When I was younger, I, like many others, watched The Neverending Story on more than one occasion.
It was a childhood favorite that carried over into adulthood. I didn’t know it was a book until my late teens, when I started working at Borders and found a copy on the shelves.
The first time I read it, I thought that the movie had done a really good job following along with the major plot points of the book — for the half that was covered, anyway.
Now, however, I have a different opinion.
To get a couple of “whatever” changes out of the way first:
In the movie, the world is called Fantasia.
In the book, it is called Fantastica.
Also in the book, Bastian is described as a “fat little boy of ten or twelve.”
In the movie, he is much more “aesthetically” pleasing.
The latter point seems moot. In actuality, Bastian’s looks are a major plot point of the book.
As stated before, I thought the movie had done a good job on the plot points of the book. Reading it again — and knowing that the author was really upset by the final product of the movie — had me going in with a more detailed look. Doing so made me realize that, while they may have followed along pretty closely with the plot of the book, they did a disservice to a lot of the characters, which I do believe is ultimately what the author, Michael Ende, was upset about.
Here’s the thing:
The book is very heavily dependent on the relationship between Bastian and Atreyu.
In the movie, yes, we see that. Bastian follows along with Atreyu’s adventures and “turns the page” as he slowly becomes more connected with the world of Fantastica.
In the book, Bastian is attracted to the things in Atreyu that he does not see in himself.
Someone good-looking, heroic, strong, and sent out on an epic quest.
But, underneath that, more importantly, Bastian connects to Atreyu’s feelings of fear and self-wondering when it comes to the quest at hand.
They both go through the transition of feeling like the quest before them is bigger than their grasp.
Ultimately, in the book, Atreyu is a representation of a character-driven novel. We do see that in the movie, as well. He’s tasked with “leading the Earthling child” along the adventure so the Earthling can save Fantastica.
The movie, however, just begins with bits and pieces of Bastian being “weird” and having an absent father — which was also partially different in the book.
In the book, Bastian understood his father’s recent vacancy because of his mother’s death. He reflects on the good relationship he had before that, and how he just wishes his dad would simply talk to him.
I understand there was only so much space for that in the movie, but his father comes across as cold and “let’s be a man about things.”
There was no examination of the real issue at hand.
Part of that, however, is also due to the target audience.
This is ultimately where I think the movie lacks.
The movie, obviously, is geared for children. It wouldn’t have made sense to delve a little deeper into showing some of these intricacies.
With how closely they did follow the portion of the book used in the film, a simple 30 extra minutes would have sincerely done some wonders.
The thing about the book is, although the main character (Bastian) is only “ten or twelve,” it’s written and geared for an audience that fits closer into the 18-35 range.
It’s meant to be a reminder of the importance of your imagination, even as you grow up.
That theme is examined in the film, to an extent.
It just doesn’t have anywhere near the same punch it has in the book — or what it could have had in the movie if it was geared toward an older audience.
In defense of the movie, though, I’m also not sure if it would have worked in that regard.
Especially when considering the early 80’s timeframe we’re talking here.
I also think, if it were attempted as a remake these days, it would get way too bogged down with CGI.
Ultimately, it would run into the same issue of just trying to make sure everything “looked cool” instead of digging deeper into the characterization.
One thing I accept on the lack of characterization in the movie is the lack of character names.
Just so everyone knows:
The rock biter is Pyornkrachzark.
Thank the Lord for the audiobook on that or I would have been like erm?
But apart from that, with Bastian’s character in particular, they missed out on really delving into the idea of him being the epitome of imagination.
In the book, as he’s reading, he has these revelations of “these being the types of stories he likes to read” because “they’re the types of stories he tells to himself.” Everything is about him as a storyteller and the importance of his mind creating whatever he wanted.
We do see, at the end of the movie, that Bastian is granted some wishes from The Childlike Empress after he names her.
I still don’t like “Moon Child” because that’s too similar, but it’s the same in both versions.
In the book, the second half goes a little more into what those wishes are.
Also the importance of Bastian using his imagination to prevent Fantastica from being overtaken by the “Nothing.”
This is something that ties back to one of Bastian’s first thoughts about wondering what happens in between the covers of a book while it’s closed. If it never gets opened, nothing ever happens, in a sense.
Even though the events and the ink and everything still exist, it remains hollow and dark. It takes the use of the imagination to bring it to life.
Side note — the physical book is multicolored; green for Bastian/Earth, maroon for Fantastica/Atreyu. In the book, the book that Bastian is reading is also multicolored, but the colors are never really mentioned.
Personally, I think that in the book Bastian reads, the “green text” is meant to be us, looking in, the same as Bastian is looking in on Atreyu.
Back to the importance of Bastian’s imagination.
Bastian, the character, made the argument of the necessity of these fantastical types of books.
They do not talk about the dull “hubbub” of natural life.
There’s a need for these types of fictional adventures that don’t really exist so the reader can feel some sense of exhilaration as the hero of the story.
And, in a lot of ways, that hero is obviously Atreyu. And, in a lot of ways, Bastian is also the anti-hero. Some of that I can’t talk too much about without spoilers for the second half of the book.
