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15 years ago, Bridge to Terabithia changed fantasy movies forever

It starts with a tired trope, but then it changes the game.

Fifteen years ago, the world of children’s media was reaching memorable new heights. Rats were becoming famous French chefs, Amy Adams was playing the role of her career as a Disney princess come to life in New York, and Jerry Seinfeld created a film that would live on in memes for years to come.

But most notably, movie adaptations of classic books were becoming more frequent and ambitious. The early 2000s were a Renaissance for these adaptations, spearheaded by the Harry Potter series and closely followed by franchises like the Chronicles of Narnia.

Among these tentpoles were countless one-off adaptations that tried to capture the minds of children, with varying levels of success. But 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia, from the 1977 novel by Katherine Paterson, pushed the envelope and changed how we think of family media.

While other adaptations were veering away from their source material, Hungarian director Gábor Csupó was incredibly loyal to the original novel. This wasn’t by accident; the film was co-written and produced by David L. Paterson, the son of the novel’s author. Paterson, an accomplished playwright, brought his mother’s book to life in a way that makes it feel like it’s from a simpler time, but not an outdated one.

The film follows Josh Hutcherson as Jess Aarons, a fifth grader with artistic ambitions from a poor family. At school he meets new girl Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), a tomboy who beats him in a footrace. He learns they’re neighbors, and together they explore the vast forest behind their houses and create a lush imaginary world they call Terabithia.

While they use their imaginations to confront bullies and conquer their own self-doubts, everything changes when Jess accepts an offer to visit a museum with his pretty teacher Ms. Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel) and skips out on Leslie. When he returns, he learns that Leslie attempted to cross the creek into “Terabithia” alone, but their rope swing broke and the fall killed her.

At first glance, Bridge to Terabithia makes a case as one of the earliest Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories. Leslie is quirky, has contrarian ideas, and helps Jess explore his creative side. It seems like she only exists to have Jess question the status quo. The fact that the film features Zooey Deschanel, the patron saint of the trope, doesn’t do it any favors.

The mystical world of Terabithia, rendered in impressive-for-2007 CGI.Disney picture

But by preserving the tragic ending of the original book, Bridge to Terabithia preserves the original real-life harshness. In fact, the story’s sudden swerve was inspired by the childhood friend of David Paterson, who was killed by lightning.

Bridge to Terabithia may be a fantasy film, but it’s rooted in reality. In reality, sometimes children die. This film trusts its audience to handle that tragedy. While these are stock characters, there’s no better way to ground them than with subverted tropes and a tragic loss.

Bridge to Terabithia not only cemented its stars as titans of the adaptation movie (Robb had already starred in Because of Winn-Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Hutcherson had the Hunger Games franchise in his future) but its success changed how we treat children’s media. Kids know when they’re being condescended to, and sometimes all they want is a real story.

Even though it was fantasy, Bridge to Terabithia was just that.

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