For anyone who has ever been “swept away” into the narrative of a novel, completely engrossed in its alternate reality, there is no better love letter to the power of books than The NeverEnding Story. Centered on the fringe-existing Bastian (Barret Oliver), a 12-year-old whose mother has recently died, the film’s focus on the ability of books to transport one out of his or her own rather dreary existence is a poignant one. For someone like Bastian especially, tortured and maligned by the kids at his school simply for being a “weirdo,” the importance of literature and the refuge it offers can’t be emphasized enough.
Based on the novel written by German author Michael Ende in 1979 (who took a lot of issue with the film adaptation–enough to sue the movie’s creators), The NeverEnding Story was one of the first mainstream instances of that modern phenomenon, “being meta.” Experiencing the same emotions and heartaches as the young warrior protagonist of the tale, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), Bastian is taken on a journey that tugs and probes at every aspect of the psyche, inviting him to revel in the joys and sorrows of Atreyu’s quest to save Fantasia from The Nothing, an ominous vacuum that serves as a metaphor for human despair in the wake of giving up on their hopes and dreams. Bastian, too, has been told by his own father to keep his head out of the clouds, essentially that the world is no place for dreaming–or dreamers.
The world of Fantasia, however, proves the possibility that can exist when one opens his mind to the marvels of imagination. Reading voraciously, Bastian envisions Atreyu’s struggles of getting to The Ancient One a.k.a. a giant turtle named Morla for information about how to save The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach)–whose sickness is inextricably linked to the presence of The Nothing. Along the way, Atreyu loses his only companion, a faithful horse named Artax, to the Swamp of Sadness, an abyssal landscape that weighs most everyone who passes through it down into its quicksand-like suckage. As Atreyu urges through tears, “Fight against the sadness Artax. Artax, please. You’re letting the sadness of the swamps get to you. You have to try, you have to care,” director Wolfgang Petersen cuts to Bastian back in the attic crying the same tears over the book as Atreyu has been over the experience. For it is as The Childlike Empress later explains to Atreyu, “He has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now, he has come here with you. He’s very close. Listening to every word that we say.”
And yes, it all goes back to the metaness of both film and literature, as we–the audience watching the movie–experience Bastian experiencing Atreyu’s travails. It has some Black Mirror “White Christmas” qualities, to be sure. We are all, like Bastian, “already a part of the Neverending Story.” What is The Neverending Story, you might ask, as Atreyu does of The Childlike Empress? Well, merely this: “Just as he is sharing all your adventures, others are sharing his. They were with him when he hid from the boys in the bookstore.” That they is us, fellow bibliophiles. And if you’ve ever let yourself be taken in the arms of any story–filmic or literary–then you surely know the value of The NeverEnding Story, a missive of reverence to the necessity of good storytelling and its healing abilities.