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Film of the Book: The Neverending Story

Let's get this out of the way first: her name is Moon Child. If you're asking "Who?" right now, then quit reading this review immediately and go watch The Neverending Story because this is going to be one of my main talking points. Okay, everybody on the same page? Good. Moving on!

The Neverending Story was a children's epic fantasy written by Michael Ende in 1979, translated from the German in 1983, and adapted to film by Wolfgang Petersen in 1984. The movie, of course, is what most people remember--and for good reason. It's fantastic, and one of my favorite movies of all time. Here, I'll be focusing on the first movie and how it lines up to the book, because like most fans, I prefer to pretend the two sequels don't exist. (Although the Nostalgia Critic does a pretty good throttling of them here and here, if you're curious--links Not Safe For Work, by the way.)

As I mentioned in the Ring review, this was my first exposure to the breaking of the fourth wall. And it BLEW MY MIND. Imagine you're four years old, creative, and more comfortable around books than people. Suddenly a movie arrives that tells you not only that books are real, but that the characters inside them need you to believe in them to keep them alive. I ran with that hard, and wound up with a vast menagerie of imaginary friends. (These days, I call them "characters" and write them into my own books.) There's a lot that I could gush about in this particular review, but I'll try to confine it to a few major points so this doesn't get too unwieldy.

Warning: We'll be talking about depression and suicide extensively in this review, so if anyone has triggers for that sort of thing, be aware.

Title: The Neverending Story
Author: Michael Ende (English translation by Ralph Manheim)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Rhoda's first taste: the Petersen film

I used to be under the impression that everyone has seen this movie, but I keep running into people who haven't, so here's the plot breakdown: young Bastian (played in the movie by Barret Oliver) is a misunderstood outcast loner who frequently wakes up with the desk light still on and a book still open on his pillow, lives in mortal fear of both school bullies and arithmetic, gets in trouble for drawing horses "unicorns" in his textbooks in lieu of turning in his homework on time, and is told over and over to quit daydreaming. In short, HE IS ME, or was, at least until I was about twelve. (Seriously, I relate to that kid so much it's a little pathetic.) Then one day, hiding in a book shop, he comes across an unusual book that the shop owner, Correander, describes as "unsafe." So of course he swipes it and spends the school day hiding in a junk room to read. This begins the story-within-a-story of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and the Chosen One/Hero's Journey that fuels the plot of the first movie, and the first 170-ish pages of the book. (There are close to 400 pages total.) The fourth wall breaking happens over several points when Bastian starts to see himself in the narrative, most alarmingly at the Magic Mirror Gate when Atreyu sees Bastian inside his own reflection.

Watching it later in life, two things about this movie stand out: 1) How incredibly high the stakes are. Unlike similar fantasy/adventure movies aimed at a young audience, especially in the '80s, like Labyrinth, The Goonies and even Lost Boys, the world of Fantasia feels legitimately dangerous. Characters get hurt and even die there, people we've gotten to know and care about, and by the end (before the Deus Ex Machina), everyone is dead apart from Bastian and the Empress. There are a lot of dark themes running through the story, and they aren't sugar-coated in the slightest. 2) Also unlike those other fantasy/adventure movies I mentioned, with the exception of Deep Roy as the dapper gentleman with the racing snail, the actors in The Neverending Story are known for this one movie and nothing else. Sure, Barret Oliver played Victor in Tim Burton's original Frankenweenie and a child-android in D.A.R.R.Y.L., but people remember him as Bastian. No one here went on to win Oscars like Jennifer Connelly, or star in a staggeringly successful fantasy franchise like Sean Astin, or even move into small-screen stardom like Keifer Sutherland. As a result, they ARE these characters in a way that their contemporaries aren't.

The first movie avoids a mistake that a lot of adaptations make, not even attempting to cram the entire story into one film. Instead, Petersen and Co. decided to take a single narrative arc (Atreyu's quest) and make that the focus of the film. It's still a compressed version of events and a lot of changes were made in order for this to wrap up with a sense-making conclusion (well, said conclusion sort of fails, but we'll get to that later), but the resulting film feels complete and satisfying because of the smaller scope. In the book, the end of the movie is just the beginning of Bastian's journey, and he has to go through a substantial amount of hardship and character growth before he escapes Fantasia and earns his happy ending. But it still works very well as a standalone movie.

Now, on to those dark themes I mentioned: the first huge set piece of the movie is the Swamps of Sadness. This setting is based on the Slew of Despond in Pilgrim's Progress, and in both stories the swamp is a metaphor for depression, with the idea that if you let the sadness overtake you, you will sink, and die. Which is exactly what happens to Atreyu's horse, Artax. This is traumatizing enough for a kids' movie, but in the book it's worse. Because Artax talks. First, he starts voicing some doubts about their mission. They've been traveling so long now without getting anywhere--is Atreyu sure they'll be able to reach their goal at all? And what about the Empress--it's been a while since anyone's heard from her, and she's been ill for a long time. Are they even sure she's still alive? What if the whole thing is pointless and they're just wasting their time? He gets increasingly nihilistic and hopeless, and by the time Atreyu realizes what's happening, it's already too late, and Artax has given up completely. In the movie, the scene plays out like Atreyu is trying to save his beloved pet/companion, and it's sad and all, but in the book it feels more like he's trying to talk his best friend down from a ledge.

