WHEN: 1:18 pm EST, June 22nd, 2013
WHERE: The living room of my apartment in Portland
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Not at all interested in watching this film. Again. I’m just killing time until my next meal.
The NeverEnding Story is a dark film. Lots of people die. Fantasia is being obliterated. Bastian’s life in the ordinary world is awful. Some unknown power is trying to control people by destroying dreams. Gloom and doom all around, folks. If you weren’t aware, I happen to have a BA in Psychology. This qualifies me to do nothing. I can’t officially diagnose people or hand out psychotropic medications. It’s a really dumb major to have without an advanced degree. However, my love of psychology qualifies me to have slightly more information than the general public and lazy people who don’t want to Google psych terms. In this viewing, I examined the somber themes and characters in The NeverEnding Story with an eye on mental health. Basically, I’m going to talk about depression because there’s plenty of it to go around in this film.
There, there. Just let it all out.
Before I delve into the morass of despair in this movie, let me explain how I’m going to “diagnose” characters. Psychologists, psychiatrists, clinicians, and others who get paid to provide services want to ensure they get paid for their efforts. In order to get money from insurance companies, a client must have a diagnosis, just like what a medical doctor would need. The compendium of mental health issues resides in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fifth Edition. Or DSM-5 for those hip to the mental health jargon. The tome was created by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s important for me to note that the DSM-5 was released in May of this year and that I purposefully waited to write this article because of the changes that have occurred in this new edition. There has been plenty of controversy about the DSM-5 and anyone who is or knows someone who is receiving mental health services should be familiar with the DSM, past and present.
Knowledge is power. Even if you’re crazy.
Bastian is a hotbed of possible diagnoses, so be prepared to hunker down. Perhaps the most obvious diagnosis is depression, specifically, a Major Depressive Episode. I could list everything myself, but check out this helpful chart which is from the DSM-IV-TR.
It’s a nice window into the world of mental health. Your doctor or whatever has this handy checklist and boom: labeled. For our purposes, though, it’s a pretty accurate description of Bastian’s current state. During his breakfast conversation with his father, we learn that Bastian has lost interest in his usual activities, he’s not sleeping well due to dreams about his mother, he’s unable to concentrate on homework, and one would not describe him as happy. The interesting thing about this diagnosis is what’s called the “Bereavement Exclusion.” Way down at the bottom, there’s a condition to this whole diagnosis saying that the death of a loved one should be considered Bereavement and not a Major Depressive Episode. Bastian (if his mother had died recently) would be said to be grieving and not at all depressed. However, in the more recent DSM-5, this has been removed. Which was a smart move by the APA, in my opinion. This means today, Bastian’s grief would be labeled as depression and he would qualify for additional services and get more support than just his father telling him to buck up and move on.
“Let this small gesture of affection sustain you through the entirety of your teen years.”
Now, let’s have some fun and make conjectures! If Bastian were to try to explain his experiences with The Neverending Story and Fantasia, depression would seem a small piece of his eventual diagnosis. He could be diagnosed with Bipolar II (which has changed in the DSM-5), Schizophrenia, or Schizoaffective Disorder. Any of these possibilities, including depression, all come with the addendum that any of the symptoms must also cause significant impairment to a person’s daily functioning. For example, most people have a natural cycle of feeling happy, then feeling not as happy as usual. This is not a cause for a bipolar diagnosis since these are not extreme ups and downs which affect one’s usual capacity to function in society. Bastian appears reasonably functional in the ordinary world, but that is not a reason to overlook any symptoms of depression. Major Depressive Disorder affects 11.2% of children according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Bastian’s depression serves a purpose to the overall plot of The NeverEnding Story. It is necessary for him to be in a vulnerable state in order for the audience to sympathize with him. Bastian’s depression also serves as an analogy for the state of Fantasia. People’s hopes and dreams are slowly being destroyed leaving nothing behind, killing the imagination.
In Fantasia, it seems that everyone is generally happy. Except that their world is being slowly consumed by the Nothing. So when Morla and a suicidal Rockbiter enter the narrative, their depressed attitudes are a stark contrast to the fantasy world. Morla resides in the Swamps of Sadness but never seems to sink. This suggests that she’s not sad at her current state, but content or, at the very least, neutral. The swamps are a physical manifestation of depression. Once sadness strikes it can pull you down without mercy. Artax succumbs and dies in the murky waters. As an adult (and someone in the mental health field), the metaphor for suicide cannot be overlooked. The swamps paint a dark picture of what can happen to those who lose hope and happiness. In this case, depression is the slow descent into an inevitable death.
Here are some adorable animals to help sustain you through the rest of this article.
Morla manages to remain afloat, but the previously jovial Rockbiter cannot cope with his loses. His attempt to save his little friends from the Nothing are futile. He resolves to sit and let the Nothing take him, too. Again, suicide makes an appearance. Unlike Artax, Rockbiter chooses to die. His grief is compelling enough and the inevitable destruction of Fantasia is close enough that he sees no reason to fight. Atreyu offers no words of encouragement. The end is nigh and you can die fighting or sitting. Rockbiter serves as an example of those who see no hope or possibility of escape from their situation.
Lastly, the Nothing, much like the Swamps of Sadness, is depression personified. The Nothing eats away at Fantasia, destroying the hopes and dreams of humanity. The result is a world of unthinking automatons easily controlled. The Nothing aims to insidiously consume the minds of the earth by making the possibility of imagining a better world or dreaming of happy times impossible. Once a person is under the influence of the Nothing they have no other option than to become an empty shell. Depression works the same way. As soon as the feelings hopelessness and helplessness creep into your brain, it’s a daily battle to even continue to exist. The fact that depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States means that it’s a condition familiar to or experienced by the majority of the population. The Nothing is a familiar beast whose presence in The NeverEnding Story is especially menacing. The Nothing, like depression, does not discriminate and is devastating.
Om nom nom nom.
The NeverEnding Story is full of unhappiness and incidents of depression and even suicide. However, it is despite all of this darkness that hope prevails. Bastian casts off his negative thinking and embraces the future. By making more wishes and having more singular experiences, Fantasia will grow more beautiful and Bastian will be able to return to the ordinary world. The analogy is obvious. A person mired in depression begins to make small steps towards positive thinking. The experiences compound upon one another until they are able to maintain a level of mental health where they can live their life without the constant presence of hopelessness. They return to the “ordinary” world. The NeverEnding Story on one level sends a message to children to read and to continue to imagine fabulous things. To those with more advanced thinking and experiences, the message is to be wary of negative thinking and to remember that hope is what sustains us.