The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the earliest memories in my life is going to the movie theaters and seeing The Neverending Story. I remember walking into the mall theater with my mother and my cousin and sitting in the theater and being enchanted as Bastian discovers the book in the bookshop. That’s about the extent of my memory, but suffice it to say that the movie became one of my favorites along with Star Wars and The Dark Crystal as a child. I drove my mom nuts watching it over and over again. I vaguely remember seeing The Neverending Story II once and thinking that it wasn’t very good. I never saw Neverending Story III. Somehow Hollywood never seems to make sequels very well unless they were already preplanned that way.

It wasn’t really until I was an adult that I even realized that The Neverending Story was originally a book. Not just any book, but a German novel for children. Wow! There weren’t that many modern fiction novels that I knew of that were translated from another language, at least not at that time. These days there are more and more as publishing grasps at well-told stories.

Because I love the movie so much I was excited to purchase the book and read it. I wanted to know how different the book was from the movie and see how fantastic the imagination of Michael Ende actually was. Unfortunately it wasn’t until many year later that I bought the audiobook and listen to it. I was not disappointed.

The first thing that surprised me was the narration. The Neverending Story is told more in the traditional storyteller way, more like old English children’s stories like Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. There is a distinct “narrator” who is telling you what’s going on in the story. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have gotten through this novel as a child or young adult. I think maybe the narration would have sounded a bit too adult for me. As much as I love Lord of the Rings, I listened to those novels because I couldn’t bring myself to sit down long enough to actually read them. This book is along the same lines for me.

The world that Michael Ende creates is rich with vivid description and yet at the same time leaves a lot to your own imagination. He begins with his own vibrant descriptions filled with realistic and fantastical things and leaves the edges for you to fill in yourself. There’s a lot of inner struggle in the story and very little overt conflict in the grand scheme of things, which makes the story a little too introspective for our OCD society that desires action on every page. I often found myself thinking, “There’s a lot of ‘telling’ in this story and not a lot of ‘showing.’” But that was the writing patterns for the time. But I was enthralled by the adventure of the story so I didn’t mind. Perhaps it was my curiosity to see how close the movie came to reflecting the principles of the book that influenced that state of mind.

Initially I felt that the story should have been two books instead of one. The first 1/3 of the book encompasses Bastian’s introduction, Atreyu’s journey, and Bastian’s action of giving The Childlike Empress a new name. The next 2/3 of the book is all about Bastian’s transformation within Fantastica and his struggles to return to the human world. The latter 2/3 of the book seemed to be the strongest part of the story, it’s where Bastian grows the most and the true meaning of The Neverending Story is discovered and revealed.

Like the children in Chronicles of Narnia, Bastian goes through a major transformation through reading and becoming part of The Neverending Story. His development is subtle at the beginning; he is very reluctant to play his part fearing that he isn’t worthy. It takes him a long time to make that leap of faith into the hero’s journey, making the first 1/3 of the book a kind of like an extended Act 1. Once he decides to take the leap and consciously become part of The Neverending Story his growth skyrockets. At first the obvious changes he goes through are instantaneous and very selfish, he wishes to become everything he is not: good-looking, strong, courageous, fearless – just to name a few. Everything comes easy for him, which made the growth a bit stilted. His true, subtler growth came from his experiences and choices. He slowly learns the consequences of his wishes and actions, and he’s faced with making the choices of what’s really important to him. Being a human in Fantastica is all about finding your true “Self” and finding your truest wish.

In the end, I decided that my initial 2 book opinion was biased due to my love of The Neverending Story movie, which I thought did a surprisingly good job of summarizing Atreyu’s and Bastian’s struggles in a satisfying way. Every change that was made in the movie enhanced the action to propel the story forward for moviegoers and the last scene was completely fabricated. But who can begrudge a satisfying ending for a bullied kid in an 80’s movie?

In the end The Neverending Story is about helping you find who you truly are and loving that person.

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