It has been over 30 years since I saw the film the Neverending Story, and, full confession, I was not aware that it was based on a book. Stumbling across the novel brought back fond memories of the story, and ignited my desire to get aquainted with the source material (followed up by a rewatch of the classic film).
In comparison the book is much longer and more invested in the intracies of the journey that we find in the story on a philsophical level than the film. The film fast tracks some of the narrative portions and streamlines the story arc to read much more succinctly as an adventure film. In contrast, the book is much more epic in scope, drawing out the themes that are touched on in the film regarding the journey itself.
Which is not to say the film is bad adaptation. I appreciated both forms of the story, and the film stays mainly faithful to the heart of the book and the main story beats that we find within its pages. It’s simply to say they both offer and evoke slightly different experiences.
One thing that I really appreciated about the book is how poetic the prose is. It’s easy to sense the religious undertones, a bit more complex to tease them out. And yet that is precisely the job of the reader in engaging the depth of the narrative concern, and is, I would argue, what the author intended us to do in terms of engaging this conversation with the bigger ideas of its philosophical thought and the intracicies of its literary form.
Consider this excerpt from the article Religion and Romanticism in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story by Kach Filmer:
“The Neverending Story is, above all, a profoundly
religious text, although there is not a word in it that is
specifically religious, and in it there are unmistakable
elements of skepticism. But through this text, the author’s
priestly role can be seen quite clearly, and the problematics of fantasy are dealt with in a context which includes spiritual, as well as psychological, growth. This is no mere fairy tale, though it invokes the whole fairy story tradition. It is a work of the Romantic Imagination, and its purpose is, as Stephen Prickett has noted in the epigraph to this paper, “to change the way the reader experiences life” (15).
In other words, it offers a lived Dialectic of Desire as
Bastian Balthazar Bux pursues his ambitions and
daydreams through the wonders of Fantastica, the world
of fantasy and imagination. And as C.S. Lewis has written
in another context, “The dialectic of Desire, faithfully fol-
lowed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all
false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live
through, a sort of ontological proof.” Lewis was writing of
his own experiences of the strongly nostalgic emotion of
Sehnsucht, die desire for something which can hardly be
identified, but which pierces us like a rapier at the small of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves…” (10).
The author goes on to say,
“This same longing is generated for Michael Ende’s charac-
ter Bastian by the experience of reading, indeed by the
physical object of a book itself:
“I wonder,” he said to himself, “what’s in a book while
it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper,
but all the same, something must be happening, because
as soon as I open it, there’s a whole story with people I
don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures and deeds a nd
battles. And sometimes there are storms at sea, or it takes
you to strange cities and countries. All those things are
somehow shut up in a book. Of course, you have to read
it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing.
I just wish I knew how it could be.” (11)
There is in this passage an undoubted ontological im-
petus : a world has been created and is waiting for the reader
to enter it. As Tolkien has written in his essay “O n Fairy
Stories,” the reader must enter and engage with this secon-
dary world and with its special laws (Tolkien 48). But
Ende’s text is polysemous; there is a fantasy within a fan-
tasy. There is the primary tale of the small boy Bastian with
which the reader engages, and there is the story of Fantas-
tica into which Bastian himself is drawn. The self-reflexivity of the tale makes it highly meta-narratological. The alternation of red and green typeface (in the original versions, both German and English) also emphasizes the metanarrative technique. This might be seen as an attempt to undermine
the operation of the imaginative process, since there is a
deliberate return to the fictional version of the real world
and the notion of readerly engagement with a text.
But this, of course, is not the whole story. The role of
Bastian in the metafictional world parallels the role of the
reader in the act of reading any text. Readers m ust con-
struct the text, as m odem theorists would have it; the
author is “dead” and meaning resides only in the subjec-
tive engagement of the reader with the signifying con-
structs which comprise the text. Certainly Bastian con-
structs the text; but the text in this novel is much more than merely words on paper, as Bastian is well aware. The text is a world, and the act of constructing the text is the act of creating a world, which is precisely the role Bastian is given in the world of Fantastica. Moreover, he is constantly referred to as a Savior by the inhabitants of Fantasica, which emphasizes his creative and godlike function, although this deus ex rnachim from the mundane world is a flawed saviour whose endeavors are not always either well-intentioned or beneficent in their effects.”
