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Literature / Bridge to Terabithia

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Bridge to Terabithia is a novel by Katherine Paterson, twice adapted to film, first as a 1985 Made-for-TV Movie for PBS, the second as a 2007 theatrical film produced by Walden Media.

Jesse, the main character, is a young boy who lives in a small rural town, not too far from Washington, D.C. A bit of a loner, he practices running all summer so he can be the fastest in his grade at school. Being the fastest boy sure beats being the quiet boy who loves drawing more than he should. But on the first day of school, his new next-door neighbor, Leslie Burke, completely overtakes him. What starts as resentment and annoyance turns into friendship, an extraordinary friendship, because Leslie is an extraordinary girl. With her gift for words, she and Jesse create a kingdom together in the nearby woods, a castle stronghold to fight imaginary monsters and plot battles to fight real monsters, an adventure that will completely change Jesse's world, a kingdom that they call "Terabithia."


The story has a Bittersweet Ending, and a grade-A example of Death by Newbery Medal. It has been banned on more than one occasion for Teacher/Student Romance subtext and other non-existent sexual content note  as well as religious content and some swearing.


The book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The '70s: The early post-Vietnam War era, referenced throughout the book but abandoned by the movie.
  • Academic Athlete: Jesse thinks highly of Leslie Burke because she beat all the fifth grade boys in their race and she can impress teachers with her imaginative essays and ability to appear focused in class.
  • Adult Fear: The idea that a cheerful, friendly, imaginative child full of life suddenly dies in a freak, senseless accident (best swimmer in a class drowning in creek shallow enough to walk through) is utterly terrifying to parents.
  • Age Lift: Minor example, with Jess and Leslie going from ten in the book to twelve in the movie. Word of God says this was done to emphasize that their feelings for each other were more than platonic.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Jess is one to Maybelle. Their two oldest sisters are also not pleasant.
  • Alpha Bitch: Kind of subverted. Janice Avery is a female bully, but she's anything but the stereotypical blonde rich girl who relies on social manipulation. Instead, Janice is large, loud, and relies on physical intimidation, usually the realm of male bullies. She has a Freudian Excuse.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Maybelle and Joyce to Jesse. He gets better towards Maybelle.
  • Arc Words: "Close your eyes, and keep your mind wide open."
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The reason Janice beats up Scott for accosting Jesse. While he was never nice to her, he was friends with Leslie who was nice to her.
  • Belated Love Epiphany: Jesse has a crush on his teacher Ms. Edmunds and doesn't realize how much Leslie means to him until she dies.
  • Big Brother Worship: Maybelle to Jess. Jess finds it mostly annoying.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess's father helps him accept Leslie's death and convinces him that it's not his fault and to hold onto Leslie's friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.
  • Blithe Spirit: Leslie, a new student whose imagination and general weirdness coaxes Jess to have lots of fun and deal with his difficult circumstances.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Jesse gets hit with this hard when he doesn't invite Leslie with him and Ms. Edmunds to the art museum, and Leslie, when going to Terabithia by herself, drowns because she hit her head while falling.
  • Cheerful Child: Leslie in the 2007 film. Maybelle as well, given that she has endless amounts of optimism.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: The protagonists are children and the story is about the two using their child fantasies as a way of dealing with the pressures of their everyday life. And in Jess's case, mending relationships with family members and dealing with death.
  • Cool Teacher: Miss Edmunds, the music teacher. It's played up more in the book, where it's established that the entire school strives for conformity and she's a bit of a hippie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Leslie shows shades of this in the novel, but not in the 2007 film.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: In the novel, Jesse and Leslie both went barefoot (as is seen on the cover) partly because all the shoes they got were hand me downs and also it was not at all uncommon for kids in the 1970s to go barefoot, especially in the country. Averted in the 2007 film.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: One of the most famous textbook examples. While killing a little girl might seem a bit brash and unanticipated, the entire story is inspired by a real-life event where a friend of Paterson's son was struck dead by lightning at the age of 8.
