The NeverEnding Story: how Wolfgang Peterson’s nightmare became the epitome of the 1980s

·9-min read
Noah Hathaway as Atreju with Falkor the Luck Dragon -  Alamy Stock Photo
Noah Hathaway as Atreju with Falkor the Luck Dragon - Alamy Stock Photo

After three years of mucking about in submarines, Wolfgang Peterson wanted to come up for air. “After 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,” recalled the director, who has passed away aged 81. “My son Daniel was 12 at the time and I just wanted to do something that he could enjoy.”

The film he made for his boy was The NeverEnding Story –a bells-and-whistles 1984 adaptation of the cult Michael Ende fantasy novel, which deftly blended Tolkien, Nietzsche and giant fluffy dragons that owed a little to Chinese legend and a lot to the Andrex puppy. It was by some distance the most expensive German movie ever produced to that point. And, true to its title, the tale of its making threatened to stretch on to infinity – and to banish the stressed Peterson to his own private Mordor.

The NeverEnding Story is best remembered today for its fluttering Limahl theme song – a woozy banger introduced to a new generation when it featured Kate Bush-style in season three of Stranger Things. Haunting, a little cheesy, it is the perfect curtain raiser to the Peterson movie. The tune is unique in that, in addition to fading out, as pop songs typically do, it also “fades in”. That’s a thematic wink towards the film, a preteen fantasy set in a land of infinite adventure and endless – “neverending” if you will – possibilities.

The NeverEnding Story would never get made today. It crams in influences from all over: Lord of the Rings, the Brothers Grimm, Classical mythology – with a sprinkling of existentialism on top. And, alongside Das Boot, it is one of the defining projects marshalled to the screen by Peterson.

Our hero is bullied schoolboy Bastian (Barret Oliver) who, still grieving over the loss of his mother, takes refuge in the school attic. He has brought along a mysterious book given to him by a mysterious bookseller Inside the pages lies the mystical realm of Fantasia, threatened by a stormfront of negative energy, The Nothing. The land is terminally ill, as is its ruler, the Childlike Empress.

Noah Hathaway as Atreya
Noah Hathaway as Atreya

Behind the syrupy music and high-concept fantasy lay a darker history, however. The NeverEnding Story was a rare foray into blockbuster cinema by the German movie industry. The German movie industry was soon reminded why it rarely made forays into blockbuster cinema: the project lurched from disaster to disaster before half-staggering into cinemas. Budgets ballooned. Peterson overran the scheduled shooting time by nine months.

Meanwhile, a freakishly clement summer saw the crew toiling at Munich’s Bavaria Studios in hellish heat. “It was high stakes, high profile,” Peterson would recall. “Big deal – big money. You better be okay with your nerves. It’s easy to lose sleep over this.”

In 1984, Peterson was German cinema’s bright young thing. His claustrophobic adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s Das Boot had put him on the Hollywood radar. He could have had whatever job he wanted. Rather than leave Germany for the brighter lights of Los Angeles, though, he decided to tackle Ende’s 1979 bestseller.

One reason was that he genuinely loved the book. He wasn’t alone: across Europe, The NeverEnding Story had turned former actor Ende into a proto-JK Rowling. His humble adopted home in Rome had become a place of pilgrimage for fans and his public pronouncements were widely reported and parsed by the press. The NeverEnding Story was also a bestseller in English, but on the Continent, its success reached Harry Potter levels: it would go on to sell an estimated 15 million copies.

Ende wasn’t opposed to an adaptation. And initially, he and Peterson seemed to get along. Yet it soon became clear to both sides that they had a very different vision as to what the movie should be. Warner Brothers had agreed to distribute The NeverEnding Story in America, and to contribute towards the $27 million budget (it was then the most expensive film ever filmed outside the United States or the Soviet Union).

Pnuemantic: the less-than-PG sphinxes
Pnuemantic: the less-than-PG sphinxes

Peterson didn’t want to make a Disney picture, but he understood that The NeverEnding Story had to have a mainstream appeal. Ende, however, saw it differently. What he had in mind was essentially a 1980s equivalent of the Harry Potter movies: a feature that would slavishly follow every beat of his novel.

“There was a war between us,” Petersen explained later. “At first I tried to find a way to work together on the script. I flew over and over to Rome to sit with him and his wife, working on ideas.

“He was writing something and I was writing something, back-and-forth and back-and-forth. I sat with the producer and we read it. It just didn’t go together. Very often, if you’re the writer of the book, it doesn’t mean that you know how it can work on film. [As a director,] you have to find your own vision.”

There were other problems. In the Time before CGI, Fantasia’s cornucopia of monsters had to be created by hand. With time the NeverEnding Story would come to be seen as a masterpiece of practical effects. In the moment, however, it was work of sheer, heartbreaking slog.