Regarding this notion of good and evil, dark and light,
“The human im agination has access to both dark and light;
in the worlds of fantasy there are good and evil characters
who are equally important to the story. Quests would not
appeal were there not monsters to be overcome and evil
creatures to outwit; they are all part of the story . In
Fantastica, then, the evil characters are as valuable as the
good ones, since they arise out of the same creative human
faculty. The human Imagination is a dualistic faculty, and
human creators are dualistic gods since they are, as
Tolkien suggests in his poem, lords in rags — fallen crea-
tures. Although Ende does not articulate this point ex-
plicitly, it is implicit in the value he places upon the evil
characters in his fantastic world — a world which clearly
comprises all the realms of human im agination: myth,
fantasy, legend, story, parable, allegory and marcher. The
real evil in Fantastica, die terrifying threat to the world of
the imagination, is the Nothing, the sense of absence and
loss which pervades the story until Bastian can enter the
fictional realm. And it is the idea of the Nothing which
comes closest in this novel to commentary upon recent
theoretical trends in literature.”
Here is the link to the full article:
I had never really considered this film to be a horror fantasy film until I read the book and revisited the film from my now adult perspective. As it conjured up all these images from my own childhood, I could see the hidden fears that this story was evoking and coaxing to the surface. The image of the Nothing stands seared in my brain as it helps us to imagine those childhood struggles that had held me bound to fear, and in some ways continue to bear themselves out tangible ways. There is something deeply human about what Bastian faces in his own life, the things that hold this notion of fantasy and reality in tension. Childhood innocence and adult responsibility battle for his allegiance, which we hear in the film as the father chides the son to get his head out of the clouds and to take responsibility for facing life’s problems following the mother’s death.
It is here the power of the book, the power of story to transform us rises to the surface, teasing out the importance of the imagination in helping to form our perspective of this world and our experiences in necessary and spirit driven ways. This is, in fact, the role of faith, guided as it is by those old mythologies that once formed the foundation of our worldview before the West in all of its rationalistic glory replaced it with the gods of human reason and progress. This is a German based stories, and as such is entrenched in the familiar language of those old fairy tales. And yet it also translates much broader than this into the larger world of myth. Endes book is a call back to the truth of a world that once was and still is soaked in mystery and revelation.
Here in lies the value of literature forms and trends. It allows Bastian to make sense of that feeling of inevitable lostness and the nihilism that his struggling experiences threaten to impose onto his once imaginative and sacredly held worldview. And it does so by attaching this to images and ideas that are bigger than himself. The Nothing becomes the very personification of his very real fears, and the adventure he gets sucked into holds real world stakes. And behind this lies the truths that only our myths can truly capture in their essence, truths that get bound up in sacrificial, Christ type figures, realities of good and evil, vitues and failures, all of which play themselves out in real and tangible ways in the world we occupy in the here and now. Here in this story, then, we can also gain a glimpse of the character of God as something fully real, fully imagined, and fully alive in our struggle.
All of this was not something I would have understood as a child in philosophical terms. And yet my dhildhood mind would have understood this in many ways far more accutely and resolutely and unquestioningly than my adult one, which has been taught to be prone to resististing this imaginative way of seeing the world in the face of life’s perpetual struggle. This book reignitted that childhood fervor, that childhood innocence framed by what were very real and very true experiences of life’s struggles. The real difference lies in the ability of my young mind to frame this in a particular kind of story, the kind of story this book represents and that Bastian uncovers. For me, I considered my chronic nightmares, the bullying of my own childhood experience, the moments of uncertainty and questions, and perhaps more the way my growing love of stories gave my young mind a way to be formed by a reality vision of the world much larger than myself and my experiences. It created in me a love for the imagination, but even more so the ability to imagine the ebb and flow of my experience in those larger truths.