Nothing Can Really Be Something: Reading into THE NEVERENDING STORY
3 June 3012
What is nothing?
It’s a word we use almost every day in countless contexts, and an idea we understand. Yet, it is a very difficult thing to define. One possible definition of nothing is nonexistence. And, when considering the use of nothing in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1984), nonexistence works. The Nothing in the film erases Fantasia, and can easily be interpreted as depression; in fact, the film describes The Nothing as the loss of hope and emptiness, common ways to verbalize depression. Bastian (Barret Oliver), the boy from the film, suffers the death of his mother, isolates himself from his friends and family, and becomes engrossed in a storybook about the end of dreams. Thus, it sounds highly plausible The (insidious) Nothing in The Neverending Story represents depression, and the narrative’s quest to defeat The Nothing is the battle to overcome depression.
However, nonexistence is not the only way to define nothing, and even though depression is a clear part of The Nothing in the film it is not the only way to interpret the mysterious lack consuming Fantasia. Another way to define nothing is something or someone with no significance or importance. Very often children feel they have no significance or importance in the adult-run world. In fact, it is common in children’s film that the child protagonist rebels against a world that looks down on their inexperienced youth by gaining the power of an adult to deal with the film’s conflict. Moreover, children’s films often confront growing up, that inevitable moment when the child leaves the magic of youth behind for adolescence and ultimately adulthood.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (Judy Garland) originally feels belittled by her oppressed status as child in an adult world; an adult takes her dog away and her aunt and uncle side with this adult, ignoring Dorothy’s protests, because this woman is their equal, unlike their young niece. However, after a mighty storm hits Kansas, Dorothy must find her way back home from a foreign land with nothing but a kind heart and small picnic basket for help; she, a child, is on her own. Along the way, she must care for the helpless Toto, rescue strangers in peril, and defeat an evil witch. Dorothy goes from helpless, insignificant child in her Kansas home life, to important heroine in Oz.
Typically in a children’s film the child realizes the importance of their untutored self, and that becomes his/her greatest strength. Returning to Oz, Dorothy’s fairness and unbiased personality are what help build the relationships she makes in Oz, and those relationships, along with her blind courage, are ultimately what get her through every obstacle and back to Kansas.
If this latter definition of nothing—something or someone unimportant and insignificant—is applied to The Neverending Story, The Nothing may represent the eradication of the insignificant. Put another way, The Nothing is the force that wipes out childhood; once childhood is gone, individuals grow up and the magic, mystery, and fantasy of youth are lost forever. Once The Nothing hits Fantasia the magic and adventure are destroyed. Thus, beyond depression, The Neverending Story is also a coming of age tale that confronts the inevitability of growing up and the loss that comes along with transitioning from child to adult.
This idea that The Nothing is the end of childhood is supported when the film asserts Atreyu as the only one who can stop The Nothing. Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a child, comes to The Ivory Tower to accept his mission and is initially ridiculed by Fantasia’s creatures for his youthful age. These creatures cannot imagine a child saving Fantasia from The Nothing; yet, the Empress (Tami Stronach), who is also a child, decrees Atreyu is the only one. Fantasia is full of imagination, wonder, magic, and fantasy, the things a child sees everywhere, but an adult loses sight of. Thus, only a child can preserve Fantasia because only a child can truly appreciate it.
In opposition with Atreyu and the Empress, The Ancient Ones in the film help The Nothing by refusing to assist Atreyu. By calling them The Ancient Ones the film asserts they are old; they are the film’s take on an adult presence in Fantasia. They welcome The Nothing because they don’t have any more to lose; they are grown and have already lost the fantasy and magic Fantasia offers. This is further evident by The Ancient One’s homes, which are desolate and dark. Their environment is nothing like the mystical jungles and radiant Ivory Tower of Fantasia. The Ancient Ones cannot see the magic in Fantasia, and, as a result, they live in a barren place. Moreover, these Ancient Ones, who are colorless, act condescendingly toward Atreyu, as adults often do to children.
Additionally, some of the lines in the film push a reading The Nothing may mean the end of childhood. One such line states, “The Nothing grows stronger every day,” which ties into the Empress and Atreyu’s ripening age; as they are inching closer and closer to adulthood The Nothing grows stronger.
Also, although Atreyu is the child who can stop The Nothing, another child, Bastian, is also necessary to The Nothing’s defeat. In order to confront growing up, a child must realize what’s important about being a child, which means seeing their significance and importance in the world; that importance comes from the child’s ability to believe and thus see, as opposed to see and therefore believe. This is a lesson Bastian learns in the film, and eventually the realization that allows him to blur the line between fantasy and reality.
By the end of the film Fantaisa is destroyed by The Nothing, which is an unavoidable fate, as children always grow up. However, a lesson taught in the film is pieces of childhood, like the floating pieces of Fantasia, will always carry on.
Ultimately, as true with most children’s film, Petersen’s The Neverending Story is complex. Without question, one intentional purpose of the film is to face depression, specifically childhood depression. However, it is not the only topic the film confronts. The end of childhood is another idea the film tackles, which reminds children that even when The Nothing takes over, the “ivory towers” of our childhood still remain and should be cherished.