I stare at the boxed faces of 60 traditional-aged college students. I speak to them about David Foster Wallace and Audre Lorde, urging them to pay attention to this precious, weird, fleeting time period, to determine how they will use their power—collective and individual—to improve the world. It is impossible to know if I am connecting to any of their hearts and minds or merely prattling into the Zoom void.
I am mindful of the real pressures and anxieties that young people feel. The sense that they do not have time or money to waste with exploring, dreaming, or creative play. I also recognize a flicker of futility at the corners of their eyes, the question of if they are participating in a dying, pointless ritual at the collapse of the world. And yet I urge them anyway to be open to changing their minds, to learning everything about themselves and the world that sparks their curiosity, and to take time to care for themselves. I urge them to not only recognize problems but to embrace the challenge of envisioning solutions to those problems.
It is impossible to know if I am connecting to any of their hearts and minds or merely prattling into the Zoom void.
Last week, I watched The Neverending Story for the first time in decades. In this 1984 movie, Bastion (Barrett Oliver), a young boy mourning his mother is hounded by both bullies and a distant, capitalist-minded, “walk it off” kind of dad (Gerald McRaney). Taking shelter in a bookstore, he steals a book from the crotchety bookseller after being told that the tome in question is not “safe.” Opting to read instead of attend classes (because priorities), Bastion learns about a force known as The Nothing consuming the land of Fantasia and also threatening the life of its Childlike Empress. He follows the adventures of the only hero who may be able to help, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a boy like and unlike himself.
The Neverending Story has issues, most notably the casting of a white child to play Atreyu who comes from “the people who hunt the purple buffalo,” clearly modeled on Native American peoples. It features a character inspired by Chinese culture, the luck dragon Falkor, voiced by white actor Alan Oppenheimer. It also invests in a white, male savior/hero narrative that’s so tired and tiresome it barely merits mentioning. And yet we shoulder on.
I noticed, as well, that The Neverending Story falls in with a cadre of stories from the 1980s and ’90s that glorify childhood over the realities of growing up. These include the more realistic The Breakfast Club (1985), where Allison (Ally Sheedy) declares, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” (I say more realistic because, let’s be honest, in reality there would be consequences for all the kids and the principle for what they do to that poor library.) And 1991’s Hook where a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has to connect to the child he used to be to save his own children. (Although arguing that Hook has anything near a coherent worldview would be a fool’s errand.)
People have argued that the domination of superheroes in the public imagination in the past decade+ represents the wish fulfillment of a generation (or at least the straight white men of that generation) rejecting adulthood and refusing to grow up. I see strengths and limitations with this argument and counter that perhaps the anti-adulthood, pro-prolonged childhood plots of the 1980s and ’90s shaped the worldview of those now making and consuming massive franchises originally intended for children from the MCU to Star Wars.
This cluster of films also includes Labyrinth (1986), wherein Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenage girl obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales, goes on a quest to save her kidnapped baby brother from the evil yet compelling Goblin King (David Bowie). However, Labyrinth takes a more nuanced approach to the ongoing childhood theme, with Sarah accepting the responsibility to care for family and friends but rejecting a patriarchal fantasy of female maturation.
In The Neverending Story human adults, as represented by Bastion’s father, have rejected imagination and stories in favor of being practical, responsible, and above all else productive. The Nothing represents the force that creates and then feeds on the despair of the story-less. Which is why the child Bastion must save Fantasia, and by association human thriving, through the embrace of fantasy.
Watching the movie with 2020 eyes made it easy to see The Nothing as a climate change metaphor. It looms over the story, first distant and then consuming everything in Fantasia. Its solution, to have a human child give the Childlike Empress a new name, may sound trite but it hinges on belief—Bastion’s belief that what he does matters, our collective belief that we can make a difference, that giving in to apocalypse is not the only option. To be clear, I don’t think the original creators meant The Nothing as a symbol for climate change but that’s the cool thing about stories: they grow and change with the readers and the watchers and the shape of world itself.
And the clarity of the metaphor combined with the solution—new stories, beautiful visions—as the antidote to despair and destruction is why I would like a Neverending Story remake. But I want one that takes the core structure but builds a more representative cast so that all of today’s young people have the potential to see themselves as part of world-saving solutions. I want a story that makes my students and all their counterparts feel open to possibility, curious about what could be, and resolved to doing their part in the great work that needs to be done.
Books that can help anyone, young or old, think differently about the climate crisis and how we respond to it:
- Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown
- A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, Sarah Jaquette Ray
- Future Earth, Eric Holthaus
- Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
- All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Katharine K. Wilkinson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.