I know I loved watching movies as a child, but I never expected to be sobbing to my mum by the end. For some reason, book-to-movie adaptations in the late 90s and early 2000s were particularly heartbreaking. Either the ending was far from a “happily ever after” or our favorite character died before the movie could end. And I know this is a universally shared experience because we all grew up watching the same films and reading the same books. In honor of the anniversary of the Bridge to Terabithia movie adaptation, I have compiled a list of movies that shook me to my core as a child. And obviously, SPOILERS AHEAD!
1. Bridge to Terabithia
The movie version of Bridge to Terabithia, starring Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb, came out in 2007. What we all thought was going to be this beautiful story of friendship, young love, and the discovery of a fantasy world turned out to be one of the saddest movie deaths of the noughties.
The novel, written by Katherine Patterson tells the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who becomes friends with his new neighbor, Leslie Burke after he loses a footrace to her at school. Leslie is a tomboy from a wealthy family, who Jesse thinks quite highly of. Jesse is an artistic boy from a poorer family who, in the beginning, is fearful and angry. After meeting Leslie, however, his life is transformed. He becomes courageous and learns to let go of his frustration. The two children create a kingdom for themselves, which Leslie names “Terabithia.”
While the majority of the story consists of non-stop adventure and imagination, its magical moments come to a screeching halt when Leslie is found dead. The death of a child is already incredibly tragic, but Jess’ subsequent grieving is particularly painful to witness. Eventually, however, Jesse is able to build a bridge back to “Terabithia” and invites his little sister, May Belle, to join him as the new princess.
If you had read the book before watching the movie, Leslie’s sudden death might not have been so shocking. But to us who were 5 or 6 at the time, watching Josh Hutcherson crying over his best, and only, friend in class was truly heartbreaking.
2. Marley & Me
Up next was Marley & Me. Again, what I was expecting was a loving story of a dog and his owner and their shared adventures and lives. What young me forgot is that life has to have an end at some point. Nevertheless, was I expecting Owen Wilson’s grief and tears to break my little heart? No. But they did. I think I would have cried less if Wilson’s character had died than I did when Marley had to be put to sleep. I was expecting more of a Homeward Bound situation where the dogs made it to the end of the film.
I’m not sure if Josh Grogan meant for his dog to steal our hearts when he wrote Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog. But Marley just had that power over us, especially us kids who associated any dog with happiness and joy. His book is a funny, unforgettable tribute to this wonderful, wildly neurotic Lab and the meaning he brought to their lives. This novel also spawned an illustrated children’s book series, filled with Marley’s adventures from Christmas to finding love. Marley is a dog that truly captured readers’ and viewers’ hearts and unfortunately broke them when his time came to an end. But if you think a dead dog is the saddest thing on this list, you are mistaken.
3. The Fox and the Hound
Now if you want to see a very confused child cry and then ask what happened next, sit down with them and watch Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. While the ending isn’t as sad as some other films, little me was still left wondering why Tod and Copper can’t be together.
The movie is based on Daniel Mannix’s novel The Fox and the Hound. Tod, a red fox kit, is raised as a pet but returns to the wild to do what all foxes are born to do: explore, trot along fence posts, cross icy streams, define his territory, mate, hunt, bury corpses for a rainy day, and, most of all, out-smart his enemies. Tod, in fact, is so sharp-witted and cunning, dauntless and valiant, that his ability to defy death becomes legendary. Copper, a half-bloodhound tracker, is the dog who lives to hunt the fox and, along with his beloved master, embarks on a lifelong quest to end the life of the elusive Tod.
Disney decided it was best to start the story when Tod and Copper are pups, Tod still living with his owner Big Mama. It is at this age that the two pups vow to be best buddies forever. It doesn’t take long however for Disney to follow Mannix’s original story. We watch Tod abandoned in the woods by Big Mama after Copper’s owner, Amos, threatened Tod’s life. Amos then decides he’s going to hunt Tod down, using Copper to do so. These childhood friends now find themselves as biological enemies. The part that will have any child in tears is right before Copper decides not to kill Tod, saving him from Amos instead. As I said, the end of the film isn’t the tragic part. But watching poor little Tod abandoned in the woods will make you cry every time.
And luckily Disney redeemed itself with The Fox and the Hound 2, a closer look at the shared childhood adventures of Tod and Copper.
4. The Land Before Time
We can blame both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for this one. Technically, the book The Land Before Time by Jim Razzi came out the same year but the movie did inspire a book series, TV shows, movie sequels, video games, and more.