Falkor, the iconic luck dragon, for instance, stretched the length of a bus and required a team of nearly a dozen puppeteers, hiding in the floorboards in the sweltering heat. There was also a Rock Biter behemoth that had to be built by hand, and two pneumatic Sphinxes whose curves were a source of outrage for Ende (he felt the film should be as chaste as the book).

Scariest of all was the wolf Gmork, who at one point malfunctioned and slashed the film’s 12-year-old star, Noah Hathaway – playing boy warrior Atreyu – across the face.

Emotionally draining: Atreyu attempts to save Artax
Emotionally draining: Atreyu attempts to save Artax

Even before Hathaway’s injury, there had been ups-and-downs with the child cast. Peterson looked at 3,000 actresses before settling on Tami Stronach as the Childlike Empress, whose well-being is tied to that of Fantasia. For Bastian, he went with the equally little-known Barret Oliver. The biggest name was Hathaway, already famous among science fiction fans for playing “Boxey” in the original (cheese-slathered) Battlestar Galactica.

Peterson was a demanding director and would often require up to 40 takes for a scene. He nonetheless found Stronach and Oliver a joy to work with. Hathaway, with his Hollywood background, was more problematic.

“Noah Hathaway was a bit of a pain in the arse, frankly,” special effects supervisor Brian Johnson later told SciFi Now. “It was very difficult for Wolfgang to get anything out of him. Barret Oliver delivered all the time, he was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and he did Cocoon and a load of other things.”

“[Noah Hathaway] I didn’t care for so much because he had an attitude,” is how Peterson put it. “But it was an attitude that you could tell was put there by his parents. They were making so many demands and were essentially trying to blackmail the production.”

Hathaway’s memories weren’t glowing, either. In addition to having his face cut, he suffered back injuries when his horse took fright and jumped a fence. The shoot was also emotionally draining. In one of the darkest scenes ever to feature in a children’s movie, Atreyu must embrace his beloved steed Artax as it dies from existential despair in the Swamps of Sadness (prompting the urban myth that the horse perished in the gooey fen).

“It’s the weirdest experience of my life,” Hathaway would later state. “On one end, it’s some of the most wonderful parts of my life, and in another respect, it’s part of the worst parts.”

Still, after 12 months and several lifetimes of toil, the film was finally completed. Yet the production’s woes were only beginning. Ende had now made it his life’s work to prevent The NeverEnding Story from ever reaching the screen. He hated the look of the film. The curvaceous Sphinxes were merely the beginning: he thought, and in this, he was not alone, that Falkor more closely resembled a giant pooch than a mythical creature.

And he was appalled at the decision to lop his saga in half. In the novel, Bastian eventually travels to Fantasia – Fantasica in the book – and has a series of adventures, during which he begins to forget his true self. It’s a haunting twist, bringing a layer of psychological meditation to what is ostensibly a juvenile yarn. For children, The NeverEnding Story is ultimately an unsettling read, which turns truly strange the deeper you go.

All of that was chucked out the window by Peterson. Instead of Bastian going to Fantasia, Fantasia comes to him. The story concludes, very cheesily, with the boy flying around his home town atop Falkor and chasing the bullies. A key plot point also involves Bastian screaming the name of his dead mother. It’s still hard to make out what he’s shouting: the best guess is “Moonchild”. Who in 1980s America, had a mother named Moonchild? It doesn’t work, and Ende hated it. So much so that he went to court to block the film’s release.

“It was a novel that gave people an idea of the meaning of life,” said Herman Weigel, who wrote the screenplay with Peterson. “He [Ende] said, ‘You’re trying to do a Disney movie.’ He threatened to stop the release of the movie by injunction.”

Das Boot
Das Boot

His legal case was struck down, however. By the summer of 1984, The NeverEnding Story was finally on its way to cinemas. By that time it had received the blessing of no less a figure than Steven Spielberg, who, as a favour to Peterson, re-edited the movie for its American release. He trimmed the running time by seven minutes and swapped several scenes to build momentum. With Spielberg in the editing suite, it moved briskly towards its denouement.

With its bloated budget and difficult production, The NeverEnding Story could have been the end of Peterson – of which he was perfectly aware. It became a huge international hit, earning $100 million internationally. As a bonus, the song becomes a favourite too. Both would eventually eclipse Ende’s novel – to the point that many fans may not even be aware it’s adapted from the page.

“You have to make it more international for a worldwide audience. It’s a big, expensive thing to do,” Peterson later reflected. “You have to simplify things and cut characters.

“Also, the style of it could not be too dark. You need a big, wide audience. It was not a Disney movie, but we wanted to go in that direction of big-time family entertainment. Michael Ende didn’t like the idea at all.”