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.