book, but heard good things about the movie, so we thought we would check it out. We both loved the film and thought it was one of the better films we have seen in recent memory. It is a wonderful story of friendship, loss, and lessons learned along the way. It was beautifully filmed and acted. The children actors are earnest and convincing, and AnnaSophia Robb absolutely shines in her role as Leslie.

The film is a story about the friendship that develops between Jess and Leslie, two children from very different backgrounds. Jess is a middle school boy who likes to draw. He has few friends at school and lacks affirmation at home. Leslie is the new girl in class who doesn’t fit in. She has a bright and courageous spirit, however, and doesn’t seem to let the other kids bother her.

Together Jess and Leslie form a friendship and create an imaginary world they call Terabithia. The characters draw you in, and you soon find yourself liking Jess and Leslie very much. The special effects are used sparingly, and you begin to enter their world of imagination. Towards the end of the movie, Leslie dies suddenly in an accident. Jess has to work his way through his guilt and his grief, and he eventually chooses to share Terabithia with his younger sister.

What I wanted to discuss here was my emotional reaction to the death of Leslie in the movie. I have been to plenty of movies where characters died before but never experienced anything quite like this. The sudden announcement of her death caught me totally by surprise. I was stunned, shocked, in denial. “She couldn’t be dead. There must be some kind of mistake,” I thought. I kept waiting for a plot twist to reveal itself that Leslie had not really died. This was a movie about imagination. Perhaps Jess was just imagining what it would be like to come home and find out that Leslie had died. I carried some sense of this denial with me even to the funeral scene, but eventually had to accept the fact that Leslie had died.

I also experienced some anger. I was mad at the film-makers. Had they manipulated me? Was this whole film just a set-up to trigger my emotions? But then I remembered that this was a novel before it was a movie, and they were just following someone else’s story. The novel had won a Newberry Award for excellence, and it was unlikely that the author had manipulated her readers just for an emotional reaction. My wife and I both sat in stunned silence as the movie continued and quietly grieved the loss of a fictional character that we had only met about an hour before.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that the denial and anger I experienced in the theater were both normal reactions to sudden loss and an expected part of (or prelude to) the grieving process. The film caused me to identify so strongly with Jess and Leslie that I went through my own private grieving process in the theater. The film-makers had captured the suddenness and unexpectedness with which death often comes in the real world. They had reached me at an emotional level. They had built a bridge from Terabithia to my heart.

How about you? Did you experience similar emotions watching the film or reading the book? I am curious about any parents who brought their children to the movie. How did they handle it on an emotional level? I know I was a wreck! The movie made some confusing theological statements about God and judgment, but overall I would highly recommend it, as long as you don’t mind an emotional punch to the gut.


  1. DAVID FOWLER says:

    We brought both our kids to see this movie, ages 8 and 12. My daughter, our youngest, did cry when Leslie died, but she was not traumatized. In fact, she has since read the book and begged to see the movie again. Leslie’s death is entirely off-screen, nothing gratuitous, although surprising for sure. There is even a redemptive quality when Jess finally brings his sister May Belle to Terabithia after Leslie’s death, whom he had previously shut out, despite her obvious admiration for him (as seen in the picture she drew of him).

    As for the “confusing theological elements”, it is important to keep in mind that the author is a Christian. So, either she is theologically confused herself, or instead she has something important to say about faith that requires some contemplation. Not knowing the author’s specific intention, I am comfortable with the dialogue nevertheless.

    I am comfortable with the fact that the children do not discuss faith with the kind of theological precision that is found in systematic theology books. Indeed, it would be strange if these children had the theological maturity to discuss spirituality as if they had recently mastered the five points of Calvinism.

    Like a parable that is created to illustrate one specific point, the author seems to have something to say about “missing the point of faith”. Jess and Maybelle, brought up in the church, think of the redemption story with plenty of fear and even some outright disgust at the manner of Christ’s death. In fact, Jess doesn’t even think Leslie would want to come to church! (hmm..if faith isn’t worth sharing with your best friend, why have it to begin with?)
    Leslie, as it turns out, loved going to church, and Jess is surprised that she likes it! Leslie remarks how crazy it is that “you have to believe, but you hate it” while she “doesn’t have to believe it, and thinks it is beautiful”. She rightly recognizes that the God who created everything must be about more than just sending people to hell as his primary reason for existing. She hasn’t understood about the “law side” of grace yet (we may cut her some slack, she’s only been to church once!) yet she immediately (and rightly) recognizes there’s something wrong about the way Jess and May Belle perceive God.

    Remember that this is a story that emphasizes the importance of creativity and imagination. I think Paterson is encouraging a bigger view of God as not just the one who sends people to hell, but the one who has created a beautiful world and delights in His creation. Ironically, the father who brings his kids to church bemoans his son’s pursuit of art (“why don’t you draw me some dollar bills, that might be of use”) [paraphrased]. How is it that someone who knows the Creator despises creativity? (Part of the answer is his relative poverty, but that will have to be addressed in another post.)

    In conclusion, if this was meant to be an evangelistic movie intended to contain the entire gospel message in a neat and tidy package, it failed miserably. If instead, the author wanted to (among other things) point out in parable form that some people’s faith consists of too limiting a view of God, she succeeded well. How many Christians writing this screenplay would be tempted to have the “church family” come out looking quite rosy, with the children accurately sharing the four spiritual laws to the ignorant unchurched Leslie who then brought her parents to church who became Christians too. A desirable scenario, undoubtedly, but not the only way to write a story.

    Ultimately, I think Katherine Paterson has written a story with the kind of depth that provokes you to think. Watching a movie like this sure is different than seeing a movie like the Lion King! Considering the length of this post, and the many persons elsewhere who have debated just what all the themes are about in this story, makes you appreciate the difference between literature which actually produces meaningful discussion versus the woefully lacking stories that Hollywood often ends up producing.

  2. Ray Fowler says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the great comments. I agree this is a thought provoking story with a lot of depth. I really liked the film and look forward to reading the book.

    My post was focused on the intense emotional reaction Rose and I both experienced in the theater following Leslie’s death. The film was so well done, and we had so identified with Jess and Leslie, that we really grieved the loss of Leslie in the film, and grieved for Jess at his loss. It was an amazing experience.

    I appreciate your thoughts on the theology presented in the film too. I understand the themes Paterson is reaching for here, and I really liked Leslie’s lines about wanting to believe. I agree it would not be realistic for the children to talk with theological precision. And there is no reason why the Dad in the story would have to have a strong theological background either. However, the film could leave a person with the impression that God does not really judge sin, and that could be confusing for some.

    Once again, great comments, and thanks for the interaction.


  3. Ray Fowler says:

    I found a great article by Marc Newman concerning Bridge to Terabithia over at Marc gives some good insight into the theological statements of the film here:

    “There is more than one significant conversation about believing in God’s Word, heaven, and hell. And even if the theology is not always quite right – it rings true. These are just the kind of arguments/discussions you would expect children, who are trying to work things out and make sense of the world, to have. They also open up the opportunity for parents to speak with their own children after the film to see what they really believe.” (Bridge to Terabithia: Let’s Hear it for Mindful Entertainment; by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.)

    I think this is similar to what David was getting at in his comment above. You can read the whole article at:

  4. DAVID FOWLER says:

    Great review, thanks for including the link!

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