This colorful and whimsical film would definitely entice a child to watch, but what they won’t be expecting is to cry as much as they will. Not only are all the dinosaurs having to leave their home because of a massive volcano, but young Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike will end up taking this long and treacherous journey all by themselves. If you didn’t have the pleasure of watching this film as a child, you might ask, why are these children dinosaurs traveling alone? Well, I hate to break it to you but before Mufasa, there was Littlefoot’s Mother. In an attempt to save her child from a terrifying T-Rex attack, Littlefoot’s Mother sacrifices herself, unfortunately leading her to her tragic death.
Unlike Bambi’s mother, however, Littlefoot’s mum dies right on the screen for him and us children to see and cry over. Luckily, the rest of the movie isn’t as gut-wrenching. The dinos start their journey to their new home, mostly enjoying the adventure. In the end, Littlefoot and his friends all make it safely to the Great Valley, where he’s adopted by his grandparents.
5. My Girl
Most kids nowadays only know Macaulay Culkin as the mischievous little boy from Home Alone. But to everyone who endured My Girl, he’s a nerdy, allergy-ridden, goofball who stole and shattered our hearts. This film is by far the saddest and most upsetting movie, not only on this list but from my entire childhood. Forget animated dinosaurs and dogs dying, because this film has one of the most tragic movie deaths of all time.
Again, the book, by Patricia Hermes, and the film both debuted in 1991 and follow almost the exact same story. But no matter if you read or watch this story, you’ll never be the same after. I have to say that the fact that this is a children’s film is slightly worrying, as death is basically the central theme. The story centers on 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss, who develops an obsession with death from her upbringing in a funeral home. Her fears about mortality worsen over time, as she wonders if she was responsible for killing her mother with her birth.
Luckily, she finds a friend in the nerdy Thomas J. Even when Vada is nasty to Thomas, he never retaliates with hate. Even 5-year-old me could see that Thomas was deeply in love with Vada from the get-go. He follows her about, from her doctor’s visits to wandering around in the woods. And it’s in those woods where everything goes wrong. When Vada and Thomas are out there one day she ends up losing her mood ring. Thomas being the loving friend he is goes back out after to try and find it for Vada. And he does, under what seemed to be an old, abandoned beehive.
Unfortunately, the beehive was not old, and so when Thomas hits it out of the way for the ring, he is attacked by the bees. And of course, he’s allergic to them. What was already a depressing movie now takes a turn for the worst, as Thomas dies trying to finally make Vada happy. Instead, Vada is now completely heartbroken.
The movie could end there, or even go on to see Vada recovering from grief. But no, we have to sit there and watch Thomas’ OPEN CASKET FUNERAL. What puts the sad cherry on top is when Vada runs into the funeral and tries to wake Thomas, telling his mother that “He needs his glasses. He can’t see without his glasses.” If I had to pick out the most devastating movie from my childhood, it would be this one right here.
Nemo’s mum Coral and 400+ unborn siblings are killed by a terrifying barracuda attack, leaving Marlin and Nemo as the sole survivors. This scene was so terrifying, in fact, that my mum used to skip it. I didn’t know that it ever happened until I was in my late teens trying to relive my childhood.
Michael Ende’s book, The NeverEnding Story, might have the look of a magical story but it is pact full of sorrows. Atreyu must embark on a journey to save the Empress from an illness while a vengeful force known as the Nothing destroys everything in its path. If the impending doom of the Nothing isn’t scary enough, Artex, Atreyu’s horse, and best friend is killed in the swamp during the journey. In a very upsetting scene, viewers must watch Artex slowly drown while Atreyu desperately tries in vain to save him.
Now this movie is by far the happiest on the list. It’s hilarious, following the adventures of a family accidentally shrunk by their dad. But, of course, no movie is complete without a sudden and gut-wrenching death, right? Anty, their new pet ant, was at first just a means for the kids to make their way through the jungle-like backyard fast. However, Anty ended up bonding with them and became a loyal pet. Then, when a scorpion attacks, Anty defends his new friends but ends up paying the price with a stab from the scorpion’s tail. As a result, he slowly dies from his wound, leaving the band of kids crying at the loss.
Guys, Charlotte dies! Okay, yes she saved Wilbur from getting slaughtered and all her 514 children survive, but still…
If you were wanting to relive the happier moments of your childhood, check out the soon-to-be Frog and Toad adaptation.