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 films fantasy and imagination. While equally suffering a small degree of trauma as Artax the horse was sucked into the swamp of sadness. With this combination of both sadness and joy leaving an indelible and long lasting mark on my feelings for the film. While equally leaving a sense of a film that was attempting to navigate themes much larger than the fantasy at its core. However, it was not until my 40s that the larger themes of The NeverEnding Story jumped from the screen. The childhood fantasy replaced by a complex and deeply rooted exploration of death, grief and recovery.
Bringing ‘Fantasia’ to the screen
The book Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) was first published in 1979. The books German author, Michael Ende creating a sweeping and vast world of fantasy and adventure. Where literature came alive in the hands of a child, both outcast by society while grieving for the loss of his mother. The first half of the book explored the fantastical land of Fantasia as read by Bastian, the books young hero. While the second half explored Bastian’s quest to give the ‘Childlike Empress’ a new name.
Ende’s book achieved worldwide praise on release, for its ability to dovetail childhood imagination with adventure. With the book slowly finding new audiences through translations to a number of languages in the early 1980s. Leading Ende to sell the film rights to The Neverending Story to ‘Constantin Films’, a West German production company.
Produced by Bernd Eichinger and Dieter Giessler and Directed and co-written by Wolfgang Petersen. Constantin’s film version of Ende’s book would eventually become the most expensive motion picture to be made outside of the United States at 27 million dollars. With filmmakers focussing on the first half of the book only, condensing the narrative into a workable format. While also allowing for any sequels that may appear based on its success.
Principle photography took place at the Bavaria Studios in Munich with all external city scenes filmed in Vancouver, Canada. While casting brought together ‘Battlestar Galactica’s’ Noah Hathaway with relative newcomer Barret Oliver. Launching a short lived career in film for both boys over the subsequent years.
On release in 1984 The NeverEnding Story performed well, with German, UK and American box office takings exceeding initial expectations. However despite this the books author remained highly critical of the end result, reportedly ‘revolted’ by the film.
While the film does attempt to faithfully follow the first half of Ende’s book. There are also significant differences created in its translation to film. Differences that ultimately lead to a tonal change as the film focusses on Bastian’s personal journey following the loss of his mother. With Fantasia becoming a mere symbol of childhood grief and the pervading ‘nothing’ of death.
A little boy lost in grief
The first scenes of Peterson’s film establish a boy lost, misunderstood and alienated following the recent death of his mother. With Bastian’s father offering little love or support. As he coldly tells Bastian he must move on from her death, and improve at school. For Bastian however, his only true escape from the emotions surrounding him is literature. A world where he can become someone else, while briefly forgetting the pain of his mothers passing.
Following his escape from local bullies in a bookshop, the bookshop owner actively encourages Bastian to steal the The NeverEnding Story. After repeatedly taunting him with the phrase “this book isn’t for someone like you”. A clear demonstration of the booksellers understanding of Bastian’s isolation, fear and pain. While equally understanding the power of literature to instigate change. Subsequently leading Bastian to take the book and skip lessons to read it. Using the attic of his school to begin his journey into Fantasia.
The creeping nothing of grief
As Bastian enters the world of Fantasia it is 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. This ‘nothingness’ is richly symbolic of grief as it consumes everything in its path, including hope. A condition psychology would refer to as anhedonia. A condition related to both grief, trauma and depression. With anhedonia leading to sense of individual numbness, and disconnect from the world. A condition that while affecting both adults and children alike, can be particular difficult for the young. With a part of the healing journey being the ability of a child to tell their story to adults who will listen to them unconditionally.
In The NeverEnding Story ‘The Nothing’ is a symbol of Bastian’s grief and pain. A pain that he has not been allowed to fully express through adults who will listen.
The ‘Childlike Empress’ and the young warrior
As ‘The Nothing’ gobbles up the fantasy world of Bastian’s book, hope resides in the Childlike Empress. A young girl who is both the heart and soul of Fantasia. A figurative mother, who gives birth to the hope and adventure of a fantastical world. Her symbol ‘The Auryn’ derived from the ancient ‘ouroboros’. Where two snakes entwine to create a figure of eight. The ancient symbol of the cycle of life and death in many world cultures. In essence placing the Childlike Empress into the role of a mother, who not only creates life, but is also bound to the mortality of the world around 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, with no weapons or support. While Atreyu’s white horse equally reflects both the symbolism and mythology inherent in the film. The white horse symbolic of death, wisdom and faith in numerous religions and cultures.
The swamp of sadness
One of the first challenges our young warrior must overcome is the death of Artax in the swamp of sadness. Both the pain, and sorrow of grief embodied in the darkest of swamps. One that sucks any creature under its muddy quilt who cannot rise above its sadness. And while Atreyu manages to conquer the despair of the swamp, his horse is not so lucky. In a scene that has burnt itself into the memories of countless children over the years. But in turn demonstrates that Bastian can either let his grief consume him, or fight on. With the death of Artax providing a vehicle by which Bastian can begin to explore his own grief through Atreyu. With the scene providing an important marker in the start of Bastions healing process.
The counsellor and guide
On escaping the swamp of sadness Atreyu meets Morla the wise and ancient. The meeting offering little hope to Atreyu as he discovers a creature who doesn’t listen, or care. Providing a reflection of a world where children are often dismissed by adults, even when suffering internal anguish or pain. While also reflecting the internal feelings of isolation Bastian has in a world wear nobody will listen.
However, on the arrival of the slightly creepy Falkor, Atreyu finds both a guide and counsellor. Falkor’s character derived from ancient Japanese ‘Fukuryū‘ or Luck Dragon. While not only representing the calm and assured wisdom of an adult who will listen. But also the hope and encouragement the young boy needs. In essence becoming both a mentor and counsellor on the journey ahead.
Defeating the G’mork
Throughout the film Atreyu is pursued by the G’mork, a large black wolf intent on ensuring ‘The Nothing’ does its work in destroying Fantasia. And once again we find the film using symbolism to portray much deeper messages within its narrative.
G’mork never really manages to hurt Atreyu, apart from a large scratch in the final battle. The wolfs presence one of fear and apprehension more than threat. Interestingly the image of the black wolf appears in ancient Norse mythology as ‘Fenrir‘, the son of Odin. A wolf of darkness and strength who foreshadows the end of times. Equally many cultures maintain that the appearance of a black dog in dreams foretells death. Atreyu’s defeat of G’mork therefore represents the banishing of the spectre of death. With Bastian realising that life must go, with his fear of death never acting as a barrier to life.
We are all part of a NeverEnding Story
Finally Bastian must join the NeverEnding Story, in helping Atreyu to complete his task of rebuilding a broken Fantasia. And it is here where The NeverEnding Story embodies a much larger truth of life and death. One that speaks to the fact that we live in circle of both loss, love and new beginnings. As Bastian renames the Childlike Empress, while thinking about his mother. His memories and love of her, enabling the continuation of Fantasia’s story. With Bastian understanding that the memory, love and actions of those now gone, often live on in those left. Passed down from generation to generation through the actions we choose or do not choose to take. Ultimately delivering a message that both life and death are simply part of one never ending story.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen