Like most of my generation, I grew up watching the film adaptation of The Neverending Story. I watched it until it was seared into my memory — and probably into my mother’s — and wanted a trip to Fantastica and a Falkor of my very own. Somehow, though, I never read the book.
The other day I plucked it off the shelf on a whim. Sometimes when I read a book after seeing the film or television adaptation, I don’t visualise the adaptation at all, my mental landscape stays composed of my own original images. In this case, I had the characters and the lands from the film in mind, and I think I benefitted from that, because the Fantastica on the screen seems more alive than the Fantastica on the page.
The first half of the book corresponds to the first film, and it is definitely the most powerful part of the story. It has the resonance of fable wrapped up in a beautiful adventure. It’s about the importance of fantasy and imagination to the well-being of the human mind. It’s about the importance of courage, and the fact that bravery doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, that there are different ways to be brave. It’s about grief, and the ways we retreat from it. It’s about identity, about letting go of the old and not fearing the new, about the rebirth and renewal that usually, somehow, comes in the wake of a loss. And it’s about how those things are simple but not easy, and it trusts children to understand them without being heavy-handed.
On the strengths of that first half, I would gladly call it one of the best children’s books of all time. The second half, however, has important things to say too, but it goes about saying them in a much more muddled fashion. At its best, it’s a counterpoint to part one, the dark serpent to the first half’s light. It’s there to remind us that fantasy is there to give wings to who we really are, not to escape from ourselves, that the courage we’ve always dreamed of cannot really exist in the fearless. It’s there to remind us, when we recreate ourselves, not to lose ourselves. It’s there to remind us that grief is something we can come back from.
But it’s also hampered by a terribly plodding pace, a character who cannot be externally challenged by anything and takes too long to face up to the challenge going on inside. The loss of the dual narrative from the first part of the book is also a hindrance, because Bastian isn’t really likeable in this state — and no, he’s not meant to be — but the concurrent sidelining of Atreyu and Falkor leaves little in the way of protagonists to relate to for some pages at a time. If you reach the end of the book, you see how the two halves were meant to balance and complement each other, and how the second half strengthens and builds on the themes of the first. It’s just concerning that a lot of children might not get to that point because of the chapters where it commits the cardinal sin for a children’s book: Being boring.
For those of us feigning adulthood in our outward lives, however, it’s one of those stories that is just ageless and timeless, especially if you’re part of the generation for whom the film versions of these characters are so iconic. I think for younger readers this is the sort of book that would ideally be read to them by a parent, for its storybook tone and to help pass the plodding but not pointless second half in a more entertaining fashion, and so that the love of these memorable characters can be shared between generations.