Fantasy Films 101.06 1984's "The Neverending Story"


Every role-playing game is a story within a story. You have your players, who control the actions of their characters, and then you have the characters themselves, some of whom can, properly developed, take on a life of their own. This is exactly what The Neverending Story is all about, which is why it's the subject of this week's look at fantasy films of the 1980s.

The Neverending Story, more properly known as "Die Unendliche Geschichte", is one of those odd films that just about everyone loves... except the guy most responsible for it. The movie is a truly unfaithful adaptation of the original novel by Michael Ende, which led Ende to all but completely disown it, refusing to allow his name to be placed in the opening credits. Yet despite the fact that the movie only covers the first half of the book, omits quite a lot of content, and changes the lead character of Bastian from a fat German boy to a disgustingly cute American (Barret Oliver), the film is a marvel in its own right. Shot on location in Germany, Spain and Vancouver, with amazing (for its time) special effects done by the finest technicians in the world, it's truly wonderful to look at.

The story begins as a 10-year-old boy by the unfortunate name of Bastian Balthazar Bux is busy wrestling with school bullies, boredom, and his mother's death (though if she's the one who named him, you have to think he'd have been glad to see her go). Ducking into a book store to avoid being pummeled, he steals a book so he'll have something to read at school. Who can blame him, what with science books still claiming man might land on the moon some day?

Though warned by the bookseller that this is a special, magical book, Bastion is determined to plunge in headfirst anyway, and he soon gets so enthralled in the story that he finds himself locked into the school after hours as he reads on, oblivious.

The story seems simple enough. A magical land of Fantasia is under assault from a force known only as The Nothing, and the only person who MIGHT be able to stop it, the Childlike Empress, (Tami Stronach), is stricken ill and powerless. The Fantasians scramble and choose a young hero named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) to quest for a way to heal the empress and the land.

Atreyu travels the land, meeting an assortment of odd individuals and creatures who gradually direct him closer and closer to those who might be able to give him the answers he seeks. There's a living mountain; some weird bird things; some Sphinxes with laser beams shooting out of their eyes (Dr. Evil would be in heaven); a big turtle-like Oracle with a cold; and of course Falkor the Flying Luck-Dragon, who could give Jar-Jar a run for his money as "most annoying sidekick of the century". (Falkor's voice is provided by Alan Oppenheimer, who's also done voicework for hundreds of cartoons, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Ghostbusters, Mighty Mouse, He-Man, the Wuzzles, Scooby-Doo, GoBots, Transformers, the Smurfs, Tom and Jerry, Speed Buggy and dozens of others, making Mr. Oppenhemier this film's biggest star.)

Atreyu eventually learns that the reason the Empress is sick is that she needs a new name, given by a human child. At which point Bastion becomes quite aware that the book is not just a book - it's as aware of his presence as he is of it, and he is not just reading the story but actually affecting it as he reads.

At this point, after Atreyu has done all the footwork and even lost his treasured horse in the journey, Bastion pops into the book himself in order to give the Empress his mother's name and save her life. In return for his service, she gives him the power of unlimited wishes. Bastion promptly wishes for a million gold pieces, 18/00 strength and a +5 vorpal sword.

No, actually, he spends his wishes on rebuilding Fantasia. Because it seems that The Nothing which was tearing the land apart was a sort of apathy. Fantasia exists on belief and imagination, and when people don't believe in it, it vanishes. Luckily, Bastion's imagination is enough to rebuild the land, resurrect Atreyu's horse and allow everyone to live happily ever after.

Being a story about a story-within-a-story, it's no surprise that this movie contains all the same key elements that we've seen before, with a few twists and surprises:

  • A young hero. Or, in this case, two heroes: Bastion and Atreyu. But are they really the same person? They feel each others' pain and fear, they can help each other out, and in essence they take the same journey together.
  • A damsel in distress. The Childlike Empress, in this case, is not the only one in trouble, however - her sickness is shared by the entire land around her, and if she kicks, so does all existence.
  • A motley band of companions. Everything from rock golems to dragons crops up at one point or another, usually just to direct Atreyu from point A to point B. Since they don't all accompany him, "companions" is a bit of a misnomer, but it fits all the same.
  • An ancient magical item. Atreyu (and later, Bastion) carry with them the Auryn, the Childlike Empress' golden snake amulet, which grants its wearer protection and lets the world know that he is her representative. It's definitely worth considering inclusion of an artifact like this in your own campaigns - it's not a sword, or a dagger, or a magic wand, it's a protective device, and that makes it more powerful and useful than all those magical weapons put together.
  • Unbeatable odds. The entire world is going to be destroyed, the only person who can save it is dying, and nobody knows what to do. It's a difficult task for any hero, much less one with a split personality.

Obviously, the key element that The Neverending Story lacks is an evil bad guy. The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (which is actually the second half of the aforementioned novel) adds in a wicked evil bad woman, but this first movie features no such embodiment of evil. In fact, even the creeping, ominous force known as The Nothing isn't properly evil - it's just nothingness, created by apathy, and that makes it even more difficult to defeat... and much easier to integrate into your own campaign.

Obviously, the whole "real world/fantasy world" split is bound to wreak havoc on your entire campaign, so it's probably not wise to actually pretend that your players can enter the fantasy world you've created for them. However, there are some key elements of this story which you can steal for use in your adventures:

  • Mysterious force threatens all. If it were a horde of goblins, it would be no sweat. Heck, even if a swarm of dragons were laying waste to the countryside, you just round up a few wizards and kender and you're all set. But when nobody knows exactly what the heck the strange dark force is, it's all but impossible to stop it. The only thing the characters will know for sure is that the force's progress is constant, and their world will be entirely engulfed in a short period of time. Which leads to point 2...
  • Tight Deadline. This isn't something the characters can carefully research. They've got to get moving, because the people they need to talk to in order to find a way to stop this horrible force are scattered all around the world. And unless they have magical means of transportation at their fingertips (which may be unlikely if the mysterious force has anti-magical properties), it will be difficult at best to get around rapidly. Which means that one of the best options is...
  • Splitting up the party. Using crystal balls or other means of communication across vast distances, the characters can share information from around the world as they discover new clues. Your wizards can remain in the library, researching spells and diving into ancient tomes, periodically keeping in touch with the bold rangers and barbarians scouring the countryside for the mysterious old lady on the mountain who might have the clue they need to move along to the next piece of...
  • The Puzzle. This is no hack-and-slash adventure. It's a puzzle that the characters must put together, one clue leading to the next, until finally, hopefully, they will discover: the magical words to the spell that will save the world; or the final ingredient for the magical potion that will stop the darkness from spreading; or the virgin elf maiden who can charm the last living unicorn to use its magical horn to stop the eternal night from falling; or whatever floats your boat. The best part is that you don't even have to have the puzzle figured out yourself when you start the characters along the road - you can simply add more pieces if you want the adventure to last for an entire campaign, or have just a few pieces to put together if you want a one-nighter.

Although the theme song (which actually entered the top 100 charts, albeit briefly) and the film's two sequels are best avoided like the plague, The Neverending Story is a definite must-view for any fan of fantasy film, and anyone looking for a great way to spice up a campaign that's fallen into the clutches of boredom and apathy.

Next week, the director of Blade Runner, Ferris Bueller's girlfriend, a top Gun and a Transylvanian transvestite get together to create what is perhaps the most popular unpopular fantasy film ever made - the legendary Legend.

Hey! That title song was actually a slimly charming if ineptly manipulative piece of 80s synth-fluff (and sung by Limahl from Kajagoogoo, no less).

That said, nice article. As a GM, I might even throw in a bit more of the meta-story aspect, with fun, paranoia-inducing hints that an invisible hand (who, if real, may or may not show up at some point) is guiding all....But that's just me.

Don't bother with the film, read the book instead.

Although this film is very good, the original novel by Michael Ende will provide much mor details. As for the film part II: don't even dare to watch it, it's horrible!!

Hey, does anybody know where I can find a replica of the auryn? I've been looking for a long time and all I found so far was a handmade one on ebay. If you know where I can find one please email me asap. Thank you

This movie RULES!! And the theme song...It's pretty darn good, and even refers to a scene from the book that wasn't in the movie! Anyway, visit my site at

I love Falkor and he is my favorite character. I dont think he is annoying at all. The NES is a wonderfull movie and book.

This movie rules more than any movie that has ever been made before or after...but i get the distinct impression that the person who wrote that review up there has no idea what theyre talking about - if indeed they even watched the movie, they seem more intent on being a comedian than telling it like it is anyway (comparing Falkor to Jar-Jar from Star Wars?? Idiot!) But most importantly, after reading the comment "Obviously, the key element that The Neverending Story lacks is an evil bad guy...this first movie features no such embodiment of evil" what IS obvious is that the reviewer must be completely braindead. I'm sure most of us who've actually seen the movie would consider GMORK (yes the big evil hairy snarling wolf-thing with bloody teeth and green eyes that works for The Nothing and who is constantly trying to kill Atreyu while scary music plays in the background) not so easily forgettable. Get the story straight! Or else get someone who will to write the reviews.

First of all, the comparison between Falkor and Jar-Jar is pretty apt as far as I'm concerned. You're free to disagree, but both have silly voices, big ears, are included mostly as comic relief and plot devices and serve little purpose other than to annoy me. Compare the two side by side and the resemblance becomes even clearer.

As for the lack fo an evil bad GUY, I was right on the money. There's no humanoid bad GUY. Most fantasy films have one. This one doesn't. It has a "wolf", albeit one that talks, instead. He's also not a truly relevant evil in the film, since he only shows up thrice, and even then only speaks once, where he has nine lines and is promptly killed by Atreyu. That's not a Darth Vader or a Goblin King, that's a stormtrooper. He moves the plot along by being a threat, a challenge, but he's not truly representative of the "evil king" that we typically see in fantasy films.

>He's also not a truly relevant evil in the film,
>since he only shows up thrice, and even then only
>speaks once, where he has nine lines and is
>promptly killed by Atreyu. That's not a Darth
>Vader or a Goblin King, that's a stormtrooper.

Or a Darth Maul, perhaps? >P Okay, so D.M. did actually manage to kill one of the heroes before biting it. OTOH, I don't think he even had nine lines.

As for most annoying sidekick of the century, the gargoyles from Disney's _Hunchback of Notre Dame_ beat Jar-Jar hands-down IMO. The only purpose they serve is to disguise a grim and mature animated film as a kiddie movie, and to rake in the merchandising bucks.

Btw, I'd really like to see your thoughts on Dragonslayer. There's no reason you have to limit yourself to one movie per year - you reviewed three from 1982, after all.

A film nagyon jó, szerintem a könyv mégjobb :-)
It means: The film is good, the book is better :-)

I think whoever wrote this review is stupid.First of all,Jar-Jar AND Falkor are AWESOME(NOT ANNOYING)!Secondly,ALL THREE MOVIES ARE AWESOME!Especially the second one! ;) The book is great too! Bye! And get a better reviewer.

Not a bad review, but I have one minor nitpick - I don't think Bastian gave the Empress his mother's name, unless she was born in the 1960's. According to the book (and just barely possible to make out in the movie if you listen REALLY carefully), Bastian names the Empress "Moon Child."

Although that could explain Bastian's name. *grin*

I also liked Falkor, but that's not a nitpick, that's a difference of opinion.

