Cinematic Saturdays: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Everybody sit back, I’m about to get all nostalgic on yo’ a**! 

Few stories shaped me (and millions of other eighties babies) more than Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. But if you, like me, saw the movie before you were fully literate, and were exposed to the book later in your youth, you learned just how different the novel is from the movie franchise.

Title: The Neverending Story
Author: Michael Ende
Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books
Publication Date: 1979
Pages: 396 (hardcover)
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy


Summary (from Goodreads): The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place - by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic - and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the mysteries of his own heart. Readers, too, can travel to the wonderous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page.

Warning – contains spoilers. First of all, the book is far darker than the film. Everyone remember “The Nothing,” that freaky, apocalyptic storm that threatened to destroy Fantasia (“Fantastica”) in the movie? Well, in the book it’s not a storm. “The Nothing” is a term coined by the confused inhabitants of Fantasica to describe a mysterious force that essentially drives all who see it to suicide. They do this by diving into metaphysical non-existence; just giving up on the will to “be.” It’s a plague of hopelessness and forfeiture, which, get this, exists because of modern children's lack of imagination. Basically, the story goes that we stopped caring about fiction, and inadvertently murdered an entire parallel world. That’s heavy stuff for a child audience! So it’s no wonder this was altered for the film. But it’s not all terrifying. Michael Ende really succeeded in creating lovable, relatable, and beautifully flawed heroes.

Our main protagonist, Bastian Balthazar Bux, is a chubby, often bullied boy who feels overwhelmingly incapable in the real world. He doesn’t succeed in sports, has no friends, and is too distracted by the stresses of life to achieve academically. The only thing he’s really any good at is using his imagination. So author Michael Ende created an entire world for this boy, and by extension for millions of readers like him, where imagination is synonymous with heroism. When Fantastica is all but wiped out by the human world’s lack of belief and creativity, it’s Bastian’s imagination that saves it. I think that’s really beautiful. This book was designed to instill a sense of power and pride in the most insecure of readers. And it’s not just insecurity that we see our heroes overcome.

Atreyu, the youngest warrior of Fantastica’s Plains Tribe, is exceedingly confident. He’s proficient with a bow, and has no fear of pain, but he has his own hurdles to jump. What stands in Atreyu’s way is a lack of faith from others, something that most children face. When Fantastica’s leader, The Childlike Empress, falls ill due to “The Nothing” and calls for Atreyu to find a cure, no one else believes he can do it. They all think him too young, and openly mock/ridicule him before he sets off on his quest. But he doesn’t let that stop him. Atreyu’s character conveys that just because people don’t take you seriously doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. You just have to be brave enough to try.

Finally, The Childlike Empress, while admittedly a bit useless in the movie, is quite brave in the book. Though near death, and actively hunted by several dark creatures, she sets out on her own perilous journey to find a way to defeat “The Nothing.” This takes her to the summit of the tallest mountain in the land where she encounters “the old man of wandering mountain” and sees the ever-confusing book within a book (her story, Atreyu’s, Bastian’s, and yours) being written. She doesn’t let illness or even the likelihood of death stand in her way, and ultimately learns what’s needed to gain victory; an imaginative “earthling child.” Bastian. Or you.

Our heroes overcome insecurity, judgment, illness, and in the end, even death. Bastian’s heroic imagination not only restores life to those who died, but leads him through Fantastica to the Fountain of the Water of Life, the portal through which he returns to the human world. This chapter is a beautiful finale to the book, heavy with metaphoric implication that imagination and creativity are on par with immortality. This is how I like to think of author Michael Ende now. He died in 1995, but will live on through his creative work. Perhaps he found his own Fountain of the Water of Life and crossed into the next leg of his journey. But that’s another story, and shall be told another time. (… see what I did there, fans? :P)

Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, and whether you’re ten years old or ninety, I would recommend this book. It’s the first novel that ever made me cry just because I didn’t want it to end.

This film will never cease to be all kinds of epic. It introduced us to our childhood anthem (Nev-er-en-ding storEEEEEEE, AhhhAahhhAahhhh), gave us a rabid interest in reading, and made us yearn for fluffy dogs to name “Falcore.” It also crushed our souls and made us openly weep by drowning a pretty white horse on screen. 

“Don’t give into the sadness, Artax!”

However, as undeniably awesome as it is, it doesn’t quite do the book justice. This is why I prefer to look at the book and movie as two entirely separate entities. I see the movie, not as a full-fledged “adaptation,” but rather a different story based on the novel. This makes it easier to love them both equally while recognizing that they’re, well…not quite equal.

There were a lot of things in the book that would have been a challenge to represent visually. We’ve already touched base on one of these; “The Nothing.” How does one create a visual representation of “nothing?” And not just “nothing” but an abstract force that drives people insane and makes them kill themselves? Seems like a pretty daunting task. And “The Nothing” isn’t all that was altered in this way.

Who could forget the exposed-breasted sphinxes that embody “The Southern Oracle?” Not I! That image is forever burned on my brain. But in the book there were no boobs. There were no statues or visuals at all. In the novel, The Southern Oracle, or Uyulala, is a disembodied voice unable to communicate by any other means but song and rhyme. When not doling out wisdom to visitors (which isn’t often – most don’t make it through the three gates alive or sane), she must sing to ensure her existence. After Atreyu arrives at The Southern Oracle, and is told he must find a new name for The Childlike Empress, as well as an “earthling child” to give it to her, she slowly stops singing, giving into “The Nothing,” and quietly ceases to exist. It’s a bummer. But even aside from these examples, there’s a host of visual discrepancies.

 Ooh la la.

In the book, Atreyu and the rest of the Plains People have green skin and purple hair. The Childlike Empress, while she is, as the name implies, “childlike,” is also ancient and has silver hair. Falcore, the flying “Luck Dragon” that made us all want pet poodles as children, doesn’t look at all like a dog in the book, but rather like a dragon from ancient Chinese art (scales, lots of red, etc.). And the Ivory Tower is described more like an enormous, sky-scraper version of the Taj Mahal than a weird, spiky mountain.

However, I commend director Wolfgang Petersen for his decisions. I feel it would have done the book a greater disservice to attempt these visual feats and fail, than to just omit them altogether.

Moving on!

Something else you may have noticed if you read the book, is that the movie only covers about one third of the storyline…hence the painful sequels. The Neverending Story II, and III are among the worst movies I’ve ever seen. And it’s really a tragedy. How does one fail so hard when working with such great source material? I suppose we could just ask M. Night Shyamalan in regard to his adaptation of The Last Airbender. Burn!  

Still, horrible sequels aside, the first film will always be the embodiment of my childhood, and the source for my hardcore, adulthood nerdiness. 

For those of you interested in purchasing a copy of the book (and you should!), you may do so via the link below. Thanks for reading, and see you next weekend!


(lifelong Moonchild wannabe)

1 comment:

  1. Found you on LinkedIn.

    Absolutely LOVE your blog name. Wanted to stop by.

    Nice blog too.

    Silver's Reviews