Friday, September 2, 2016

The Neverending Story (Michael Ende)

The Neverending Story
Michael Ende
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Ten-year-old Bastian never meant to be a thief, let alone a runaway; he hasn't the courage, for one, and for another he'd never leave his father, grief-stricken as he still is from Bastian's mother's death. But the day he saw the old book in the bookstore where he hid from bullies, the old book bound in copper leather with the twin snakes entwined on the cover, he knows he has to read it. The one thing Bastian's always been good at is storytelling, and if this book - The Neverending Story - is true to its title, well, there can't possibly be a better book in all the world for a boy like him... even if becoming a thief means he'll have to hide out in his school's attic to keep from being thrown in jail.
In the endless world of Fantastica, a dark plague known as the Nothing spreads across the land, devouring everything and everyone it touches. When the people seek help from the Childlike Empress, they learn that she has fallen deathly ill, an illness possibly linked to the growing destruction... but there is hope. She has named a hero to act as her champion, seeking a cure for her condition and for the Nothing: a boy named Atreyu, from the Greenskin tribe of the Grassy Ocean.
As Bastian reads of Atreyu's adventure, he finds himself pulled into the tale in ways he didn't expect... but will he be able to return to the human world when the story is over, or is it truly neverending?

REVIEW: I'm old enough to remember (if dimly) seeing the 1984 movie based on this book in theaters. (I also remember seeing the sequel on VHS, but in the interest of preserving nostalgia we'll just pretend that little fiasco never happened, shall we? But I digress...) I recall it being a wondrous experience, full of imagery that set my young mind aglow, but until now I've never read the book it came from.
Having finished, I think I should've stuck to my memories of the movie.
This story starts with much the same sense of wonder as the film, an homage to the powers of a good story and the sheer limitless vistas of imagination, albeit with some stereotypes that haven't aged well (the stoic noble "Greenskin" savages of the plains who hunt the purple buffalo are a particularly glaring example here.) Everywhere are hints of tales yet to be told and marvels just beyond the horizon, both light and terrifying. Some elements were changed from page to screen, a few significantly, but for the first third or so it more or less tracks along the story I remember from the film, and does so with admirable imagination, if not necessarily the deepest characters. Then Bastian actually crosses into Fantastica... and things start to go downhill, imperceptibly at first but with increasing speed. I already knew he wasn't the brightest child with his overreaction to the book theft, but Bastian, it turns out, is a flat-out selfish jerk when it comes down to it, incredibly easy to manipulate and incapable of learning lessons until it's almost too late for him (and actually is too late for a significant portion of Fantastica). Why is he so obtuse and largely unlikable? I spent a while grinding my teeth trying to answer that, until the book itself becomes rather clear: this isn't actually a fantasy story, but an allegory, an embodiment of an inner journey and growth along the lines of Pilgrim's Progress or Narnia, though C. S. Lewis looks downright light-handed by comparison to Ende's mountain-sized hammer as he drives home Lesson after Lesson into Bastian's intentionally-thick cranium. The charm of Fantastica's many stories and sights rapidly grows thin when it becomes blatantly obvious that none of it really matters save how it can try (and, mostly, fail) to teach a spoiled rotten ten-year-old how to be a better person. Only two things spared this book a flat-out Bad rating by the end: the raw imagination of the earlier third-to-half of the book, and lingering nostalgia over the movie's influence on my childhood self... and even then, I had to stretch to justify even a flat Okay.
 If you've ever loved a book so much you wanted to fall into it, if you adore fantastic mind's-eye candy, and if you ever cried for Artax and cheered the masterful puppetry of Falkor, then there are parts of this book that are very much worth reading. The rest of it, much like those movie sequels, is best tucked into a dusty back corner of one's mind and quietly forgotten.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Storybound (Marissa Burt) - My Review
The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - My Review
The NeverEnding Story - Amazon DVD Link

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