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How THE NEVERENDING STORY Tackles Our Realest Childhood Fears

How THE NEVERENDING STORY Tackles Our Realest Childhood Fears

Especially for children, entertainment a platform to explore the possibilities of their flexible imaginations when their reality fails to show them what sort of impact they are capable of making. Though not traditionally a horror trope, the absence of that outlet is terribly frightening. It’s precisely this threat that makes The NeverEnding Story a remarkable and enduring film about the importance of the imagination as a refuge from loneliness, and a salve for the pains inflicted by the real world.

First and foremost, the movie serves as a reminder of how unforgiving and indifferent the world can be to children. Bastian (Barret Oliver) is dealing with unimaginable tragedy—the recent loss of his mother—and the only advice his dad (Gerald McRaney) offers is, “Stop daydreaming, and start facing your problems.” But his dad doesn’t have to deal with surprise math tests or three local bullies who gleefully throw him in a dumpster. Bastian’s only escape from the crushing disappointment of daily life is the books he reads, from Tarzan to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So when he stumbles across a local book dealer who hints that the tome he’s holding has a magical narrative, Bastian makes off with it under his sweater (though he leaves a note insisting he’ll return it). What Bastian soon learns is that the book literally induces empathy for its protagonist, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), while challenging him to shape and even change the story simply by reading it.

Notwithstanding its pure fantasy elements, The NeverEnding Story’s most compelling aspect is the empowering nature of fiction, especially for young people with limited everyday experiences. Despite Mr. Bux’s suggestion that Bastian pull his head out of the clouds, the young character is doing much more than escaping his emotional traumas. In reading, he’s discovering what he may become if he does dream big enough, and on a more practical scale, he’s learning how these fictional characters cope with adversity… even if he doesn’t recognize all this. In fact, especially when he doesn’t! Atreyu faces down one challenge after the next, each providing a different sort of confrontation with himself and his self-worth, and Bastian witnesses and absorbs the fictional character’s fortitude, intelligence, and resilience.

The story’s main adversary, The Nothing, is a supernatural black emptiness that threatens to consume Fantasia, the world within the book. It’s the same intangible force that took Bastian’s mother from him and clouds his father’s ability to connect meaningfully with him: the absence of imagination and empathy. From existential to visceral—there’s also The Nothing’s physical, wolflike counterpart Gmork—the film offers a barrage of terrors for children to face, but they all operate to remind children to care about the world around them and not become consumed by feelings that are temporary. The book becomes a safe, instructional place for Bastian to explore his own fears about loss as everyone else seems to look on with indifference. As he defeats enemies alongside Atreyu, Bastian is learning to overcome and cope with anxieties and trauma.

That the movie does not allow Bastian to bring his mother back, even with its bully-chasing ending with Falcor in the real world, feels especially meaningful; there are some events we can never change, and from which we can never fully recover. But by the film’s conclusion, he’s endured a devastating fictional loss, overcome insurmountable odds, and looked in the mirror to see himself for what he is: a dreamer. He sees what it’s like to lose everything, and how you can choose to rebuild, move forward, and not succumb to the numbing detachment of growing up.

Slyly, the movie injects itself with a brilliant bit of meta-storytelling, hinting that just as Bastian has affected the outcome of the story he was reading, audiences who see the film can affect change as well. All of which is why The NeverEnding Story remains such a classic. In exploring how to conquer fears both explicit and metaphorical, the film reminds audiences they already have those same tools: creativity and compassion.

Images: Warner Bros.

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