There’s a reason why Bridge To Terabithia is often ranked among cinema’s saddest movies – here’s the film’s heartbreaking death explained. For those who haven’t had the emotionally scarring experience of watching Bridge To Terabithia, it’s a coming-of-age fantasy film released in 2007 and directed by Rugrats co-creator Gábor Csupó. The film is based on the children’s book of the same name published in 1977 by writer Katherine Paterson, whose screenwriter son David Paterson co-wrote Bridge To Terabithia’s screenplay.
Katherine Peterson’s book has been widely taught in schools since its publication but according to the American Library Association, it’s also one of the most challenged books in curriculum thanks in part to its tragic death, which the Bridge To Terabithia movie adaptation stays faithful to. The film stars Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) as a lonely 12-year-old who is bullied by his schoolmates. He finds a friend in tomboyish new student and fellow lonely soul Leslie (The Act) when she moves in next door to him.
While the pair are exploring the woods one day, they use a rope swing to cross a creek where they discover an abandoned treehouse. There, Jess and Leslie conjure up the titular Terabithia – a fantasy world populated by weird and wonderful creatures that the friends regularly retreat into to escape their everyday lives and troubles. The two soon become firm friends bound by the shared world they’ve created together but tragedy strikes towards the end of Bridge To Terabithia.
One Saturday, Jess goes on an impromptu field trip with his music teacher and crush Ms. Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel) to an art museum without inviting Leslie along. He comes home to find out that Leslie has drowned after their rope swing broke while she was trying to cross the rain-swollen creek to get to Terabithia. Interestingly, the Bridge To Terabithia death happens off-screen but it’s all the more impactful and surprising for it. Not to mention the fact that witnessing Jess’s grief and guilt at not being there for his friend is utterly heartbreaking.
What makes Leslie’s death even more devastating is that it’s based on a real-life tragedy. Katherine Paterson penned the book on which it’s based after her son David's childhood best friend died after being struck by lightning when they were just eight years old. As tragic as Bridge To Terabithia’s death is, both the book and film have been cited as useful tools in helping children deal with death and grief.