When the above title is mentioned, the first thing most people would probably say, ‘Oh, gosh... I watched that movie a long time ago!’
Uh huh... so did I as a child. It was one of the ‘holiday films’ aired in Nigerian television when I was a child, the sort of films shown only on public holidays and many children were probably as fascinated by it as my siblings and I were.
Released in 1984, The Neverending Story is about Bastian, who finds himself drawn to a magical land called Fantasia; the main setting of a mysterious old book he stole from a bookshop. The central character in the book is a young warrior called Atreyu who goes on a quest to find a cure for the ruler of Fantasia, who is dying. Who can forget his flying creature friend Falkor, the werewolf like monster who almost killed him and the enormous rock eater? I have to admit, we were more focused on Atreyu and the people and creatures he encountered through the film, rather than his actual quest. Don’t judge us, we were just kids.
Years later, it struck me that such a fantasy epic must have been adapted from a book and I was right. It was written by the late German novelist, Michael Ende and published in 1979. However, I also discovered that Ende was not pleased with the film adaptation of his classic book; saying it did not capture the spirit of the book. Having read the book and seeing the film again through a woman’s eyes instead of a child’s... I realised why.
The Neverending Story is a book that’s really detailed and doesn’t contain humour, like J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, so it’s not for those who aren’t into the fantasy/epic genre. If you are, it’s a page turner.
Plot... Bastian Balthazar Bux, (yeah that’s the boy’s full name) is neglected by his father who is mourning the sudden death of Bastian’s mother. Bastian is very fond of reading and has a vivid imagination, but has no friends and is constantly picked on by bullies. Escaping them one morning on his way to school, he runs into an old bookshop. He meets the owner, a Mr Carl Conrad Coreander and comes upon a book the old man was reading.
It was bound in copper-colored silk that shimmered when he moved it about. Leafing through the pages, he saw the book was printed in two colors. There seemed to be no pictures, but there were large, beautiful capital letters at the beginning of the chapters. Examining the binding more closely, he discovered two snakes on it, one light and one dark. They were biting each other’s tail, so forming an oval. And inside the oval, in strangely intricate letters, he saw the title:The Neverending Story.
Being a passionate book buff and more than fascinated by the book’s title, Bastian stole the book while Mr Coreander was on the phone. Skipping classes, he sits down to read the book in the school’s attic. And there, the story unfolds....the story within this story.
We (and Bastian) find out that Fantasia (actually called Fantastica in the book) is in trouble because a dark and faceless entity known as ‘The Nothing’ is destroying the land, ruled by the Child-Like Empress; who is the oldest being in the land but eternally has the appearance of a 10 year old girl...she is ageless. But ‘The Nothing’ has made her very ill, she is dying.
A young warrior/hunter known as Atreyu is sent on a quest to find a cure. He’s given the Empress’ medallion- AURYN- which will protect him as long as he wears it but is ordered never to use its power.
Michael Ende made good use of folklore and literary expressions to help make his fantasy story logical, something Lewis Caroll (Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass) and J.K Rowling (The Harry Potter books) also did. And this served to show how Bastian himself got into Fantastica himself. According to Uyulala, the oracle Atreyu encounters after several chapters, the cure for the Empress is a new name; she lived by names, not Time itself. And the name must be provided by a child from the Outer World.
Gmork, the werewolf like monster the power behind ‘The Nothing’ sent to kill Atreyu before he can complete his mission said to him;
‘What are you creatures of Fantastica? Dreams. Poetic Inventions, characters in a neverending story. Do you think you are real? Well, yes, here in your world you are; If humans believe Fantastica doesn’t exist, they won’t get the idea of visiting your country.’
What’s the message behind ‘The Neverending Story’? The message of the first half of the book is the power of the human imagination and power of names. How magical creatures and lands are alive because humans who conjure them up vividly in their minds, passing stories from generation to generation. Uyulala said to Atreyu,
‘In every age it’s they who gave
The Child Like Empress Life,
For wondrous new names have the power to save.
But now for many a many a day
No human has visited Fantastica.
For they no longer know the way.
They have forgotten how read we are,
They don’t believe in us anymore.
Oh, if only a child of man would come,
Oh, then at last the thing would be done.
And according to the Empress, ‘Only the right name gives beings and things their reality,’ and ‘If the hero comes to us, new life can be born.’
And Bastian, having followed Atreyu in his journey and putting himself in Atreyu’s shoes was literally absorbed by the book, finding himself in Fantastica after calling out the Empress’s new name. According to the Empress when Atreyu felt he had failed in his mission;
He took part in everything you did and he has come all that way with you...
You entered into his image and took it with you, and he followed you, because he saw himself through your eyes. And now too, he can hear every word we are saying. He knows we are talking about him, he knows we have set our hope in him and are expecting him.
A story and its characters and settings exists forever, as long as it stays on our memory for a very long time and we are a part of it because it stays in our hearts as well; thus a 'Neverending story'.
The other half of the book deals with the Fulfilment of Wishes. Bastian saved Fantastica by giving the Empress a new name but falls prey to pride, ambition, arrogance and bad advice from a sorceress Xayide, after the Empress gave him AURYN, with the message at the back- Do What You Wish.
Bastian misunderstood her actual meaning and his wishes caused negative happenings in Fantastica and causing him to lose his memories as a human, how to go back to his world as well as his humility. Only when he realised what the message actually meant, he was able to put things right, with Atreyu and Falkor’s help. The second message of The Neverending Story? My interpretation... how one can lose his way after wishing for the wrong thing and make a wrong decision...it brings to mind this saying gain the whole world but lose your own soul.
Watch the movie, but the movie only covered half of the novel; hence The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter that was released in 1990 but was loosely based on it as a new story line was added, so was not a good adaptation. As for The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia released in 1994, it was a complete travesty because it was completely revamped, using only some the characters from the book. Michael Ende complained of the original movie when it first came out but at least that was better than the two sequels.
The Neverending Story is a classic and definitely a must read.