There is always a balance of yin and yang between Atreyu and Bastian throughout the book. The film sincerely lacks the depth of that connection.
Even the name shows the juxtaposition between these two characters.
In Atreyu’s native tongue, his name means “son of all.”
Bastian, on the other hand, feels like he’s “nobody’s son.”
This is also a dynamic that is seen a lot more in the second half of the book, and something that the movie never touches on.
Within the physical description in the book, Atreyu isn’t described as fat.
However, the way he’s described makes it seem as though he’d be “better looking” than Bastian.
With the history of the Great Buffalo and the way he’s dressed and everything, he has a very Native American-esque background. This ties evenn further into Bastian reading the text while sitting “Indian style.”
Nowadays, that’s not an appropriate term, but in the 70s it was meant, I believe, as a genuine way to further establish a connection between the characters.
In the movie, this is only depicted when Bastian actually hears Atreyu’s name (or “reads” it), and he looks at a Native American slaying a buffalo sticker he has on his book bag. Bastian is also laying down in the movie.
The snakes on AURYN in the movie can be seen as that black/white yin/yang type of depiction of that with Bastian.
I think one of the more pivotal times that this characterization goes missing in the movie is the Mirror Gate.
The Sphinx Gate is also a bit different in the book, but it’s in the Mirror Gate where — in both book and movie — Atreyu sees Bastian.
In the book, however, this is only the second of three gates. The third of which is this sort of all-knowing beast called Uyulala…
But I can understand them not including her.
In the book, when Atreyu looks in the mirror and sees Bastian, we establish the first sort of sense of jealousy from Bastian.
He does not like the way he looks. He thinks he’s inferior to Atreyu, and he only wishes he could be half as good as him. It isn’t as much about the “impossibility” of him existing in the book as much as it is about Bastian not believing that he, Bastian, was good enough to be chosen for anything.
The movie just has the weird blue sphinxes and simply says the Childlike Empress needs a new name and that it basically has to be Bastian.
We also miss out on Bastian being in the attic hearing noises and wondering if ghosts exist, while Atreyu is watching a ghostly procession of vampires and night hobs and all the other creatures in between when he, too, is at his most vulnerable position of the book.
Atreyu’s vulnerability speaks to Bastian. This is why he makes the decision to stay where he is in his part of the journey as the reader.
Even though he’s growing hungry, even though he’s cold and with ghosts and is scared, Atreyu needs him, so he stays.
Atreyu also realizes his own need of the Childlike Empress. This, in turn, influences the need of Bastian and increases his desire to stay where he is and do his part to help Atreyu on his mission.
The meeting with Atreyu and Gmork is certainly very different than the movie, too.
There’s no indication in the movie that the people in Fantastica can come into Earth — but not return home if they do.
There’s a whole conversation about the Manipulators (writers) and the necessity of Atreyu staying in Fantastica.
Essentially, his only job is to remain as a character in the book. If he goes and tries to be anything else, then the people of Fantastica will cease to exist. He’ll be a “lie.” The people in this world will not understand him since he’s “made-up.”
The whole conversation about lies and manipulation that certainly goes overlooked in the movie.
The conversation with Atreyu and Gmork in the film is similar, but it’s more about hope than it is about lies and manipulation. “Diminish hope,” that’s the end goal of it all in the movie. Very different themes examined.
I also think Atreyu’s character had some disservice done to him in the film. He goes through a whole identity crisis. He feels like a “Nobody” being taken by the “Nothing.”
It’s very relatable, especially, I think, to people who suffer from feeling that way on a real basis.
This ties back to my earlier mention of him basically representing a “character-driven novel.”
“Relatability” and “escapism” are things that a lot of readers look to when choosing their next book.
The conversation between the Childlike Empress and Atreyu before Bastian crosses over is so different in the book.
This is the pivotal point here, the necessity of imagination.
The importance of identifying with a main character.
The reason that Atreyu had to go through that whole mess, just so Bastian could connect with him like that.
Really, so many of these deeper subtexts went missing in the film.
I get it, but I can also understand why the author was unhappy with the final product.
Especially with the necessity of readers coming to Fantastica of their own free will and all the reasons humans were glad to pay Fantastica a visit. There’s also nothing about Bastian’s lack of self-worth making him feel like that’s the reason he can’t be the savior of the world.
The connection between reader and character is vital.
I also feel like the importance of naming the Childlike Empress wasn’t as prevalent or important in the movie. The thing is, names are identity. A vibration assigned to the human attached to them. Lacking a name, lacking a vibration, is lacking an identity, an existence — thus rendering her a “Nothing.”
In the movie, yes, it’s Bastian that still needs to name her.
But the more I read into some of these finer details, the more I can understand why the author was so upset.
There are a few other things from the story itself that would have been cool to see in the movie.
Overall, I just wasn’t expecting to be so let down by the movie after getting this into the analysis.
The first time I read the book, I felt like the movie did a really good job capturing it.
In certain aspects, I still think that.
In others, I think it’s just, I don’t know.
I can understand why the author was upset.