“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were,” wrote the American astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan. “But without it we go nowhere.”
Katherine Paterson understood that. The celebrated children’s author won a Newberry Award by writing about the power of the imagination. “Bridge to Terabithia,” which was first published in 1978 to widespread acclaim, joined the ranks of classic literature, in fact, and transformed Paterson into one of the most beloved children’s authors of our time. Now, the dog-eared favorite is hitting the big screen as well, with a contemporary incarnation.
Written for Paterson’s son David, “Bridge to Terabithia” tells the story of Jess Aarons (played by Josh Hutcherson, “RV,” “Zathura”), a kid who is trying to fit in by becoming the fastest runner in school. To Jess’s frustration, he’s beaten by a newcomer – who also happens to be a girl.
Unlike Jess, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Because of Winn-Dixie”) has it all. She’s wealthy, smart and quick on her feet. But when Leslie takes Jess across a stream, introducing him to an imaginary land of kings, queens, giants and ogres, Jess realizes that he’s found a true friend. Not only that, but the game they both love will also teach them some very important truths about life.
I talked to Paterson, a former missionary and the wife of a retired Methodist minister, about watching her book being made into a movie, and how she got her start as a writer. Here’s what she had to say:
How do you feel about your book becoming a film, especially after all these years?
Honestly, when I first wrote the novel, I never really knew if anyone whose name wasn’t Paterson would understand it and I never dreamed it would take on the life, even beyond books, that it has. It’s a magical thing that has happened, perhaps because it is the kind of story that opens itself up for people to bring their own lives to it, in a powerful way, so that the story becomes their story.
You’ve also published two books of angel stories which were written after your husband wanted to read one to his congregation on Christmas Eve, but couldn’t find anything suitable. Were the angel stories your first foray into writing?
Well, I hadn’t published any fiction when I started writing those stories. I had done one book for the Presbyterian Church, a story for 4th and 5th graders. But I liked to write, so I decided to write. I published one story for a little Roman Catholic magazine, but for seven years it was pretty dry. Then my first novel was published. But it was seven years of writing [before I was published]. And the reading – I was always a reader. That was the main thing, I think.
Why did you decide to write for young adults?
Well, I didn’t know what I was writing. Nobody had given me a course in writing. I had been a missionary in Japan and felt very confident about setting a story there. It was a bit like going back to Japan. So I wrote my first three novels. Also, I didn’t make that conscious decision. Those seven years when I was writing but not publishing, I was doing all sorts of things – fiction, non-fiction, poems, articles. So this friend in Maryland decided to take me on as her good work. She brought me to a writing class, a Mom’s night out. They were offering a course in writing for children, which I decided to go [to]. And I began to write for them. I was writing almost a story a week, and figured that I could write a chapter a week instead. And that’s how I wrote my first novel. It only had 14 chapters, but it was the discipline of having to write something on a regular basis.
Like the angel stories, year after year.
You know, it’s a funny thing about those stories. I thought I would send them to my own denominational publisher, but they said, “Nobody wants stories about angels.”
No kidding! Because they went on to become a huge success.
Yes. But I think Christian publishers are scared of fiction. The imagination can go into unorthodox paths, you know. I finally showed them to my publisher and she said she wanted to publish them.
How many children do you have, and how did you combine your writing with their schedules and the demands of being a pastor’s wife?
Two adopted children (by choice) and two children by birth. You don’t wait for inspiration when you have small children, though. You just do it!
Clearly, however, you were inspired to write “Bridge to Terabithia.” How did that come about?
When our son David was seven, he was best friends with a girl named Lisa. The things that happened in that friendship made me write to try and sort it out.
I didn’t know what they were doing – children have their own private lives. So I did this from my own childhood. I had lived in many places because we moved so many times, and I always had to find a secret place for myself. I had three sisters and a brother but I was the one in the middle, so I played by myself. I made up stories in my head and played out all the parts.
What was it like for you to see the book take off?
I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a very private book. I wasn’t sure my editor would even publish it. Then when it was [published], I could not believe the response.
What was the first thing that happened which made you realize the book was big?
It won the Newberry Medal in January, after being published in the fall. In those days, they called you, so the phone rang at five in the morning. It was very hard to believe. We have a friend who won, and her husband opened a bottle of champagne that morning. My husband went down and got me some milk.
Your son David has co-written the screenplay for the film. Obviously, he had a strong literary influence in your home. Did you nurture him as a writer?
No, he was like me. He didn’t know he was going to be a writer. He loved to draw. He was going to marry his sister Mary and stay home with the other children.
Was this film his idea?
He told me he’s been working on it for 17 years. I said that wasn’t possible, but it is. He said he had to wait for Walden Media to be created, because he thought nobody would want it. Who would want a kid’s book? Well, Walden believes that people do want those stories, and they also believe in protecting the integrity of the story.
Did you have any concerns about how it would turn out?
One of my biggest worries about turning the book into a film was what Terabithia itself would be like. For the past thirty years, readers have been creating Terabithia in their own imaginations, and no two readers will ever have the same vision of the place. I write books because I want the readers’ imaginations to come to life and, although I understand films and books are very different, I hoped that this would somehow be honored in the film. I really don’t understand it myself but through the writing and the directing and the actors and the designs, beginning with the opening credits, you really feel as if you are walking right into Jess and Leslie’s imaginations – which was a very important thing to me. I really hope it will inspire audiences not only to read books but to see the power of what a story can do, that it can enlarge the human spirit
What has been your role in the production?
I’ve really entrusted it to David, but there were a couple of times when he needed me to write a letter or make a phone call. And that’s the difference between Walden and many studios – they pay attention to the writer.
Can you give me example of an issue that David got you involved in?
Well, there are a number of places in the film that are very un-Hollywood. They always question these things. They’re movie people. They think dramatically, and they want things dramatic for the screen. And I understand that it can’t be exactly like the book. But I wanted it to have the spirit of the book and preserve the true story. And it’s remarkably faithful to the story. I saw it two weeks ago in Seattle. They had a special pre-screening for the library association, which is a very fussy audience. They just loved it and couldn’t believe how close to the book it had remained.
What was the biggest change?
Contemporizing it from the 1970s to the present. But I’m okay with that.
“Bridge to Terabithia” is rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, some peril and mild language. It opens nationwide in theaters on Friday, February 16, 2007. Click here for more information.