The NeverEnding Story

“The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They're called books.”

Have you ever become so immersed in a book you are reading that you actually begin to imagine yourself in the story? That is exactly what happens to Bastian when he reads the incorrectly named The NeverEnding Story.

Based on the novel of the same name written by Michael Ende, The NeverEnding Story is about the unfortunately named Bastian Bux, a quiet young boy who loves to read. One day, while hiding from some bullies in an old bookstore, he stumbles on a mysterious book called The NeverEnding Story. The grumpy bookseller warns him that this is "not safe" and he doesn't mean in a Fanny Hill sort of way. Indulging in a little bit of harmless shoplifting, Bastian takes the book and hides himself in the school's attic to read it (because a creepy attic is preferable to a maths test). The book tells the story of Atreyu, a young warrior from the world of Fantasia summoned by the ruler of the land, the Childlike Empress, to find a way to defeat a force called "The Nothing," that is consuming everything. As the film progresses, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur and Bastian quickly realises just how unsafe this really is.

Again, not in a Fanny Hill sort of way.

Sometimes all you need is a good title sequence. It doesn’t have to be some mind-blowing, David Fincher-style creation, just one eye-catching enough that if you’re flicking through channels you’ll stop and go “Huh, this looks interesting, I might give this a go”. That is how I first came to watch The NeverEnding Story. Looking back, there’s nothing really revolutionary about the film's title sequence. Just some pretty cloud effects and an annoyingly catchy pop song. But it was enough to pull me away from building cities and spaceships with my Lego for two hours.

This was the first English language film for director Wolfgang Petersen. Along with Enemy Mine, The NeverEnding Story is the film that stands out the most on Petersen’s CV. It is the only time the director made a pure fantasy film. Before he’d previously only done thrillers and gritty war dramas like Das Boot, while his later Hollywood work is a mixture of action and disaster films. Even his adaptation of The Iliad, Troy, strips away the Gods from the story, leaving behind a bog standard, rather dull sword and sandal epic.

Watching this film today it is not hard to see why he's steered clear of the genre since. Fantasy just doesn't really seem to be Petersen’s forte. He doesn’t have Ridley Scott’s eye for detail, the technical wizardry of Jim Henson or the wild imagination of Terry Gillian or Guillermo del Toro. Petersen's Fantasia is your run of the mill fantasy realm, full of all sorts of cutsie magical creatures. Even the story, at least the one Bastian is reading, is your basic quest structure as Atreyu goes from one corner of Fantasia to another, facing one obstacle after another in search of a way to stop the Nothing. Standout sequences include Atreyu's horse, Artax, being sucked into the Swamp of Sadness (which I'm sure traumatised more than a few children), and the gates leading to the Southern Oracle (that used to give me the chills as a kid).


The film never really tries to explain what the book is. Is it a doorway into the world of Fantasia or is Fantasia merely a creation of Bastian’s mind that the book is making a reality? Maybe it’s both. I've always suspected that the book always tells a different story for whoever reads it. This is how it is a never ending story because the story is always changing. The story that Bastian reads does seem like it has been shaped by his own imagination. Atreyu is very much the hero Bastian wishes he could be; a brave and fearless warrior, not too dissimilar from the illustration on his satchel. Halfway through the film Bastian is even shown to be Atreyu’s true self, pretty much confirming that he is a creation of Bastian’s mind.

Things get even more meta towards the end as the Childlike Empress talks about Bastian reading Atreyu's adventures and others (us, the audience) following Bastian. At the start of the film Bastian’s father (played by Deadwood's Gerald McRaney) advises his son to stop daydreaming and face his problems. Reading a story about a world described as being humanity's hopes and dreams, being slowly destroyed by a force that represents, among other things, the denial of childish dreams. The very thing his father told him to let go of is the key to saving this world.

Another interpretation is that the young lad is simply losing his grip on reality following the death of his mother. Reading the book has simply coincided with his complete mental breakdown. The book is just that, a book. When the bookseller told him it isn’t safe he was simply yanking Bastian’s chain. This is probably what the narrator means at the end when he says Bastian had many adventures before returning to the real world. He was found by the janitor the next day, mumbling gibberish about Lucky Dragons and such, locked up for several years in a mental hospital before recovering and becoming a productive member of society.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking things.


Notes and Quotes

--The film was followed by two sequels: The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, which adapted the second half of Ende's book, and The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia, which was just a load of nonsense they made up.

--Ende was not happy with the film and had his name removed from the opening credits. He even sued the studio to try and get the name changed. He lost.

--Since the Rock Biter is made out of rocks, isn't it technically cannibalism that all he eats is rocks?

--Unusually for a fantasy film, there is no traditional antagonist for the hero to battle. The closet we get is Gmork, a vicious wolf sent by the Nothing to kill Atreyu.

--Why does Atreyu have to leave his weapons behind? That seems a rather silly thing to do for someone about to go off on a dangerous quest. Imagine if Elrond had told the Fellowship to do that.

--It's hard to hear, but the name Bastian shouts out is Moonchild.

--The original AURYN prop is now kept in Steven Spielberg's office.

Bastian: “How many wishes do I get?”
The Childlike Empress: “As many as you want. And the more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”

Morla, the Ancient One: "We don't even care whether or not we care."

Mr. Koreander: “Your books are safe. While you're reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.”
Bastian: “But that's what I like about 'em.”
Mr. Koreander: “Ahh, but afterward, you get to be a little boy again.”

Two and a half out of four names for a Childlike Empress.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

3 comments:

Serena said...

I have such strong, fond memories of this movie from when I was a child, but reading this review I realized I had forgotten most of the actual plot. The only thing I retained was a crazy intense feeling of wonder, but who knows how much of that was because it was a good movie, and how much was because I was an imaginative kid ;) I definitely am going to rewatch it as an adult to see it with fresh eyes! Thanks for the review.

Chris said...

Having always been a big reader, I really loved this movie as a child - it really spoke to me. In retrospect and after having read the actual novel it's based on, I have to agree with criticisms in your review. I can actually see this movie benefiting from a reboot, maybe from a more visionary director who is more adept at fantasy.

Tiffani said...

I absolutely loved this movie as a kid!. Truthfully I still do - bad graphics and all. As a bookish kid, I totally understood the impulse to find a hiding spot and read all day. I love that the big bad is nothingness and that the way to save Fantasia is to keep using one's imagination. The plot doesn't make perfect sense but then neither do most kid stories. By kid stories, I mean the nonsensical (but delightful) ones kids makeup themselves. Now I want to go home and re-watch this for the 100th time.