Michael Ende, author of The Neverending Story, loathed Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 film adaptation of his novel so much that he sued for damages and tried to have the film scrapped. It’s a shame, really, that the film didn’t cling more tightly to Ende’s original brilliant concepts.
That being said, however, an entire generation of 80’s kids knows about the story primarily because of the film—and the strains of its quintessentially 80’s soundtrack are sure to evoke nostalgia. So regardless of how we were first introduced to Bastian, Atreyu, Artax and Falkor, however, I’d posit that we’re better for it as a generation. It’s a healthy story, and it’s got tremendous relevance for today’s kids. Here are 5 reasons why every kid—and former kid—should read* it:
1. It affirms the imagination.
Arguably, the entire point of The Neverending Story is that our imaginations are relevant, important, and necessary. As “The Nothing” devours Fantastica, we learn that it's the product of dwindling human dreams and fantasies: a sort of meteorological nihilism. The terrifying Gmork sums it up nicely in an unsettling discussion with Atreyu, making it clear that there are some very dark forces at work ("the Manipulators") who seek the ruin of mankind by the death of our collective innocence, something Ende implies is rooted in imagination, hopes, and dreams. Kids need to know that their imaginations are more than distractions. Kids need to have their dreams, hopes, and interior wanderings affirmed as valuable and productive—even if they don’t count as quantifiable knowledge or marketable commodities. Kids need to know that it isn't all just Nothing. Sadly, in an era when suicide is a leading cause of death among kids, it seems there must really be something to the idea of the Nothing.
2. It’s a genuine celebration of diversity.
This is not a bow to political correctness, which is sometimes less about actually appreciating diversity than about the use of patronizing platitudes as substitutes for real engagement. On the other hand, the novel emphasizes (and I’d argue, fosters) a truly authentic appreciation of diversity that goes beyond clichés about tolerating differences and not offending anyone. The story is fundamentally rooted in the vital importance of conversion, change, and the richness that comes from immersing oneself in the unknown with people (and creatures) who are different from us. Only by embracing the unfamiliar and taking risks can Bastian himself grow and develop; indeed, only by a willing departure from the familiar is Fantastica renewed and rebuilt.
3. It’s a unique concept in storytelling.
Sadly, mass-market paperbacks can’t reproduce the original two-color interior print (red and green) that graced the original production. Instead, they fall back on a workable but inadequate substitute: the use of italics. But get a kid a higher-grade printing of the book, and he or she will discover a beautiful, full color foray into a unique form of storytelling that embraces duality at every turn. Even in black and white, the duality is, of course, still striking. In fact, the ouroboros symbol of “AURYN,” which decorates the cover, is all about duality and the cyclical interdependence of diverse but co-dependent ideas, elements and characters. What a great invitation to kids to immerse themselves in the realm of imagination!
4. It’s a rich, accessible allegory.
“The Tortise and the Hare” is my go-to example of allegory: a story that uses symbolism to convey a thematic message. The Neverending Story is a feast of symbolic riches. It’s nearly impossible to list the figurative interpretations of various characters, locations, and actions. The point is, though, that just about every kid who’s over the age of eight or nine will be able to delve deep into at least some these symbols, varied as they are. Somewhere in there, there’s something for every kid to relate to. And it’s accessible in the sense that the writing, while sophisticated, maintains a clarity and simplicity that won’t nudge out less-than-stellar middle-school readers.
5. It’s simultaneously challenging but hopeful.
This one’s vital, and so I’ve saved it for last. I don’t think I truly understood why this is so important until later in life, but I know that it’s part of why I appreciated this story so much as a kid. I couldn’t have explained it then, but I’m pretty sure I sensed it the way kids can sense things: The Neverending Story is a blunt, challenging portrayal of childhood free of the sappy, patronizing baloney that belittles the depth and complexity of kids in so many books and movies. However, it manages, despite this, to provide a clear and unequivocal message of hope in an era when so many kids abandon it at far too young an age. Maybe the authenticity of this hopeful message is enhanced by the fact that it isn’t laced with cuteness. There’s some hard, ugly stuff about life in the story. It doesn’t pull any punches. I think kids of a certain age really appreciate that. I think they crave it.
So, there you go. If you’ve never seen the movie or read the book, I recommend you do both. Or, if you did a long time ago, consider picking it up again. And then, if there’s a kid in your life in middle school or high school, pass the story along. It’s more relevant than ever.
*And they should probably see the movie, if only as a path to solidarity with their parents’ generation and a fuller appreciation of the wonder that is the synthesized 80’s soundtrack.