How The Neverending Story broke my brain
A few days ago, my brother dropped a major knowledge-bomb on me. Limahl, the singer of the theme song to the 1984 film The Neverending Story, was not a woman, as I’d always believed. Limahl, evidently, is an English pop star, former lead singer of the group Kajagoogoo, and most definitely male. If you, like me, have gone your entire life hearing that song without seeing the music video, I have no doubt it’s as big a shock to you as it was to me.
Regardless, having gotten the movie into my head, I felt the need to watch it again. Although it was a perennial favorite of mind as a child, it had been several years since I actually sat down at watched it, and that’s just not right. So after getting home from work earlier this week, I pulled out the DVD and popped it in. If you’ve never seen the movie, I can only assume you’re in your 70s or older, blind, or have no soul. The short version is that it’s the story of a young boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) who – having spent the day facing a distant widower father (Gerald McRaney), a mob of school bullies, and a math test – retreats to the school attic to read a book he swiped from a knowing old shopkeeper Thomas Hill). The book, The Neverending Story, focuses on a warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) who is tasked with finding a cure for a mysterious Nothing that is destroying the world of Fantasia and slowly killing its Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach).
As the story continues (and here the spoilers commence) Bastian finds himself getting pulled deeper and deeper into the book as the nature of the Nothing becomes clear. Fantasia is created from the hopes and fantasies of the human world. As people give up their enchantments, the Nothing is destroying the world of magic, and it will take the power of a human boy to save it. The biggest shock for Bastian is when he realizes the human boy the book is discussing… is him.
The movie came out in 1984, when I was seven years old, but it’s safe to say that virtually everybody who saw it at about my age had the same fantasies afterwards that I did: having that last grain of sand from Fantasia, infused with the power to grant wishes… that brilliant dream of riding Falkor the Luck-Dragon through the sky and exacting swift and just retribution on your enemies (if anyone tries to tell you a seven-year-old has no enemies ask them what it was like to be home schooled)… that sort of escapism is what has driven children’s literature for decades. Everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz to the Harry Potter series is, in some way about taking a child from the ordinary world and exposing them to a place of wonder and magic. We keep going to that well again and again, because it’s as deep and rich a storytelling pool as exists anywhere.
Even as a kid I recognized that. But going back to watch the movie again today, for the first time in years, I’m realizing just how profoundly it influenced my philosophy as a storyteller as well. (I apologize for the preceding sentence, I tried for five minutes to think of a way to say “my philosophy as a storyteller” that didn’t sound pretentious as hell, but I failed utterly.) The basic concept behind the story is that all human imagination flows into and out of the same place. Sure, they give that place a name, but as I watched the film it struck me that this is exactly the concept that drove me to start this website in the first place. I definitely believe, in a very concrete way, that human imagination is based on this very same idea, that we all contribute to and draw from an ocean of inspiration, and that it’s the different ways we find to employ the ideas we all share that make for true innovation.
Looking back, as an adult, I can tell that the movie isn’t as perfect as I always gave it credit for. It feels somewhat incomplete, like there’s more story to tell. As it turns out, this wasn’t just a sort of meta-commentary on the “Neverending” part of the title. The film only adapts about the first half of the original novel by Michael Ende, and in fact, just about everything we actually see on screen, in the book, is just setup for the real story, about Bastian losing himself in Fantastica (the novel’s name for the magical world) and ultimately having to face the harsh reality of his mother’s death and his father’s emotional abandonment. Some of those ideas eventually made their way into The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter, but most of them came forth in name only and didn’t have the same emotional impact as the book. On the plus side the movie did have the guy who played the Flash on the 90s TV show, which is something the 1979 German novel can never claim.
What’s great about The Neverending Story though, both the film and the book, is how it is so firmly rooted not in what the imagination can create, but in the idea of imagination itself. There’s something powerful in that, something eternal, and something I hold to rather dearly.
Posted on April 2, 2013, in Fantasy, Geek Punditry and tagged 1984, Barret Oliver, Gerald McRaney, Limahl, Michael Ende, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, The Neverending Story, Thomas Hill. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.