If you were a child in the 1980s, it's very likely that Wolfgang Peterson's cinematic take on Michael Ende's fantasy novel The Neverending Story was a huge part of your growing process.
Released in 1984 to great box office returns, the film held the distinction of being the most expensive film at the time to be produced outside of the US and the Soviet Union. Made for an estimated $27 million with a box office of $100 million, the film spawned two sequels and an animated series, not to mention sparking the imaginations of thousands, if not millions of kids around the world.
Despite its undisputed success and his initial excitement about the plans for the film, Ende ultimately grew to despise the adaptation, calling to cease production before filming had ended. The filmmakers did not, and he sued them. Ende lost the case, and was deeply embittered towards director Wolfgang Peterson and the studio that released The Neverending Story. Still, were the two versions really all that different? I read the book recently to compare.
The film and the novel begin exactly the same, with a young boy named Bastion running from a group of bullies. He discovers and steals a book he finds called The Neverending Story, then reads it while hiding in an attic during a storm. Both the book and film take some time explaining that Bastion is more or less a shy kid that gets pushed around a lot in life, and the book is a gateway to another world for him, as books are for so many of us.
In the world called Fantasia, we discover that an evil, seemingly unstoppable force is slowly devouring everything. The ruler of Fantasia, known as the Childlike Empress, is sick, and tasks Atreyu with finding the cure for her illness. She gives him the amulet seen on the cover of the book: two snakes, one silver and one gold, devouring each other's tails. This is called the Auryn, and it grants wishes and protection. Reflectively, the Nothing sends out a great black wolf named Gmork to slay Atreyu in hopes of keeping the Empress ill and unable to act.
The walls between fantasy and reality blur quickly. When Bastion shrieks, Atreyu seems to hear it. He catches a glimpse of Bastion in a mirror. Atreyu loses his horse, Artax, in a swamp. Suffering from a deep sadness that makes it difficult to free himself from the bog, Artax is lost, while Atreyu, protected by the Auryn, can only cry and carry on in his quest. He succumbs to exhaustion, but is saved by the luckdragon Falkor, who carries him thousands of miles to see the Southern Oracle. The Southern Oracle tells him that he must find a human child, and the human child must give the Empress a new name to cure her. Falkor carries Atreyu away as the Nothing consumes the Oracle.
Gmork ultimately finds Atreyu, and they engage in a surprisingly philosophical conversation in which Gmork reveals that the Nothing is essentially apathy, which kills hope and fantasy. In the book as well as the movie, this is where we receive a point blank explanation that the story is not so much a fantasy story but a commentary on the very nature of fantasy and human imagination, how and why we rely on it to live. Atreyu returns to the Childlike Empress as Fantasia is destroyed, and apologizes for failing her. She insists that he hasn't, that she simply needs a human child to give her a new name. Of course, this is where Bastion comes in, and that's more or less where the film ends.
Ende's scathing criticism of the film took a long time to make sense to me. The movie only covers the first half of the book, and it goes pretty much take by take, with the exception of a few minor details. The most glaring difference was the death of Artax, which, as mentioned, is a deeply traumatizing scene in the film. In the book, however, it reads like a particularly frustrating conversation in which the horse has simply chosen to die, and Atreyu likewise barely seems to struggle with the death or care much once it occurs. More upsetting and therefore more satisfying in the film, it makes sense that the moment read to Ende as pandering. For children across the world, however, the death of Artax, as he slowly sinks into the swamp while Atreyu screams his name and sobs, is one of the most memorable parts of the story.
Another important note is that, in the book, the lettering is color-coded. This detail is obviously made moot by the film, in which the worlds are separate simply by being shown to be separate. However, in the book, the different fonts help establish the different worlds as being very separate for the reader. I think it's a pretty neat stylistic trick as an adult, so I imagine if I had read the book as a kid, it would have blown my mind a little bit. Red font is meant to indicate Bastion's reality, while blue shows us what's happening in Fantasia.
The remainder of the book is somewhat adapted for the second film, but the sequel deviates even further from the plot than the first does. In the films, we are made to sympathize with Bastion, our-point-of-view character, while in the book, he goes on a much darker path. Ende dismissed the film as being lightweight and losing much of the original intention of the story, which makes increasingly more sense as the book goes along. Bastion enters Fantasia and continues on with Falkor. Wielding the Auryn, Bastion discovers that there is a dark side to it, and to him. As he uses the amulet to grant his wishes, he also loses his memory, his dreams, and his humanity. Finding the Childlike Empress to be missing from her kingdom, Bastion decides to take over Fantasia and rule it for himself. This desire causes a rift between Bastion and Atreyu, and Bastion very nearly ends up killing his ally. Bastion eventually loses nearly all his memories, save two: one of his mother, and one of his father. Ultimately, with Atreyu's guidance, Bastion comes to understand that he must leave Fantasia.
Critic Vincent Canby panned the film, irate by its focus on children and what he deemed to be low-quality special effects, referring to the movie as “The Pre-Teen-Ager's Guide to Existentialism.” Whether you loved it or hated it, that's a fairly accurate depiction of many of the themes. Although the book is a bit darker, a bit more depressing, the differences between the first half of the book and the movie are generally fairly slight. Understandably, as the story progresses in the book, it does change the theme somewhat, but in all fairness, an exact representation of a nearly 350-page book into a 90-minute movie isn't even really possible.
While I sympathize with Ende's position and did enjoy the book, the film holds an important place in my life. Having watched it as a very small child, I don't remember life before I saw the movie, and the themes of imagination and bravery in the face of apathy and utter destructiveness impacted me and my life. On the other hand, I didn't read the book until very recently, so an unbiased take is as impossible for me as it was for Ende.