As a seven-year-old watching The NeverEnding Story for the first time at my local Granada Cinema in 1984, I found myself swept away by the film’s fantasy and imagination. But, my lasting memory remained Artax, being sucked into the swamp of sadness. And I know I am not the only one to have been traumatised by those fateful events. However, as a child, this sadness was coupled with awe and wonder and a first crush on young Noah Hathaway. It was not until my 40s that The NeverEnding Story’s more prominent themes jumped from the screen as I revisited Fantasia. The childhood fantasy replaced by a complex and deeply rooted exploration of death, grief and recovery.
Finding a producer in Bernd Eichinger and Dieter Giessler and director in Wolfgang Petersen The NeverEnding Story had a strong start. However, nobody at the time could have envisioned it becoming Constantin Film’s most expensive motion picture. In fact, at the time, it would become the most expensive film ever made outside of the United States, totalling 27 million dollars. However, the book’s sheer scale and its ever-increasing costs would lead the filmmakers to focus on the first half of the text only. In turn, condensing the narrative into a workable format. While at the same time allowing for sequels that may appear based on its success.
Principle photography would take place at the Bavaria Studios in Munich with external location shots in Vancouver, Canada. Meanwhile, casting choices would bring together Battlestar Galactica’s Noah Hathaway and relative newcomer Barret Oliver. Both young stars carrying box office appeal without any significant baggage. On its release in 1984, The NeverEnding Story performed well, with German, UK and American box office takings exceeding initial expectations. However, despite this, the book’s author remained highly critical of the resulting movie, reportedly saying the film revolted him.
While the film attempts to follow the first half of Ende’s book, there are also significant differences in its translation to film. The result of which was a change to Bastian’s journey following his mother’s death. Here, Fantasia would become a mere symbol of childhood grief and the pervading ‘nothing’ of death. The fantasy world of Ende’s book transformed into a complex metaphor of despair, isolation and hope.
A little boy lost in grief
The first scenes of Peterson’s film establish a boy lost, misunderstood, and alienated following his mother’s recent death. Here, Bastian’s father offers little love or support as he coldly tells Bastian he must move on from her loss and improve at school. For Bastian, however, his only real escape from the emotions surrounding him is literature. With books opening up a world where he can become someone else, forgetting the pain of his mothers passing. For many kids suffering bullying, loss or segregation, this is reality. And while mediums may also include video games, film and TV, escapism into new worlds is and continues to be a coping mechanism in children.
Following his escape from local bullies in an old bookshop, Bastian is encouraged by the owner to borrow The NeverEnding Story. The bookseller clearly understanding Bastian’s isolation, fear and pain. While equally understanding the power of literature to instigate change and bring about hope. Bastian takes the book and skips lessons to read it, using his school’s attic to begin his journey into Fantasia. The safety and isolation of the room masking its baron and scary atmosphere. The loft itself a reflection of Bastian’s inner world of desolate fear, dark corners and emptiness.
The creeping nothing of grief and the mission to save a mother
As Bastian enters Fantasia’s world, he finds it threatened by a dark creeping presence called ‘the nothing.’ The mysterious entity slowly eating its way through everything in its path, leading to despair, loss, and pain. Here, the ‘nothingness’ is richly symbolic of grief as it consumes everything in its way, including hope, a condition referred to in psychology as anhedonia. The feelings it generates leading to a sense of numbness and disconnect from the world. These are feelings that anyone who has lost a loved one, friend or partner can easily relate to. However, these feelings can be particularly challenging for young people. The healing journey often held in a child’s ability to tell their story to adults who will listen unconditionally. Within The NeverEnding Story, ‘the nothing’ is Bastian’s grief and pain.
As ‘the nothing’ gobbles up Bastian’s fantasy world, hope resides in the Childlike Empress, a young girl who is both the heart and soul of Fantasia. Here, we have a symbolic mother figure in child’s clothing. Her symbol ‘The Auryn’ derived from the ancient ouroboros; two snakes entwined to create a figure of eight. This symbol represents the cycle of birth, life and death in many world cultures. The placing of it only further emphasising the Childlike Empress’ role as Fantasia’s mother. Her duty the creation and nurturing of the life surrounding her.
Meanwhile, our young warrior Atreyu provides us with a reflection of the boy Bastian wishes he could be. A brave young warrior who must fight ‘the nothing’ and save the mother of Fantasia from death. Atreyu’s white horse symbolic of death, wisdom and faith in numerous religions and cultures.
The swamp of sadness and the guide
One of the first challenges our young warrior must overcome is the death of Artax (his horse) in the swamp of sadness. This is, of course, the scene that has haunted most kids ever since their first viewing, and it’s easy to see why. The death of Artax is embedded in a truth we struggle to accept as kids; no matter how much we fight, sometimes death is unavoidable. But, alongside that, the swamp of sadness also reflects the trap of depression and despair. A trap that sucks any creature under its muddy quilt who cannot rise above its sadness. Here, Atreyu manages to conquer the swamp’s pain, his escape, the first step towards Bastian’s recovery. The loss of Artax ultimately provides a vehicle by which Bastian can explore his own grief through Atreyu.
On escaping the swamp of sadness, Atreyu meets Morla, the wise and ancient. The meeting offers little hope to Atreyu as he discovers a creature who doesn’t listen or care, reflecting a world where adults dismiss children—in turn, placing Bastian’s father into the turtle’s guise. A man who Bastian views as being wise and knowledgeable but ultimately offers no help. However, on the arrival of the slightly creepy Falkor, Atreyu finds his guide and counsellor. Falkor’s character is derived from ancient Japanese ‘Fukuryū‘ or Luck Dragon. His arrival representing the calm and assured wisdom of an adult who will listen, a mentor and counsellor on the journey ahead.
Defeating the G’mork
Throughout the film, Atreyu is pursued by the G’mork, a giant black wolf intent on ensuring ‘the nothing’ does its work in destroying Fantasia. And once again, we find the film ancient symbolism to portray deeper messages within its narrative. G’mork never hurts Atreyu, apart from a large scratch in the final battle. His presence one of fear and apprehension more than threat. But, his presence is reflected in ancient Norse mythology. Here, the ‘Fenrir‘, or son of Odin took the form of a black wolf. His arrival foreshadowing the end of times. In The NeverEnding Story the G’mork is the physical representation of death, while the nothing around him represents his need to release grief. Both feeding off each other in the never ending cycle of death.
We are all part of a NeverEnding Story
Finally, Bastian must join the story in helping Atreyu complete his task of rebuilding a broken Fantasia. And it is here where The NeverEnding Story reflects a larger truth of life and death; we all live in a circle of loss, love, endings and beginnings. And as Bastian renames the Childlike Empress while thinking about his mother, he finally accepts her death. While at the same time realising that memories live forever, passed down from generation to generation in ensuring immortality. The final film one of recovery, acceptance and hope as Bastian realises that life and death are simply part of one big never-ending story.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen