Last night I decided to watch Bridge to Terabithia. It was a confusing experience. I will be first to accept that I am probably not ‘who this was made for’, an adaptation of a literary work for and about younger people than me wrapped up in Disney fuzziness. The film follows Peeta Mellark and his far too chirpy next door neighbour as they deal with their respective emotional/familial issues by imagining a childlike world of wonder. Here the more ethereal dangers that plague the young protagonists lives, such as bullying and a perceived lack of parental attention, manifest as trolls, flying gopher type things, and a mysterious shadow guy. By becoming solid they can be tackled head on, and as they do so Mellark and his not-girlfriend become happier.
However what I imagine in the book resolves as a beautiful commentary on escapism and the role of imagination in how we deal with the less manageable aspects of our lives, translates into the realness of film as a sort of shared schizophrenic episode. I have not read the book, but Wikipedia says it is one of the most frequently challenged books around. The film makes it obvious why, the lives of the people in the film are messy and their relationships are complicated in ways we are unused to in fiction for this audience. In this respect it should be great, it doesn’t wrap everything up in comfortable little packages because it believes its audience isn’t sophisticated enough to deal with what it is showing.
The problem is that in many ways the characters issues are caricatured and more problematic than they reasonably need to be. Mellarks father loves his sisters more than he loves him; we know this because whilst his sisters get sweet goodnights, Mellark is left with a gruff ‘lights out’. We never learn why this is. Some might argue that it is in fact not the case, there is a scene later in the film where the father does tenderly tuck the boy into bed, the problem is, the boy isn’t awake, in the world of the film his father still doesn’t love him as much as his siblings. This is just one of a plethora of similar problems, the film argues that bullying as revenge is a legitimate activity, it has a barely present mother whose attitude to her child is also not explained, and if you read the literal painting of a wall with gold as saying something about wealth, it says that money makes families happier.
These things might all be true, they might even be interesting in the hands of another film for a different audience, perhaps one that is prepared to think about how these things might have come about, but here the broad stroke caricatures of characters make them into a series of problematic events portrayed by characters with little or no motivation. Am I supposed to hate the father because of his nepotism? I do not know because I do not know why it exists. The film’s final moments ‘probably’ see the dark mysterious shadow person of the forest resolve into Mellarks father, who, rather than harming him catches him in an embrace – in doing so the film teaches us that the path to resolution can lay in the imaginary worlds it depicts, implicitly rejecting the ‘get your head out of the clouds’ attitude the film’s most divisive character (the father) adopts in response to his son. The problem is, the issues the film depicts, including a death, could be resolved by doing just that.