How Wolfgang Peterson’s Nightmare Became the Epitome of the 1980s

How Wolfgang Peterson’s Nightmare Became the Epitome of the 1980s

How Wolfgang Peterson’s Nightmare Became the Epitome of the 1980s

Noah Hathaway as Atreju with Falkor the Lucky Dragon - Alamy Stock Photo

Noah Hathaway as Atreju with Falkor the Lucky Dragon – Alamy

After three years of fiddling with submarines, Wolfgang Peterson wanted to catch his breath. “After Das Boot, it would be wonderful to step into a completely different world and do something that dealt more with children’s dreams and desires,” recalled the director, who passed away at the age of 81. “My son Daniel was 12 at the time and I just wanted to do something he could enjoy.”

The film he made for his son was The NeverEnding Story — a 1984 adaptation of Michael Ende’s cult fantasy novel, which deftly blended Tolkien, Nietzsche, and giant fluffy dragons that owed a little to Chinese legend and a lot to Andrex’s Whelp. It was by far the most expensive German film ever produced up to that point. And, true to his title, his creation story threatened to stretch to infinity – and banish the stressed-out Peterson to his own private Mordor.

The NeverEnding Story is best remembered today for its soaring theme song Limahl – a woozy banger introduced to a new generation when it introduced the Kate Bush style in the third season of Stranger Things. Haunting, a little cheesy, it’s the perfect curtain for Peterson’s film. The song is unique because, in addition to disappearing, as pop songs often do, it also “disappears”. That’s a themed wink to the film, a pre-teen fantasy set in a land of endless adventure and endless – “endless” if you will – possibilities.

The Neverending Story would never be made today. He garners influences from everywhere: Lord of the Rings, the Brothers Grimm, classical mythology – with a dash of existentialism on top. And, alongside Das Boot, it’s one of the defining projects brought to the screen by Peterson.

Our hero is bullying student Bastian (Barret Oliver) who, still mourning the loss of his mother, takes refuge in the school’s attic. He has brought a mysterious book given to him by a mysterious bookseller. Within the pages is the mystical realm of Fantasia, threatened by a storm of negative energy, The Nothingness. The earth is terminally ill, as is its ruler, the Child Empress.

Noah Hathaway as Atreya

Noah Hathaway as Atreya

Behind the corny music and high-concept fantasy was a darker story, however. The NeverEnding Story was a rare foray into the highly successful cinema of the German film industry. The German film industry was soon reminded of why it rarely made any forays into blockbuster cinema: the project staggered from disaster to disaster before half-staggering in theaters. Budgets soared. Peterson exceeded the scheduled shooting time by nine months.

Meanwhile, an eerily forgiving summer saw the team working at Bavaria Studios in Munich in hellish heat. “It was high-stakes, high-profile,” Peterson would remember. “Big deal – lots of money. You better be okay with your nerves. It’s easy to lose sleep over it.”

In 1984, Peterson was the brilliant young man of German cinema. His claustrophobic adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s Das Boot put him on Hollywood’s radar. He could have any job he wanted. Instead of leaving Germany for the brighter lights of Los Angeles, though, he decided to tackle Ende’s 1979 bestseller.

One reason was that he really loved the book. He wasn’t alone: ​​across Europe, The NeverEnding Story transformed former actor Ende into a proto-JK Rowling. His humble foster home in Rome became a pilgrimage site for fans and his public pronouncements were widely reported and analyzed by the press. The NeverEnding Story was also a bestseller in English, but on the mainland its success reached Harry Potter levels: it would sell around 15 million copies.

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

Pneumantics: the sphinxes less than PG

Pneumantics: the sphinxes less than PG

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

“There was a war between us,” Petersen later explained. “In the beginning, I tried to find a way to work together on the script. I flew to Rome several times 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 down with the producer and we read. It just didn’t match. Often, if you’re the writer of the book, it doesn’t mean you know how it might work in the movie. [As a director,] you have to find your own vision.”

There were other problems. In Time before CGI, the cornucopia of Fantasy monsters had to be created by hand. Over time, the Neverending Story would come to be seen as a masterpiece of practical effect. For the moment, however, it was a work of sheer and painful toil.

Falkor, the iconic lucky dragon, for example, stretched the length of a bus and required a team of nearly a dozen puppeteers, hiding on the floorboards in the stifling heat. There was also a giant Rock Biter that needed to be built by hand and two pneumatic sphinxes whose curves were a source of indignation for Ende (he felt the movie should be as chaste as the book).

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

Emotionally draining: Atreyu tries to save Artax

Emotionally draining: Atreyu tries to save Artax

Even before Hathaway’s injury, there were ups and downs with the kid squad. Peterson looked at 3,000 actresses before casting Tami Stronach as the Child 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 sci-fi fans for playing “Boxey” in the original Battlestar Galactica (stuffed with cheese).

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

“Noah Hathaway was a little boring, frankly,” special effects supervisor Brian Johnson later told SciFi Now. “It was very difficult for Wolfgang to get anything from him. Barret Oliver delivered all the time, he was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and he did Cocoon and a lot of other stuff.”

“[Noah Hathaway] I didn’t really care because he had an attitude,” is how Peterson put it. “But it was an attitude you could say was put there by your parents. They were making a lot of demands and were essentially trying to blackmail the production.”

Hathaway’s memories weren’t bright either. In addition to having his face cut, he suffered back injuries when his horse was startled and jumped a fence. The filming was also emotionally draining. In one of the darkest scenes in a children’s movie, Atreyu must embrace his beloved steed Artax as he dies of existential despair in the Swamps of Sorrow (leading to the urban myth that the horse died in the sticky swamp).

“It’s the strangest experience of my life,” Hathaway would later declare. “On the one hand, it’s some of the most wonderful parts of my life, and on the other, it’s part of the worst parts.”

Still, after 12 months and several lifetimes of toil, the film was finally completed. However, production problems were just beginning. Ende has now done his life’s work to prevent The Neverending Story from reaching the screen. He hated the look of the film. The curvy sphinxes were just the beginning: he thought, and in this he was not alone, that Falkor looked more like a giant dog than a mythical creature.

And he was shocked by the decision to cut 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 youthful strand. For kids, The NeverEnding Story is, ultimately, an unsettling read that becomes truly awkward the deeper you go.

All of this was thrown out the window by Peterson. Instead of Bastian going to Fantasia, Fantasia comes to him. The story ends, very cheesy, with the boy flying around his hometown on top of Falkor and chasing the bullies. A key plot point also involves Bastian screaming his dead mother’s name. It’s still hard to understand what he’s yelling: 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 she went to court to prevent the film’s release.

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

Das Boot

Das Boot

His legal case was overturned, however. In the summer of 1984, The NeverEnding Story was finally on its way to theaters. At that time, it received the blessing of none other than Steven Spielberg, who, as a favor to Peterson, re-edited the film for its American release. He reduced the running time by seven minutes and switched several scenes to gain momentum. With Spielberg in the editing suite, he moved quickly toward his 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 major international hit, earning $100 million internationally. As a bonus, the song also becomes a favorite. Both would eventually eclipse Ende’s novel – to the point where many fans don’t even know 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 couldn’t be too dark. You need a big, broad audience. It wasn’t a Disney movie, but we wanted to go in the direction of great family entertainment. Michael Ende didn’t like the idea at all.”

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