  • First Love: In this Tearjerker of a novel, this trope is subtly implied with the friendship between Jess and his friend Leslie, a girl who introduces him to the titular Terabithia, and this variety of the "special, sweet, innocent" type of first love, on both Jess and Leslie's parts.
  • Five Stages of Grief: Jesse suffers these in alternating waves after Leslie dies in a very realistic sense. First there's denial, in the book because as he mentions that Leslie is a good swimmer. Then he runs out in anger and kicks his wardrobe before going to bed. For a long time he talks as if Leslie is alive which doubles as bargaining, and lashes out at Maybelle for following him across the log. He only breaks down into depression when his emotions catch up to him in the woods, as does his father and finally comes to accept what happens.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Leslie's poem about scuba-diving. Foreshadowing that she dies by drowning (one of the lines is even "Above me, there's nothing but shimmery light, the place where I've come from, and will go back to when I am done here.") and Jess coming to terms with her death ("I don't have as much time as I need to see everything, but that is what makes it so special.").
    • At one point, Jess is afraid Prince Terrien (the dog) may fall down during crossing and drown.
    • Pretty blatantly at the Easter service, when May Belle asks Leslie "But what if you die, Leslie? What if you die?"
    • When Jess and Leslie talk about what their parents do for a living, Leslie asks Jess in response to him saying that it makes sense that her parents are writers that if he's good at hardware because his dad works at a hardware store. Jess answers no, but the end of the movie where he constructs a literal bridge to Terabithia proves otherwise.
  • It's All My Fault: Jesse doesn't invite Leslie to the museum in order to have some alone time with Ms. Edmunds; Leslie dies crossing the rope swing to Terabithia alone the same day.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jesse's father, Jesse Sr. He is very strict towards his son, and even harsh at times, but it's understandable given the family's level of poverty. He's also shown to be a good parent in spite of it all, and the scene where he comforts his son after Leslie's death is one of the more poignant moments, especially in the film.
  • Longing For Fiction Land: The main two characters create a fictional world called Terabithia to deal with their school troubles. They are aware that it is a fantasy and wish it were real, although this doesn't stop them for having fun.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Leslie fits the character type in that she's full of quirks, dresses oddly, as well as livening up Jess's world, though it's downplayed in that fact that the two do not get romantically involved.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Jess gets a pretty bad deal out of this trope, since he's not only the very-middle child out of five, he's also the only boy. Not to mention his older sisters bully him, Maybelle worships him and the youngest daughter is a particularly bratty baby. Oh, and he's a "Well Done, Son!" Guy to boot.
  • Mistaken for Gay: One of the plot points, and conflict between Jesse and his dad, revolved around this trope. Set in the 70s, Jesse was into art and only had a girl for a friend, so his parents were quite uncomfortable with him spending so much time with Leslie. This is Adapted Out in the 2007 film adaptation.
  • Mocking the Mourner: Jerk Jock bully Scott Hoager decides to joke about Leslie's death while Jesse is heavily in mourning, only to get punched in the face and sent flying by him. Gary Fulcher decides to do the same and is met with a bloody nose from Janice Avery.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Jess and Leslie befriend, they bond through their imagination to form the fantastical world of Terabithia. Then Leslie dies.
  • The Namesake: The titular "bridge" finally appears in the last chapter, when Jesse builds it.
  • Outdoorsy Gal: Leslie invites Jess to swing over the riverbed to discover the land of Terabithia.
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Jesse, with his four sisters.
  • Passionate Sports Girl: Leslie is better at running than the boys and is teased for it, but makes a friend in the main character, who got her the chance to run.
  • Pet the Dog: How Jesse's father treats him after Leslie dies, and Mrs. Myers comforting him about it.
  • Precocious Crush: Jesse has a crush on his music teacher, Ms. Edmunds.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: There's the music teacher Miss Edmunds who is described as having long swishy black hair and blue, blue eyes. Lord, she was gorgeous.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The real-life inspiration for Leslie was Katherine Paterson's son's childhood friend, Lisa Hill who was killed by a lightning strike while climbing some rocks on a beach. The author originally intended to finish off Leslie the same way but ultimately changed it to a drowning because her editor felt it would be more believable. Probably right, but ironic.
  • Survivor's Guilt: Jesse doesn't invite Leslie to the museum and she dies as a result. Jesse is understandably broken up over it.