In response to this review and the other coments:
-You need a really big '80s mech to like the main title song, which I have, so I'm ok with it, though it's not a very big one on me.
-Never insult a dragon by comparing him to the bane of all the Star Wars movies. He's not near as anyoing as that twit who I hope dies in Ep. II. I really love Falkor. He's only a supporting character, and shown around the middle/end of the story, where as Jar-Jar came in very early.
-Ever read Poe? It's called "symbolism". The Nothing was eternal death and disbelief and Fantasia/Emperess Moonchild is the human fantasy and the inner child, being threatened by the Nothing. You can't really call it a bad guy, it an astral force that antagonizes by continuing its anti-existance. The wolf is like a mirror of Fenris, the wolf of Ragnarock that will swallow the sun. Putting an actual bad guy is commonly done, and not very creative. The Nothing is a great variation of things.

xcuse my awful english,
Micheal Ende was an Occultista, he knew Quabbalah and Magic. His world is dominated by a strong cabalistic view. The Auryn is an Oroburu, a symbol of Life\Death\Rebirth.
The movie is quite nice, but it's different from the masterpice - the book. Ende's Bastian is a boy that can't became a winner in our world: he's not good at sports, he's not good at school, he isn't handsome, he hasn't a happy family. Ende's BAstian finds into books his reason to goin'on. Bastian in the movie is a tipical American boy, a boy that can grow up changing his life. I feel him as a boy that could became a winner one, if he'll trust himself...
The Characters in the book are very diffrent, in the movie they are very similar to ones you'll find in every fantasy story. The movie is only a little piece of the Novel, and it is a very reassuring sweetened vision of Ende's masterpiece. A movie is different from a novel, ok, but I understand Ende when he refuse givin'his name to producers. The movie is full of American optimism, the book is full of philosophy!
and don't forget yourself, and think about consequences ok your actions, and love the world, and a lot of things that are n't so tastly for the great public!
You'll appreciate the movie only if you havn't read the book.
...and don't use it for a campaing in any roleplay...
You can use the first part, and your plot's adventure became similar to Atreyu's adventure, then, STOP...
Auryn in player's hand could change all the party in a power player party; unlimited wishes can erase all the limits of class and levels. A master can take a party composed by five clones!

there are ALWAYS gonna be people that love the film and people who hate it! then you get these people who have nothing better to do with their time, than criticize the film and compare it to the book or saying the actors are useless and they drone on and on, it's a freakin movie I'd love to see all those morons who moan and moan and don't have a life try and act, the effects may be weak, but the movie was made in 1984 duh! when technology wasn't so great. My favourite movie and the song is catchy too. Everyone I know, loves this film, Barrett Oliver is so cute! everyone comparing the film to the book, hey they tried their best, u try making a film or better yet don't watch it! oh and the person I think the name is Anoen Micheals or whatever ur name is, they hired an American kid so the film would be a hit and chill.

why do all these people have to compare Jja binks to Falcor the luck dragon? they are both similar and yet both different at the same time, just sit back and enjoy the film, the neverending story rules and it always will, it is very hard making a film from the book but in my opinion, they did very well, it's hard somtimes to capture wot we read about in a book and see in a movie, so all the idiots out there who really have nothing more to write about other than moaning and moaning about movies and how bad they are and they don't live up to the book, well I feel sorry for them! GET A LIFE NOW!

I dunno about you guys, but this happens to be my favorite film. Not only did Andrea (Believe me, I've tried and watched the film more than a hundred times, and I really can't make out the name "moonchild" - Bastian's yell was in three syllables - and the only way he could've said "moonchild" would be "moaaan-chaaayyyylll-daaaaa," which is, considering his pronunciation, still quite far) become part of my life, the film spoke about and underscored a very real concern plaguing not only the adolescents but most especially the adults - the giving up of their wishes, hopes, and dreams. I can understand the author's irritation with the film, but I must say that it (despite the deviation) helped a lot of children and people in the process. Deeply philosophical, and indeed voicing a grave concern, I believe The Neverending Story will achieve immortality. People, so many people and the world even, will benefit so much from watching this film. Wishes and Dreams are there to be realized, not broken, shattered, lost, or forgotten. :)