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Bridge to Terabithia Movie Stays True, Says Author 

State of the Arts

Barre children's author Katherine Paterson has been busy. The big-screen version of her 1977 Newbery Award-winning novel Bridge to Terabithia opens at 3100 theaters on Friday. A pre-screening publicity tour has taken her to Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.

Now she's back home and can relax - unlike her son, who produced the film and wrote the original screenplay. "David can't let the knots get out of his stomach until after the first weekend," Paterson says. "If it doesn't do really well that first weekend, they'll start pulling it from theaters."

Based on her recent experience, she doesn't think that will happen. "I was interviewed so many times, and I kept waiting for a cynic to say something snide to me," she says. "They kept telling me about people crying in the screenings."

That teary response won't surprise anyone who's read the book, in which a child confronts his best friend's sudden death. But the story's tragic theme may startle moviegoers who have only seen the trailer, which focuses exclusively on scenes involving the children's shared imaginary kingdom. The special-effects-rich preview "represents 10 minutes of a 90-minute film," according to Paterson. The marketing decision was made by Disney, which is distributing the movie. "What they tried to explain to me was that the trailer was to bring in kids who didn't read the book."

Maybe so. But it's also worried some Terabithia fans. "WHO was smoking WHAT when they wrote the 'SCRIPT'?!?!" reads one irate post on the yahoomovies.com message board. Another comments, "This is my favorite book, ever - hopefully they do not screw this up!"

Not to worry, says Paterson. Although Disney's the distributor, the film was made by Walden Media, which has previously produced respectable adaptations of such kids' classics as Charlotte's Web and the Narnia chronicles.

David Paterson, whose childhood trauma inspired his mother's novel, "kept it close to the book," she says. That includes preserving certain segments that have made the novel a frequent censorship target by fundamentalist Christians. All those controversial scenes are "right there," says Paterson, who is married to a Presbyterian minister.

In fact, she deems this version "fuller, more faithful" than previous adaptations. A one-hour Wonderworks TV special in 1985 "was so compressed that you couldn't fall in love with Leslie before she died," Paterson notes. A 1990 stage version on which Paterson collaborated had to sacrifice some characters, including a teacher who drives a crucial scene. When the movie was being filmed in New Zealand, Paterson reports, the first take of that scene was perfect, "but they had to re-shoot it, because one of the Maori cameramen was weeping so hard."

Perhaps most importantly, as far as the author is concerned, is the film company's commitment to push the book. "Read it before you see it!" paperback editions now urge on their covers. Free copies were distributed at pre-screenings, and Walden reportedly persuaded the publisher to donate 150,000 copies to libraries that couldn't afford them.

The promotion has paid off for the paperback: The 30-year-old book has spent the last four weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The Patersons - mother and son - are hoping the movie does as well.

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Ruth Horowitz

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