The Neverending Story

I don’t remember how this book got to HideAway Books two months ago, only that I had two thoughts:

  1. How is it I’ve never read this book?

  2. I wonder if I’ll have a chance to read it before someone else buys it.

When I saw The Neverending Story on the list of movies available on Oct. 1 on Netflix, I knew this was my excuse to hoard the book, and read it. Just thinking about the movie brought back memories of sitting in in the dark, in 3rd grade, and watching this wonderful tale of adventure and magic unfold on the wall. The book came out when I was 2 years old, the movie when I was seven. But as we were not a movie-going family, I was excited for the chance to watch it in school. I remember feeling a kinship with Bastian as he resisted everything else in the world to keep reading. It was exactly how I felt when I read books. I must have seen The Neverending Story a dozen times before reading the book and was worried that my nostalgia for the movie would cloud my judgement of the book.

I was wrong. The book, is AMAZING! Also, I didn’t know the movie was based on the first half of the book, and ignored the last half of the book, which is ridiculous. In these reviews I try to avoid spoilers, but since the movie and book have been out for almost 30 years, this post if full of them!

Let’s start with the similarities.

The book starts out similar to the movie. Bastian runs into a bookstore, trying to get away from some school bullies. When he gets there, the gruff bookseller tells him to go away. Anxious to stay off the street, Bastian doesn’t listen. Instead, he ends up taking the book, the bookseller is reading, when he is distracted by the phone, and runs to school. He is already late, and goes to the somewhat scary attic to read, and gets pulled into the story of Atreyu, the child warrior, his horse Artax, and then the cuddly flying dragon Falcor, and their quest to save the Childlike Empress. As he reads, he slowly realizes he is in this story as well. And just as he is pulled into Fantastica (called Fantasia in the movie), and saves the Empress, the movie ends. Looking past some of the CGI and animatronics that didn’t age well, This review gives the movie makers the benefit of the doubt that they did the best they could with the technology that was available at the time. The fantastical characters of this imaginary world were done well, and as I watched the movie I saw many that were described in passing throughout the book.

I read that the author Michael Ende, hated the movie. I can see why. All the themes are wrong.

Now for the differences.

In the book, Bastian is suffering from the death of his mother. His father is basically a ghost in their home, his grief is so large, that he barely notices his son. This, added to his clumsiness, pudgy form, and wish to just tell his own magical stories, makes him a loner. In the movie his father is mean, and direct, which pushes Bastian away from him. When he runs from the bullies into the bookstore, the bookseller does try to push him away, but does not engage in conversation with him, or give him any hints that he may want to read the book on his lap. When the phone rings, and the bookseller is turned away, Bastian steals the book. At this point, he feels like he is a thief and can never go home again, nor can he go to school, but somehow ends up at school anyway, so he hides in the attic until he can figure out a plan for effectively running away.

At this point he starts to read. He does get pulled into the story of Atreyu, but instead of relating to him, only sees their differences. Where Atreyu (who, by the way, has olive green skin) is strong, Bastian is weak. Where Atreyu is courageous, Bastian is a coward, and where Atreyu loves and trusts deeply, Bastian is afraid of being rejected. The sequence of events that leads Atreyu to the Southern Oracle and the knowledge that a human child has to rename the Empress, is longer, with Atreyu and Falkor both being bitten by this crazy spider-ish, monster, which is actually when Bastian yells and is heard by Atreyu, not when the giant tortoise appears.

Done well, was Atreyu’s time with the gnomes, Engywook and Urgl, who fix his wounds and tell him about the gates, although Atreyu gets much more instruction in the book, and is not so headstrong. Also, the Spinx issue is completely different. They don’t shoot lasers out of their eyes, nor could I see anything in the description in the book that indicated they should have massive breasts with protruding nipples. My young self was never comfortable with that scene.

Bastian does eventually save the day, but he hesitates, a lot. Because he refuses to say her name, when first invited, the Empress has to climb a mountain and meet the record keeper who tells her The Neverending Story, to prove to Bastian he is the correct child to give her a name. He is full of self-doubt and self-loathing, which prevents him from acting and being as courageous as Atreyu.

Where Bastian experiences Atreyu’s adventure in the first half of the book, he experiences his own in the second half. The first part was Atreyu’s growth, where now it’s Bastian’s turn to grow. In the process he fails, a lot. He is not a good friend, he creates mayhem for selfish reasons, and ultimately tries to become Fantastica’s new Emperor. And then he grows, and learns, that he can be kind and courageous, and he can be thoughtful and strong. Ultimately he learns that he can love, without fear of loss, while giving and receiving forgiveness. He is saved, and can finally return home when he learns he can love his father, and help him, instead of waiting for him to leave his grief. The first half of the book is great, the second half is good. Without the second half, it is a lesser story.

Also, (I know this is everyone’s favorite part of the movie) he never rides Falcor into the city to scare his bullies. As we learn in the book, while the humans can enter Fantastica, the residents of Fantastica can’t enter the human world.

The movie nostalgia carried me through some of the book, where I saw the similarities. I seriously got goosebumps when Atreyu saw Bastian in the mirror. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Artax die in the swamp without crying. But the book was an enhanced experience; a great tale that truly can’t be captured on the big screen.

The book is so much better.