Friday, March 16, 2007

If you need a good cry

Holy moly I saw a tearjerker of a movie yesterday. Bridge to Terabithia. Have you seen it (or read the book)? Because if you haven't, spoilers ahead.

It's closely adapted from a book in that wonderful genre of juvenile fiction. As a kid, I was a big reader. I remember being Susie's age, and the highlight of my month was when the Scholastic book orders came in. I would sit at my desk and read when I finished my work; one day I finished two novels before I even got home from school! I had some favorite books that I re-read several times: Francis Hodgson Burnett's books, especially A Little Princess, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume's wonderful adolescent fiction, and a few others. But somehow, Bridge to Terabithia never crossed my radar.

I'm thinking I need to check it out.

Bruno Bettelheim, in his classic book The Uses of Enchantment, explains how fairy tales are crucial to children's development. Essentially, Bettelheim argues, the violence and horror of fairy tales gives small children a "safe" way to experience the darker side of life. The characters experience terrible things, and this lets kids "rehearse" difficulties and tragedy that they will, one day, encounter (though not likely in the form of child-eating witches or big, bad wolves). Children's literature, too, is full of high drama and tragedy. Parents die. Violence happens. I heard part of a radio interview with Terabithia author Katherine Paterson, and she raised some of the same points that Bettelheim had in his book.

I already knew, before we saw the movie, that it was sad. A friend of Alex's had seen it and revealed the tragic turn of events several weeks ago. One of the main characters of the story dies about an hour into the movie. It's a tragedy. A horrible tragedy, and the rest of the movie is spent with the other characters doing what they must to carry on.

Bridge to Terabithia is frequently taught in schools (late elementary school age, probably 5th and 6th grade), and some parents object. Not because anything is inappropriate or morally-questionable, but because it's so intensely sad. In the not-at-all-scientific sample of my family, here's the reaction to the movie:

Me: uncontrollable crying for about 30 minutes. Remained sad after the movie, and got teary thinking about it the rest of the day. Felt a bit dehydrated later from all the crying. Currently a little misty-eyed after reading user reviews on Amazon's site.

Craig: it was sad. But it was funny to see me crying.

Susie: it was sad. Maybe would have cried if the character who died had shared her name or the name of one of her friends. (But I still think that girl is actually a robot who does not experience human emotions.)

Alex: it was sad. Was a little concerned that he might cry later that evening (when he was spending the night with the friend who had already seen it). Didn't cry, but did seem quite sad when I was crying.

So would I object to my kids reading this book for school? Absolutely not. Frankly, a book would have to be patently obscene or incredibly violent for me to say no. And even then, I might be okay if there was a good reason to read the book (A Clockwork Orange crosses my mind as a teen-appropriate book that is amazingly violent but provides plenty else for discussion. Heck, Lord of the Flies was plenty violent, too.) And the argument of too sad for kids? What about the The Diary of Anne Frank?

And heck, what about most Disney movies? My friend's son couldn't make it through Ice Age because he was so upset that the baby's mother died at the beginning of the movie. How many Disney princesses start out with dead mothers? (Who are replaced by evil stepmothers?) How many stories hinge on the death or loss of a parent or child? Nearly all of them, right? And that's what we set in front of our preschoolers.

So a story for tweens that has a tragic (but all too possible) plot twist? I think it's not going to hurt them a bit. By age ten, most children have experienced the death of someone close to them. My own children have lost an uncle, a great-grandmother, and a close family friend. A teacher's child recently died, which hit all the kids at their school pretty hard. Kids know that death happens. And I'm pretty sure that if we give them the opportunites, in literature and film, to rehearse the strong emotions they'll experience when real tragedy touches their worlds, those strong emotions will not be so frightening in their intensity.

1 comment:

darkthirty said...

Good points. I'm still moved, 10 days after seeing it.