Monday, March 4, 2013

The Neverending Story

Like many children of the 80s I saw the film The Neverending Story as a kid, along with its sequel.  But it wasn't until I was an adult that I finally read the book.  It was one of the most exciting readings I've ever experienced.  Not just because I was reading about Bastian and Atreyu and Falkor in a way that, while similar to the films I knew, included additional adventures and lands to explore, but because the book is downright meta.  The plot of The Neverending Story revolves around a boy named Bastian who doesn't fit in well at school or really anywhere within the real world.  But he loves stories, and when he spies a book named The Neverending Story in a book shop, he steals it and runs away to his school's attic to read it.  Halfway through the book, he begins to realize that the hero Atreyu is searching for to save Fantastica is himself.  Of course, we knew that from the beginning, because why else would we be told this story within a story?  But what's even better, is that once Bastian is inside Fantastica, there are multiple mentions of you, the reader!  I wish so much that I could have read this as a kid, because I probably would have believed that I could get into this world as well.  Fortunately I've always held on to some aspects of my childhood, so even as an adult this was so exciting.  I don't think I've ever seen a breaking of the fourth wall that works so well before, except maybe in the video game Earthbound.  

The other really great thing that keeps popping up is that we get the tease of a minor character's story, but then the book will stop and say "But that is another story and will be told another time."  It really gives you the feel that this book could never end.  It would also probably make a really great fiction writing workbook, for you to try to finish all those stories yourself.

Given the nature of the book, it switches direction after that halfway point.  In the first half we're mostly following Atreyu and Falkor, and then in the second half they take a back seat while we follow Bastian.  The problem is that Bastian's not really that likeable.  It's intentional, of course, because he has a lot to learn and he comes out better for it by the end, but I really couldn't stand him acting like such a brat in places.  This is also the half of the book that will feel largely new to those of who have only seen the movies, because while the second film took some characters and situations from the book, it twisted them around quite a bit.  So I found the second half a little more tolerable on my first read because I was seeing something new, but since then it gets a little more difficult to slug through.

The first movie is a classic for a reason. The effects are amazing for the time period, and despite featuring nothing but these strange characters and child actors, it's a great film. It also works as a pretty good adaptation of the first half of the book, with only minor things left out. And the name of the land is changed to Fantasia instead of Fantastica for whatever reason.  Something like Ygramul, a creature made of thousands of insects, would have been very difficult to create accurately in the 80s. 

They even did a good job of trying to give you that meta moment by having the childlike empress say that others are watching Bastian's story right now.  But I've heard that Ende was so upset with the adaptation that he wanted the title removed from the story. I'm guessing he was upset with the fact that the movie abruptly ends at the halfway point. Clearly Bastian's journey inside Fantastica was very important to him. I can understand why a brief "Bastian made a lot more wishes and had a great many more adventures" would bother him if so, even if it's followed up with "But that's another story." They really should have added "that will be told another time" and set it up for the sequel, but I guess they weren't so sure. It's not like today where we tend to automatically build movies expecting the sequels to be released. 

When the sequel did come around, they changed things, as I said. Even before the plot, we've got different actors for Bastian, his father, and Atreyu. Kenny Morrison does a terrible job of replacing Noah Hathaway, though the others are at least on par with acting ability.  But I remember this being really confusing to me as a kid.  Was this supposed to be the same character?  His father was different, he looked dramatically different, he was still scared of joining the swim team and riding horses.  So how could this be the same kid?  I have a feeling that it is confusing things like these that have led them to try to adapt children's books at a much quicker pace now than they used to.

They also add in more characters, most notably Nimbly, who is incredibly annoying. Given how long these scenes drag in the book, I'm not entirely bothered by the changes made in the film. In the book, Bastian losing his memories is just a simple side effect of using the AURYN.  Making it a device of Xayide works well and makes the Childlike Empress look a little less cruel in this version. Granted, in the book she is simply meant to be morally ambiguous, but you have to admit there is something rather cruel about not warning humans ahead of time that too many wishes will turn them into empty headed idiots. So here the villain is to blame and it's simpler. I also really like the fact that Bastian's father reads the story. In the book Bastian simply wishes his father well again, but to have him actually involved in the story really aids to heal him and builds a better bond between the two of them so I'm all for it. Overall, I really enjoy both movies. The creature designs and the sets and costumes are gorgeous. They're over the top, but that fits the setting perfectly. They're perfect kids films, and with the exception of Nimbly, they're still amusing to watch as an adult.

They technically made this film series into a trilogy with The Neverending Story III.  I have no memory of this movie from the time period it was released, despite the fact that at 13 I would have still been in the target age group for it.  It makes me wonder if it just plain bombed and didn't last long enough for me to notice.  The cast was changed yet again. I think it is because a different studio took over, but given that this was only made four years later, you would think they could have at least tried to bring back some of the same people.  The creatures were done by Jim Henson's creature shop, which is nice, but also means they look very different than what we saw in the previous films.   A very young Jack Black plays the lead bully in this film, and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy him more as a bully than I do in a lot of his comedic roles. His over the top nature just fits better here.   

There's no more story elements left from the original book, so we're getting a new story with the same characters.  Except it contradicts the previous sequel by giving Bastian's father no memory of The Neverending Story.    In my opinion they really should have picked a new main character rather than reusing Bastian.  Given the nature of the book, there's absolutely no reason why we couldn't have a new protagonist.  Let Bastian's story be over and give someone else a turn.  Because if three movies in Bastian is still being bullied and having problems with his father, than he isn't learning anything from his experiences.

While it's nice that this is the first time we get to see The Old Man of Wandering Mountain in the film series, that's about the only good thing.  (And you can tell no one else likes this movie either, by the fact that that image of the back of his head is the only one I could find online.) The creatures of Fantasia get brought to the real world.  It was silly enough when Falkor was there in the last moments of the first movie, but to actually send a whole group of them there is much worse.  Not to mention that the book specifically states that creatures from Fantastica are transformed into dreams and lies when they try to cross into our world.

There was also an animated series that very loosely adapted the book into new stories.  The main thing I will give the cartoon is that it shows Atreyu with his proper green skin as it is described in the book.  They also attempted to adapt some of the stories from the book that never made it to film, like the tears of sadness and the disappearance of the purple buffalo.  But they were also changed around and too dumbed down for an adult to enjoy them.  Their version of Bark Troll is particularly annoying.  I was only able to watch the first few episodes via Netflix, and honestly I'm just not interested enough to see any more.  It's possible this may be more enjoyable for kids, and if you'd like your kids to try it you can find both seasons available on DVD and through Amazon streaming.

Tales from the Neverending Story is the name of the short lived television show/mini-series.  It once again moved things around into its own format rather than straight up adapting the novel.  I can tell by my Netflix ratings that I had rented this some time ago, and I gave it three stars.  For me that generally means I found it tolerable but wasn't wowed by it either.  I wanted to watch at least a little bit of it again to refresh my memory, but Netflix's disc rental service is a shadow of what it used to be.  Not only is the first disc of the series no longer available at all, but the second disc was marked long wait and I have the feeling it is sitting on someone's coffee table forgotten.  There's a few clips that people have uploaded to Youtube, but no full episodes, which is a shame. Amazon will lie to you and claim you can purchase episodes of the series, but if you look closely it's really just the animated series.  If anyone has some memories of this show and its quality, please let us know in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. +JMJ+

    I desperately wish I could read this and comment, but I haven't read the book yet!!! And it has been years since I last saw any of the movies. =(

    The novel is definitely on my list, but as the story of my life goes, I'm not sure when I'll be able to start it.


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