Roots and Beginnings: The NeverEnding Story (dir. Wolfgang Petersen)
Let’s rattle some things off, why don’t we?
- “Artax, you’re sinking!”
- “It really is a racing snail!”
- “Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!”
- “Come for me, Gmork! I am Atreyu!”
- “Call my name!”
The great temptation, the fatal temptation, of adult fans of fantastic fiction is the temptation of Law. We want the contents of our imagination taxonomied and classified, ordered and indexed, subject to rules and regulations. Gaps exist to be filled. Mysteries exist to be solved. Legends are just timelines that haven’t been formalized yet. Fantastic fiction becomes a code to crack.
It’s a depressing state of affairs, not least because it can be traced directly to one of the most generous and unfettered imaginations in all of literature, the same imagination that gave this column its title: the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien famously devised the entire history of Middle-earth and all the adventures that took place therein in order to give his imaginary alphabets and languages hands to be written with and voices to be spoken by. That he arrived at the single greatest act of world-building in fantasy history completely bass-ackwards should, one would think, serve as an instant warning light to fantasists who wish to put the cart before the horse, but you and I both know that hasn’t been the case. A rigorous and road-tested encyclopedia-salesman approach to creating new worlds and new images to fill them is viewed as inherently superior to one in which the power of images and ideas comes first. It’s like people really want to write a wiki, and have to come up with the pesky “moving, powerful, imaginative literature” stuff out of obligation.
This kind of thinking has been used to pummel the shit out of tons of worthwhile fantastic literature, and not just in prose. I think anyone can take issue with the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost for any number of reasons — well, maybe more Lost than BSG — but to me the most dispiriting cause for outrage among the fandom was “Magic?!?! BOOOOOOOO!” As if either show had ever made a secret of its respective brand of mysticism; as if the unexplained was now somehow a synonym with the unexamined or unthoughtful or unworthy.
Fantasy film, however, has dodged this bullet. Perhaps out of necessity: Until Peter Jackson and WETA proved it possible, the sheer scope and expense required to bring a world-building project like The Lord of the Rings to life was simply out of the genre’s reach in cinematic terms. Now that it’s possible, you can already start to see the worm turning, I’m afraid — in the vituperation directed at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s more fanciful or whimsical aspects; in turning Star Wars into geekpleasing content factory even on film (it’s been one in every other medium for years) where in the past it had always been the product and project of a single auteur, for better or for worse; in a Marvel movie universe that appears determined to leech the gonzo magic out of the House that Jack Built in a way that strong lead performances just can’t compensate for.
But for a while at least, in the ’80s in particular, film fantasy was nothing more or less than a riot of ideas and images too big and weird and primal to be contained elsewhere. Nowhere was this more true than in Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel The NeverEnding Story.
I led this piece with that list of quotes because, if you’re like me, every single one of them called up an image, an actor, a creature, an environment, as powerfully as if you’d seen it five minutes ago. Chances are you haven’t, though — I have not watched this film in…decades, maybe? But all of those lines linger, all of them move, all of them sting, all of them live. The Childlike Empress, the Rock-Biter, the Nothing, Falcor, Gmork, Atreyu, Bastian, the Oracle, Morla the Ancient One, Artax, the AURYN — none of these feel like they were peeled from a lengthy entry on the characteristics of a given species or race. They’re all singular, and because they’re all singular they suggest a world, a Fantasia, so vast and sprawling it’s actually a little frightening.
The NeverEnding Story counts on this fear, which is actually maybe better expressed as awe. Do you remember the chills you got as a child when Bastian screamed in alarm the moment Morla revealed his big old turtle self…and Morla and Atreyu heard him? This was probably the first time outside a Looney Tunes cartoon you’d seen a work of film narrative break the fourth wall (albeit a fourth wall within the larger world of the film, but whatever), and certainly the first time you’d seen it done with serious intent, and holy cow, wasn’t it the most thrilling thing ever? To think that a reader or viewer had the power to connect with so big and wild a world…Wasn’t the power invested in Bastian, the power to save a world that didn’t exist, almost too much to bear, for you as well as him? How do you feel when the Childlike Empress stares right at Bastian/you and pleads for you to call her name? Why don’t you do what you dream?
I submit that the drive to classify everything, to treat fantasy of whatever stripe as a code to be cracked rather than a story to be told and told and told, is, like the great black wolf-thing Gmork, a servant of the power behind the Nothing. It leaves you with a single grain of sand. Imagine that grain in your hand. The imaginations we need to rebuild Fantasia are wild and unafraid. We need Love, not Law. “The more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”