Katherine Paterson wrote an award-winning book about the accidental death of her young son's friend. Twenty-nine years later, it's in theaters nationwide. How did it happen?

By Neil Drumming
Updated February 20, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
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What does it take to make a movie? A good director? Top-billed actors? An executive producer? Truth is, with an undertaking as massive as a Hollywood film, there are usually plenty of people who deserve a little credit. But you might be surprised by some of the people responsible for bringing your favorite films to life. With each installment of I Got It Made, we’ll squeeze the insight out of anybody we can get our hands on to find out how movies really get made.

When David Paterson was a young boy, he suffered a tragic loss that led to the subsequent publication of the best-selling book, Bridge to Terabithia. David’s mother, Katherine Paterson, wrote the 1978 Newberry Award-winning novel to help her son cope with the untimely death of a playmate. Terabithia, which tells the story of Jess, an awkward middle-schooler who creates an imaginary world with his friend Leslie, became immensely popular among young adult readers and, as such, was initially a source of embarrassment for David.

”I was very ashamed of it,” the 40-year-old filmmaker recalls. ”Here I [was], gaining notoriety for something that was a rather unpleasant experience. For many years, I didn’t mention it to anyone.” But as an adult, he came to appreciate his mother’s gesture, and became determined to shepherd the work through to the big screen. The result of almost two decades’ worth of pushing the project to studios, Walt Disney Pictures’ Bridge to Terabithia finally hits theaters tomorrow. And if co-producer David Paterson seems at all hesitant to talk about it now, that’s just because he’s trying not to give up any spoilers.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Talk about your film career before Bridge to Terabithia.
My first film, Love Ludlow, came out in 2005. I had been working on Terabithia forever and I had no idea if it was ever going to get made, so I figured, ”Oh, I’ll go ahead and make another movie.”

What’s Terabithia about?
Disney doesn’t want me to give away anything from the plot. [But] it’s based on actual events, much of it about a relationship that I had when I was seven years old, with a girl named Lisa Hill, who was my best friend in second grade. I was starting a new school, so I was a bit of a nobody, a weirdo. She happened to be coming to that school for the first time, too. And we just became very, very fast friends. Out of that relationship and what happened the ensuing summer is pretty much the basis for the book, Bridge to Terabithia. Again, I’m just trying to be cautious in the way that I’m skipping around things.

But the plot is familiar to the many people who have read the book.
Exactly. The people who read the book are very familiar with it. Disney wants us to not familiarize the rest of the world with it. [Laughs]

How close is the story to your real life?
It’s a work of fiction, but there are a lot of similarities. The fact that Jesse was an awkward kid who stuck by himself. He loved to draw and he loved to run, and had a strange relationship with his dad. His family was poor. He was in love with his music teacher. He became fast friends with a new girl in town. Pretty much all of that is me.

The young girl died, correct?
There is a tragedy — again, I’m being very diplomatic.

Why did your mother write the book?
She really started to write the book more for herself, as a kind of therapy. She was just trying to make sense of something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. She never thought it would be published. And yet here [we are], 30 years later, and it remains a very popular book. It touches on some very basic emotions that we all went through as kids, like, do I fit in the world? It deals with bullies. It deals with the desire for parental love or approval.

How did you react to the book when it was first published?
Actually, my mom let me read it [beforehand]. She was not going to publish it without my approval — which is a little crazy, putting your career in the hands of an eight year-old. But I said that she should publish it with the one request: that she add my best friend’s name to the dedication page. It’s still on there today.

As the book became more popular, how did that affect your life?
When people said, ”Oh, you’re the original Jess? That’s really cool,” it was like someone pointing out a scar. They have absolutely no idea how you got it. It took me many many years to realize that my friendship was a true gift from my friend, and what she gave me, I possibly can help give to others — meaning the film.

Did the rash of popular and classic adaptations like Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter franchise, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in recent years speed the process of getting Terabithia made?
I’ve been trying to make this film for 19 years. When I first approached studios in the ’90s, they were like, ”There’s no money in adapting children’s books to film, and there’s no money in family entertainment.” And my response was ”Well, there will be!” I had to literally wait for [the production company] Walden Media to be [founded six years ago]. But their whole goal is to adapt children’s literature truthfully. And believe it or not, also to promote reading. They got HarperCollins to give away over 150,000 copies of the book to schools that can’t normally afford them. So the whole idea is to promote literature and reading, something Hollywood doesn’t tend to do. They just want to get the butts in the seats.

You optioned the book in 1990?
Even though my mother loved me and would have loved to have just given it to me, business is business. So it took me over two years to option it [from HarperCollins].

You are a producer and co-writer on Bridge to Terabithia. How was the process of adapting your mother’s seminal work into a screenplay?
I had adapted several of her works into plays, so I was comfortable with [that]. The real benefit of bringing in [co-writer] Jeff Stockwell was that, although I had no problem adapting my mother’s work, when it came to Terabithia, we had to actually create an imaginary world. In my mother’s book, she only glosses over Terabithia in about 11 pages, leaving most of it for the reader to interpret. I felt that world was almost sacrosanct — if I screwed it up, the holidays would be rather uncomfortable. And you can’t really, in a movie, just have the screen go blank and say ”Insert Your Terabithia Here.” But Jeff Stockwell had no pressure in that respect. So the majority of Terabithia itself I credit to him.

Would you say the fleshing out of the fantasy world of Terabithia is the major difference between the book and the film?
That’s the only difference. We stuck very close to the book. Every major character, every major scene from the book is in the film. I never felt there was a need to improve on my mother’s book. And that’s why it took so long — because I’ve probably been rather difficult over the years. I was trying to protect a wonderful property. Hollywood, sometimes they start out with the best intentions, to make a good movie from a good book. But film is art by committee, and many times what you end up with is something that looks nothing like the original material and is, in fact, pretty atrocious.

Has your mother seen the film yet?
My mother has seen it, loves it, and says it gets better every time she sees it. She’s seen in three times. She actually did an eight-state tour with me, promoting the film and — trust me — she would not have gone if she didn’t like it.

Bridge to Terabithia

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