It's been over 30 years since Katherine Paterson, a former missionary and wife of a pastor, put pen to paper to write Bridge to Terabithia. Yet even though her beloved Newberry award-winning novel seems tailor-made for the big screen, it has only recently been adapted to film. With the movie finally hitting theaters today, audiences will be able to determine whether it was worth the wait.
What is already clear is that readers who cherish the story of friendship between two young outsiders (Paterson wrote it after her own 8-year-old son, David, lost his best friend to a tragic accident) won't be unpleasantly surprised by any deviation from the original.
David Paterson, now a 40-year-old husband and father, adapted the book into a screenplay in 1990 and has been trying to get the movie made ever since. The problem was, at the time, there wasn't a production company in Hollywood willing to respect his mother's vision. Today, as fans of The Chronicles of Narnia and Charlotte's Web discovered, there is.
During our telephone interview from Washington D.C. where he is promoting the film, Paterson's frustration with mainline Hollywood is obvious from the outset. Presented with a serious piece of art—albeit art for children—that explores how people deal with death, studio executives first wanted to know if they could give it a happy ending. Needless to say, Paterson wasn't about to take them up on their offer. "I wanted to do it the right way, not Hollywood's way, and that's rare so I was willing to wait," he says.
While cynical entertainment reporters (ahem) might be tempted to write these sentiments off as so much PR-coached marketing, Paterson's subsequent comments wipe away any indication that he's worried about ingratiating himself to movie industry types.
"They don't respect readers and they don't respect children—they don't respect their intelligence or their imagination," comments Paterson of the film industry's heaviest hitters. Asked what the movie business does respect, he can't help but laugh, "Well, they have huge respect for children's money and their parents' money."
Like many screenwriters before him, he discovered the truth about the movie business the hard way, by sitting in meeting after meeting with executives who wanted to dumb down Terabithia for the sake of capturing a wider audience.
Fortunately for fans of the book, Paterson couldn't be bought by the promise of big dollars or lured by glitzy A-list names: "I wasn't about to give up the heart of this story for easy money—it was more important to me to honor the book and my mother's genius, and also my best friend Lisa Hill—what she gave us was a true gift." Besides, Paterson points out, "I have the ministry sensibility in my blood and we're a patient people."
Now, with positive reviews pouring in from critics around the country, it looks like his patience is finally paying off for both him and the company that finally agreed to make the movie his way, Walden Media.
"One of the reasons it took me 17 years to make it is because I had to wait for Walden to become a company," Paterson enthuses, "Their mantra is to protect the original source material—not just protect it but promote it. They actually want to make movies to get children to read, something a Hollywood executive would never do."
But even with Walden on board, Paterson was careful that the book's narrative be followed to the letter. "I was a Tasmanian devil," he laughs, "so no--there were no changes." Knowing that his now 74-year-old mother would eventually see the final product helped keep him on track: "Had I messed it up I think the family holidays would be fairly uncomfortable," he laughs, "But honestly the story is so good, I wasn't as concerned with my adaptation as with what the studio would do with it. Hollywood has a reputation of interpreting books rather than adapting them. The real issue is if you have a good story you'll probably have a good story on screen."
Asked if he will continue to work as screenwriter or return to his day job as a fire fighter, Paterson expresses uncertainty: "Look, I don't need anything from the entertainment industry. I go to L.A. for meetings, but I find it far more amusing that intimidating. I know in some of these meetings people are lying, and I don't call them on it. I just note it and move along."
Either way, he wryly jokes, "I'm sure down the road there will be some stories in Hollywood about that nasty little ferret David Paterson."