Page To Screen: The NeverEnding Story

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IMDb

I don’t know about anyone else, but one of my favorite movies as a tween was 1984’s The NeverEnding Story. Jolly pink Luckdragons. Racing snails. Cute young warriors. A geeky kid who loses himself in a book. And we can’t forget that cool earworm of a theme song by Limahl and Beth Anderson, the latter of whom, for some odd reason, doesn’t appear in the music video.

For those who may not be familiar with the movie’s basic plot, The NeverEnding Story follows Bastian Balthazar Bux (played in the film by Barret Oliver), an awkward, lonely boy whose mother has died and whose father (Gerald McRaney) is lost in grief. A group of bullies from his school like stuffing him in a dumpster (or a trash can in the novel).

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Since he’s not the athletic type or in the least bit popular, Bastian’s escape is reading novels. Unfortunately, he’s failing his classes and his dad has told him he needs to spend less time drawing unicorns on his math worksheets and keep his feet on the ground.

One day Bastian hides in Mr. Coreander’s bookshop to find its proprieter reading an intriguing volume with two snakes eating each other’s tails on the cover. “You don’t want this book,” Mr. Coreander (Thomas Hill) says, which, of course, is like waving the proverbial steak in front of the proverbial hungry dog. When Mr. Coreander takes a lengthy phone call, Bastian grabs the book and bolts. He doesn’t stop running until he reaches the attic of his school, where he holes up and starts reading.

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Out comes Fantasia, a rich world of imagination, possibility, and wonder that’s being consumed by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) is deathly ill and no one knows what to do. A young warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) has been sent to find out how to stop the Nothing, and after talking to Morla, the Ancient One, and the Southern Oracle, Atreyu learns he must contact an Earthling child. Meanwhile, an evil wolf creature named G’mork (Alan Oppenheimer) tries to thwart the quest, but Atreyu gets by with help from Luckdragon Falkor (also voiced by Alan Oppenheimer).

Bastian thinks he’s just nipped a great book, but he finds he’s become part of the story, and without him, the world he’s discovered will end. Only his bravery will reverse the course of the Nothing. Anyone who has seen the film knows where this goes, with Bastian doing what he dreams while keeping his feet on the ground. Naturally, Fantastica roars back better than ever.

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That’s where the movie ends, with a cryptic line about Bastian making wishes and letting his imagination go wild. Everyone’s happy except for the bullies from the beginning of the movie because Falkor scares the jeepers out of them, and then it all fades to black.

The book, however, has way more to do, with Bastian having all sorts of adventures in Fantasia, only it’s called Fantastica in the original story. Bastian becomes everything he’s not in the real world–handsome, tall, brave, and a fighter, and he doesn’t want to go home. Things get so nuts that Bastian begins to lose his identity, his integrity, and even his friends: Poor Atreyu and Falkor get the shaft, although they never really desert him.

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First edition, Germany, 1979. (Barnes and Noble)

Story sprang from a 1979 novel by respected German author Michael Ende, who developed the plot from an idea he’d kept in a shoebox about a boy who got trapped inside a book. Ende was born in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on November 12, 1929 and moved to Munich in 1935 because his dad, Edgar Ende was a surrealist painter and Munich was where artists wanted to be, but after some initial success selling his paintings, his career tanked due to lack of public interest.

As a child and a teenager Ende watched as Germany and Europe were engulfed by the Nazis. He and his family had to walk a fine line during the war because the Nazis hated Edgar’s art; in fact, Edgar wasn’t allowed to publically exhibit his work anymore and had to paint in secret. His studio was destroyed by fire late in the war. Edgar, who was a conscript in the Luftwaffe at the time, was taken prisoner by the Americans and released when the war was over.

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A young Michael Ende in an undated photo. (Endeland)

For his part, Ende also got a call at fifteen to join the Luftwaffe, but he ignored it and teamed up with a Bavarian resistance group instead.

Like everyone who experienced the war, Ende came out changed forever, and like everyone else, he had to find his own way of dealing with it. During the war he developed an interest in literature and writing, starting with poetry in 1943.

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First American edition, 1983. (Barnes and Noble)

As Sarah Gailey pointed out on the Barnes and Noble website, Ende’s experiences were a huge influence on the plot of The NeverEnding Story. Like the Nazis occupying Europe, Fantastica finds itself engulfed by the Nothing, which wipes out all beauty and free thought, leaving a blank void in its wake. Atreyu symbolizes everyone who continued to fight and defeat the Nothing. Bastien, as the de facto creator of the new Fantastica, has to battle his own temptation to let his wants supercede everything else, including Fantastica’s existence.

Almost immediately after his novel became a success, Ende was approached about turning it into a film. Very aware that film is an art form, Ende was under the impression that the new movie would be a delicately poetic representation of his book, very European, ethereal, and unique.

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It didn’t quite work out that way. At first, producer Bernd Eichenger kept Ende informed about all the new developments, and the film was a joint effort by Germans, Canadians, and Americans, starring mostly American actors.

Much to Ende’s horror, though, the script was changed and no one told him. He found out via an offhand remark from the art director, Johann Kott, and long story short, Ende hated the finished product so much that he demanded his name be removed from the film. The producers complied…sorta. Ende’s name can still be seen in tiny type in the ending credits.

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Director Wolfgang Petersen on the set of The NeverEnding Story. (Cinemania)

Again, the changes to the story weren’t huge. Atreyu had green skin in the novel, but in the film he’s Noah Hathaway, and Fantastica became Fantasia, but other than that, the film is a pretty dead-on representation of the book. To Ende, though, the movie was too kitschy, more like a comic book than his multilayered fantasy.

In the end, Ende had to just take what came. Many critics and the public didn’t agree with Ende’s distaste, and the movie brought in $100 million at the box office. Roger Ebert said, “It lets kids know that the story isn’t just somehow happening, that storytelling is a neverending act of the imagination.”

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Vincent Canby of the New York Times was less taken, calling the film “a graceless, humorless fantasy for children, combining live actors and animated creatures in mostly imaginary settings.”

Variety, however, praised the movie’s originality, saying it did The Dark Crystal one better by “avoiding too much unrelieved strangeness.”

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Michael Ende in 1990. (Wikipedia Hungary)

If Ende hated the first film, he must have really hated the sequel. The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter came out in 1990 and starred the late Jonathan Brandis as Bastian. It’s atrocious, cheap-looking, and at its outset, Bastian has lost all his emotional gains from the first movie. Not to mention the casting is mostly off, undoubtedly because the original actors were either unavailable, outgrew their parts, not acting anymore, or looked at the new script and uttered a resounding “No.”

Then again, Mr. Ende was past caring in 1990, as he had just married his second wife, was busy celebrating the publication of a biography written by his friend, as well as the tenth anniversary of The NeverEnding Story‘s publication. His opinion of the 1984 film would soften over time, but he didn’t want much to do with it, either. Ende would die of stomach cancer in 1995.

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Stage production of The NeverEnding Story in Whitefish, Montana, 2017. (Lively Times)

In the years since, The NeverEnding Story is still beloved and celebrated by fans (See an interview with stars Tami Stronach and Noah Hathaway here). Not all of its special effects have aged well, and it’s definitely of the eighties, but it’s still a colorful flight of fantasy.

Michael Ende’s novel also continues to stimulate minds while gently reminding readers to never lose sight of who they are. It’s a satisfying journey that’s not to be missed.

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Anniversary post coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…


The NeverEnding Story is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. Michael Ende’s orignal novel is also available.

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