If you've ever known someone with severe clinical depression, then I don't need to tell you how close to home this scene is going to hit. It doesn't matter how much you reason with that person, how much you assure them you love them and need them in your life, how much you try to convince them life is worth living even though things are really hard right now--if they aren't willing to drag themselves out of that hole, nothing you say or do is going to help. The kicker for me is the way the book ends this scene; in the movie, it slams to black and comes back in with Atreyu crying over the hole where Artax has just sunk into the swamp, but in the book, Artax says this: "I beg you to go away. I don't want you to see my end. Will you do me that favor?" So Atreyu leaves, knowing exactly what's going to happen next and being helpless to stop it, all the while with the pressure of saving the ENTIRE WORLD building up on top of him. He doesn't get any grieving time. He's forced to put aside his feelings, and move on. Again, if you've ever lost someone to suicide, I don't need to tell you how close to home this is going to hit.

The idea of suicide comes up a couple more times, once in the swamp, with Morla--who's keeping herself alive through a combination of spite and indifference, and would welcome the destruction of Fantasia as a break in the monotony of her meaningless existence--and again when Atreyu meets the Rockbiter, who, like Atreyu, failed to save his friends, and unlike Atreyu, has lost the will to live because of it. This is heavy subject matter in any context, but I didn't realize how heavy until I was much older.

Let me point out that not once does Atreyu give in to this sense of hopelessness, which brings me to another major difference between the movie and the book: Falkor doesn't rescue him from the swamp. He gets out himself, then finds Falkor trapped in a giant spider's web and rescues him. I don't tend to mind Deus Ex Machinas as much as others, but in this case, the movie's version of events makes Atreyu out to be signficantly less badass than he is in the book. The luckdragon owes him his life, and that's what initially starts their friendship--not the other way around. Keep in mind as well that Atreyu's one of the few inhabitants of this fantasy world without any magical powers. So yeah--even more of a badass than I thought.

The second huge set piece happens at the gates of the Southern Oracle, which will hopefully tell Atreyu what he needs to do to save Fantasia. We all remember the gigantic, well-endowed sphinxes from the movie of course, and the deal with the first gate--according to the movie--is that, in order to pass through it, you need to believe in your own strength and not doubt your intentions. Otherwise, the sphinxes come to life, shoot laserbeams out of their eyeballs and fry you to medium-well. This scared the hell out of me when I first watched it--the melted face on that knight-in-shining-armor is the stuff of nightmares--and it's still one of my favorite parts because it's soooo epic. Not so in the book; the sphinxes are completely random about who they will and won't let pass by, and also no laserbeams. The sphinx is associated with riddles, so what they hit you with is all the riddles in the known universe, which you will be compelled to solve before you pass through. That's why people die at the gate, because they waste away standing there for eternity trying to work out the riddles one at a time. It's pretty creepy, but honestly I prefer the movie version because it's just more fun. Running! Explosions! Swelling heroic music! Yeah, I don't care that it's cheap--it's awesome.

Okay, just one more thing I want to address in terms of differences between movie and book, and that's the ending. By that I mean actually two things--the naming of the Empress, and the explanation behind the title. Problem: the entire movie plot hinges on Bastian's naming the Empress. But by the time we get to the big climax when he shouts her name into the thunderstorm, what comes out is this incomprehensive garglemesh that even closed captions won't interpret for you. Although I admit that's kinda why I picked up the book in the first place--I needed to know that name. Doesn't have anything to do with his mother in the book, by the way. I dunno why they threw that in. Maybe "Moon Child" sounds less hippie-dippie in German. However, the idea of names having power continues to be a theme once Bastian starts his own journey. I'll leave you to read the book yourselves to find out how.

Here's the deal with the title: in the movie, the Empress explains that the "neverending story" is, well, the fourth wall. Bastian is experiencing Atreyu's adventure by reading about it in a book, and the audience is experiencing Bastian's adventure by watching it on the screen, and on and on it goes. In the book? Well, let's look at the Auryn, the stylized Ouroboros that the Empress uses as her symbol. The Ouroboros--an image of a snake eating its own tail--first appeared in our world in Ancient Egypt, and is a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth, destruction and creation happening simultaneously and constantly. In the book, the Empress can't convince Bastian to call her name from the Ivory Tower, so she travels to the Wandering Mountain in search of a figure who reminds me a bit of Destiny in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels: he's an old man who writes down everything that happens in Fantasia, as it's happening, in a huge book. The Empress stops him and asks him to read her the story he's writing. So he starts from the beginning, with Bastian hiding in the book shop, and goes all the way to the Empress coming to the Wandering Mountain, and asking him to read the story. Then the old man in that story starts at the beginning, with Bastian hiding in the book shop, and on and on it goes. THAT is the "neverending story"--a closed loop that will never break, a story consuming itself for infinity until Bastian finally calls her name and pulls them out of it.

To me, that's a much more powerful concept, but I can see why it got cut. They had to end the film somewhere, and so what we get instead is Bastian magicking everyone back to life without any complications or consequences, plus Correander's voice-over outro saying Bastian "made many other wishes and had many other amazing adventures," which just hints at the events in the second half of the book. It's a highly simplistic version of events and kind of cheapens the tragedy that came beforehand, but as a kid, I didn't care about any of that stuff.

I love this movie, and reading the book didn't dampen my adoration of it in the slightest. If I had to choose between versions, I might still go with the movie not because I think it's better, but because it focuses squarely on Atreyu, who I always liked more as a character. Bastian's story is heartbreaking and beautifully crafted, but I relate to him a little too well. I'd much rather spend time with the archetypal hero instead.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 7th, 2013 08:21 pm (UTC)
I've only got a few vague, fuzzy images left over from watching the movie years ago. I remember being vaguely disturbed, though I have no idea why. But, wow, I had no idea the book was that deep and powerful.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )