The Power of Imagination

On a recent flight from Washington, DC to San Diego I had the fortune of watching the movie Bridge to Terabithia. It didn’t seem like fortune at the time, though. I was frankly disappointed that a more exciting movie wasn’t playing. Crammed into a small airline seat, forced to sit still for four hours or so, I wanted to watch something with action and drama and even romance, not some fantasy movie for children. But I didn’t feel like reading, so I plugged in my headphones and decided to give it a chance.

As a part of the programming, the airline included a review before the movie actually started. Interestingly, one reviewer remarked that he had the same misgivings as I did about the movie before he saw it, but ended up pleasantly surprised. He also mentioned that there were some significant dramatic themes, including a death. At the time, his comments didn’t really make me more excited to watch the movie myself, but I remembered them later.

I will probably spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t watched it, so if you really want to see it, move on to the next post. The main character, Jesse, is a young boy with four sisters. His family is struggling to get by, and his parents have too much on their mind to pay much attention to him. The movie is chiefly about his pre-adolescent struggles, and how he learns to deal with difficulties in life, which for him take the form of school bullies, a demanding and rigid father, and an annoying little sister (she actually loves him very much and because of that seems clingy to him).

The movie begins on the first day of sixth grade. Jesse has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest kid in his class in the opening field day race. Unfortunately, he his mother insists that he wear his sister’s hand-me-down pink sneakers, for which classmates will tease him–but that’s pretty normal for Jesse, since his family can’t afford to buy many new things. During the race, he beats everybody in his class except a new girl named Leslie. What makes it worse for him is that she seems extremely interested in being his friend. He puts her off initially, partially bitter from the race he lost but also partially because she is new and different. Like him, she is an outcast–and the two eventually become friends.

Leslie discovers that Jesse has a passion for drawing. He keeps a notebook filled with drawings of imaginary creatures and events, though he is very shy about it. And with her encouragement, they begin to visit the woods behind their houses every day after school, developing in their imagination a fantasy world which they protect and rule. It is Leslie that instigates the imaginative part; Jesse is at first skeptical, reluctant, and derisive. Their world, Terabithia, is sophisticated: the children bring in the problems they face at school and at home and re-create them as evils threatening Terabithia, and likewise project their role and king and queen into their everyday lives, teaming up to get the better of bullies and help other students. Terabithia is a visible manifestation of the childrens’ friendship and a means by which they can romanticize their sufferings and make them meaningful. And while their sufferings might be considered trivial compared with adult problems, as children at the very beginning of puberty they feel disappointment, regret, and frustration with all the clarity of innocence. The movie clearly presents the childrens’ problems as a microcosm of our (the viewers’) own.

Later in the movie, Jesse is been invited to visit an art gallery with a teacher on whom he has a crush. For that reason, he doesn’t invite Leslie. When Jesse returns from the gallery he finds his parents sick with worry and senses something wrong: they tell him that Leslie went to the woods (Terabithia) by herself, and when crossing a swollen stream fell in and drowned. It is a terrible scene. Jesse can’t believe it at first and runs to her house, only to find ambulances and police cars and sympathizers already in attendance–including the teacher he was with that day. Wracked with guilt, he tells the teacher that they should have invited Leslie.

At this point in the story, I realized I had read the book before. It had been when I was very young, and I chiefly remember that I cried. It is a tragic story: Jesse senselessly loses his best friend; he blames himself because he didn’t invite her to the museum; he watches the exciting world they dreamed together and its positive effect on real life come crashing down about his ears. It was perhaps my first real encounter with grief. I sympathized with Jesse through the medium of the story–when he loses his temper with his little sister and pushes her to the ground, when he runs from his father into the woods, when he gets into a fight in school. I felt keenly the unlooked-for compassion of his parents (who struggle tell him that Leslie’s death wasn’t his fault) and his teachers, who tell him how lucky he was to have befriended Leslie and how special they thought she was. And, most importantly, I discovered that the gifts of others — in Jesse’s case, Terabithia — are the things that preserve their memory the best.

Bridge to Terabithia is far more than a simple children’s story. It is about dealing with suffering, death, and maturity. It reminds us that holding ideals with childlike clarity and abandonment is worthwhile. Jesse’s father, careworn as he is, recognizes this: “That girl gave you something very special, and to remember that is to keep her alive,” he tells Jesse. The value of a story like this recalls the great literary value of other “children’s stories,” such as the fables of Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson and the Chronicles of Narnia, which (like Bridge to Terabithia) continue to escape a more “mature” reading audience who decide they no time for childrens’ tales. And yet if joy, contentment, sorrow, pain, and frustration are the simplest emotions we feel, surely we feel them most keenly in our simplest frame of mind – when we are as little children. Even Jesus taught that we each should believe in Him and his message “as a little child.”

For if Terabithia is an ideal, so is the promise of Christianity. They are both firmly in the province of faith. And they both provide meaning to our daily trials and a goal to work toward in our daily labor. Keeping such an ideal before us despite the intrusion of dull or demanding tasks and obligations requires imagination–more specifically, it requires a simple, uncomplicated, unfettered imagination. It requires the imagination of a child. Such an imagination is the means by which we discern hope even amid our current suffering. That is what Bridge to Terabithia celebrates.