The movie contains examples of the following tropes

  • Adaptation Distillation: In the film, the setting is changed to the present day, so there's less focus on Jesse wanting to be an artist, which was the main conflict between him and his father in the book. It also doesn't make a big deal about Leslie being a Tomboy.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Jesse's father is Jesse Sr. in the novels, but changed into Jack in the films, probably to avoid the One Steve Limit.
  • Adapted Out: May Belle excitedly asking Jess if he saw Leslie's corpse at the service is removed.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: The aforementioned aloof big sisters are brunettes, at least in the 2007 version.
  • Alternative Foreign Theme Song: The Japanese theme song for the 2007 film adaptation is "To Be in Love" by MISIA.
  • The Cast Show Off: One of the reasons for casting Zooey Deschanel as the music teacher is that she can actually sing.
  • Decomposite Character: Gary Fulcher is split into two characters — himself and Scott Hoager. The latter seems to take the primary antagonistic role in the film.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: The film had "Keep Your Mind Wide Open", sung by AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Leslie.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Invoked that the teacher doesn't even chew out Jesse for punching Scott Hoager when the latter jokes that, with Leslie dead, Jesse is the fastest kid in school.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • There was a scene in the film where the camera focuses on Jesse's arm becoming robotic and Jesse punching a Squoager. Near the last half of the film, Jesse confronts the Squoager's real life counterpart and punches him. Complete with the camera focusing on the arm, as if Jesse was pretending that it would become robotic.
    • There's also lots of shots of the water rising and the rope close to breaking.
    • Leslie's essay is entitled "Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus", depicts her fictional life as a scuba-diver, and the last few lines talk about how wonderful life is because of how short it is. All foreshadowing her untimely death, as if she knew the whole time.
    • If you listen closely while Jess is looking around at the funeral after Leslie's dad talks to him, Leslie's dad tells Jess's parents that he and his wife are moving back to their old home to put Leslie to rest.
  • Gendered Insult: Jess is called a "girl" a lot by other boys because he likes art, plus only being friends with a girl (Leslie) as well.
  • Hate Sink: Scott and Gary. Their purpose is to give the audience someone to hate. Scott especially since he taunts Jess about Leslie's death.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Exaggerated in the 2007 film where the two bullies continue to taunt Jess after Leslie's death. Of course it's subverted with Janice Avery, who has a Heel–Face Turn afterwards.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Funnily enough, the film casts MPDG queen Zooey Deschanel as Ms. Edmunds. The character she plays is one of her few roles not of this type. She comes off that way to Jesse, though, compared with the other adults in his life, hence his infatuation with her.
  • Megaton Punch: When Gary crosses the line by mocking a grieving Jess about Leslie's death, the latter gives him a well-deserved punch that sent the bully flying into the classroom wall.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The animal freed from the greenhouse was meant to be a Virginia opossum, but a common brushtail possum was substituted because of New Zealand's very strict prohibitions on importing non-native wildlife.
  • Japanese Mythology: Ms. Edmunds references the Japanese myth of the sun (Amaterasu) hiding in a cave.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Quite possibly one of the most baffling cases in modern movie history. The trailer for the 2007 film made it seem like a Narnia-esque fantasy movie where Terabithia was real. Apparently, the filmmakers were none too pleased with the way the movie was marketed, either. Especially since the key screenwriter was David Paterson, the son of the original author and on whom Jesse is based. This also led to confusion with fans who hadn't read the book, as they watched the movie waiting for Terabithia to "become real" only to realize it doesn't.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: After Jess acts out in school through punching a kid who'd joked that he's the fastest kid as Leslie's dead, the teacher talks to him about grieving the loss of a loved one when it appears he's about to be punished. A similar thing happens in the book, only instead of punching a kid, Jesse didn't stand for the national anthem.
  • Setting Update: Instead of the 1970's (when the book was published), the movie takes place in the then-present day of the mid-2000's. This doesn't really affect anything other than the fashion, the updated values, the presence of electronics (the Aarons are too poor to afford anything electronic beyond a small television and a landline, Mrs. Myers has a ban on electronics and two kids are seen hiding their gaming devices — presumably GameBoys — and will give detention for plagiarizing off the Internet, and the Burkes don't have a TV in belief that it's bad for your brain), and a couple of pop culture/contemporary references (like Twinkies).
  • Tomboy with a Girly Streak: Leslie, who likes sports, including both running and running, plus having boyish short hair while wearing less "feminine" clothing usually. She prefers the outdoors, and leads Jess into the woods on many adventures. On the other hand, she also has Barbies she'd played with in the past and is still "girlish" in her mannerisms.
  • Write Who You Know: An in-universe example the 2007 film. Jess and Leslie base the creatures and inhabitants of their imaginary world off of people they know. In particular, the Squoagers and Hairy Vultures are monsters based off the bullies Scott Hoager and Gary Fulcher and even resemble them to a degree. The troll is based off Janice Avery, and does a Heel–Face Turn after Leslie comforts her, while the Dark Master is based off Jess's father, and disappears at the end, when the two of them finally understand one another. The wish-fulfillment of this arguably helps them both — but Jess in particular — to grow stronger in Real Life as well.

Alternative Title(s): Bridge To Terabithia


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