Why Michael Ende′s ′The Neverending Story′ is cult | Books | DW | 31.08.2019
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Why Michael Ende's 'The Neverending Story' is cult

You hear the title, you hear the song — the one recently revisited on "Stranger Things." But before the 1980s hit film, there was Michael Ende's bestselling book, published 40 years ago. Here's why it's still a classic.

The film The NeverEnding Story remains a 1980s classic that's regularly revisited in pop culture. Most recently, during the season finale of the Netflix nostalgia-filled series Stranger Things, Dustin and his girlfriend Suzie sing the film's theme song.

But before the popular film was released in theaters and the original pop song hit the charts, there was the book. The Neverending Story, by German author Michael Ende, was published 40 years ago, on September 1, 1979.

Screenshot Google Doodle Neverending Story (google.com)

Google also celebrated a previous anniversary of the book with a special Doodle in 2016

Ende crafted a world weaving fantasy and reality together through the story of a lonesome boy named Bastian Balthazar Bux. Bullied and overweight, the young bibliophile loses himself in a novel of that's also titled The Neverending Story, which he has stolen from a bookstore. While reading it, he discovers that he, too, exists in the narrative.

Fantasy worlds: A book-within-a-book 

Bastian discovers a plot involving a childlike empress who rules the land of Fantastica. An evil force, The Nothing, imperils her universe. The empress calls upon the young warrior Atreyu to help save her and Fantastica.

In his adventures, Atreyu encounters otherworldly creatures like Rockbiter, the villainous Gmork and the flying luck dragon Falkor, who resembles a giant hound, and who becomes a companion to both Atreyu and Bastian later on.

Book cover, Michael Ende Neverending Story (Puffin Books )

One of the covers of the book

In order to save Fantastica, a human child must give the empress a new name — and this is how Bastian is called to actually enter the fantastical universe himself.

By color coding the text, Ende made it clear in the novel when the story unfolds in reality (red font) and in Fantastica (green font). The illustrations included on the pages combine both red and green lines to show that Fantastica and Bastian's real-life world intertwine. Certain moments also underscore this crossover relationship: Atreyu hears Bastian scream, for instance, and he sees Bastian's image in a mirror.

Following the publication of The Neverending Story, the book won acclaim throughout Europe. Its utopian and environmentalist message appealed to West German anti-nuclear and peace activists, and the novel was seen as way more than a children's book. Various critical interpretations analyzed its meaning. 

Ende, who died in 1995, refused to provide an answer to that question. The popular author of other classics of children's literature, including his books Momo and Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver, said that every good interpretation was right.

Autor Michael Ende und Blacky Fuchsberger (picture-alliance/United Archives/Impress)

Michael Ende (1929-1995) is one of the most popular and famous German authors of the 20th century

After an initial print run of 20,000 copies, The Neverending Story stayed at the top of bestsellers' charts for years. The award-winning bookwas translated into over 40 languages, selling millions of copies worldwide. The English translation by Ralph Manheim reached the United States in 1983, and the film came out a year later.

The hit film

German director  Wolfgang Petersen, who was known at the time for the war film Das Boot, was looking for new material for his next project. "When this [The Neverending Story] came along I had the feeling, 'Oh my god, after three years of working on Das Boot it would be wonderful to completely go into a different world and do something that deals more with the dreams and wishes of kids,'" he told the website Nerdist.

Although Ende initially had a role in co-writing the screenplay with Peterson, their visions clashed over time. The script deviated from the book, and Ende was crushed knowing his story would be changed in a number of ways. He called the film a "gigantic melodrama of kitsch, commerce, plush and plastic," and was unhappy with it to the point that he sued the movie studio — but he didn't win the case.

The German production was Petersen's first English-language film; he would go on to direct Hollywood epics including Troy (2004) and Poseidon (2006). Released in 1984, The NeverEnding Story was the most expensive film ever produced in Germany at the time; the incredible box office results that followed made the ambitious investment worthwhile.

Most of the film was shot on location at Bavaria Studios outside Munich, minus a few scenes in Vancouver, Canada, and San Jose, Almeria in Spain. Today, it's still possible to visit Bavaria Filmstadt, where fans can "ride" on Falkor. 

Bavaria Filmstadt in münchen (picture-alliance/H. Pfarrhofer)

Bastian riding Falkor is an iconic scene of the film: Fans get to reproduce it with a blue screen at Bavaria Filmstadt

Drawing on the first film's success, there were also two sequels. The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter picks up where its predecessor finishes and is only roughly drawn from the second part of the book. The third installment, The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia follows a new story line that has nothing to do with the book.    

An iconic song

The theme song for Petersen's film was written by Giorgio Moroder, aka the "Father of Disco," with lyrics by Keith Forsey. English musician Christopher "Limahl" Hamill, formerly of the band Kajagoogoo, and Beth Anderson performed the vocals.

With its dream-like synthesizers, the song perfectly reflected the feel of the film's fantasy world. For many fans, the single was the only thing to hear over and over to remind themselves of the movie — until it came out on VHS.

Many bands have covered the song since it hit the charts in 1984, but the recent Stranger Things version updated interest in the tune.

Rhino Records, the original song's official record company, republished the video on YouTube in July following the season finale of the TV series. That clip has been watched nearly 2.5 million times on their channel; a previously available version of the video has also collected over 44.5 million views.

When Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown launched the #NeverEndingChallenge, it went viral and was even picked up by two rival Tonight Show hosts, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert.

As a nod to the film's title, the original song has no hard intro or conclusion. It fades in at the beginning and fades out at the end like it's "never ending." Similarly, Michael Ende's story will also continue to live on forever in the minds of those who have read the book, watched the film and listened to the music.

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