In 1980 Michael Ende and his publishers signed a contract with a young producer for the movie rights to The Neverending Story. The producer had previously visited Ende in Genzano, and both parties had agreed on a clear vision for the film - soft, poetic and full of the magic of the story. In short, a very European film. When news of the planned movie hit the press, Ende received protest letters from readers young and old. Some of the letters were bitterly reproachful in tone, and Ende took the opportunity of justifying his decision in interviews and published letters. In his view, film was an artistic medium, and movies could be works of art.
It wasn’t until much further down the line that he discovered the movies rights had been sold on at a substantial profit to a bigger production company, Neue Constantin.
Despite Ende’s reservations, Bernd Eichinger, movie producer at Neue Constantin, managed to appease the author and allay his fears. Ende was aware that filming the novel would not be easy, and he worried about how images conjured in the mind’s eye could be converted into pictures on the screen. ‘As I see it, there’s a real danger that the hidden heart of the story - the part that affects people the most - will be lost amid a host of striking but superficial images. […] That’s what we must take care to avoid. We have to preserve the essence of the story, and that’s a job for the director.’ Despite his reservations and relative inexperience (he never considered himself to be a movie expert and knew he was entering unfamiliar territory) he took the fateful decision to give Eichinger his consent. As a precaution, he stipulated that the choice of director, lead actor and set designer would be dependant on his approval. He also agreed to act as a consultant to the production company so the film would conform to his vision of the book. At the time Michael Ende was happy with the arrangement and believed his involvement with the project to be ‘enormously positive’.
Initially Bernd Eichinger went to great lengths to involve Michael Ende in the filmmaking process. Together the two men travelled to Los Angeles to visit George Lukas’s special effects workshop and discuss the technical options for portraying Ende’s imaginary creatures on screen. Ende and Eichinger seemed to share a common vision for the film: ‘We want to make something different to the other fantasy movies out there. We’re aiming for a European fantasy film that will show the world how we Europeans do things.’ Once Ende had given the project his seal of approval, things took a turn for the worse. On 18th February 1983 Ende received a call from art director Ul de Rico, who asked him whether he was happy with the new screenplay. It was the first Ende had heard of it. The original screenplay had been written in collaboration with Wolfgang Petersen - a task that Ende had conducted somewhat reluctantly and with serious reservations. The screenplay had evidently failed to meet with Eichinger’s approval, and the producer had commissioned an alternative version from another writer. Ende was never consulted.
Michael Ende was horrified by the new screenplay. In his view, it missed the point of his novel, turning it into a comic-strip. He instructed his editor to send a fax to Neue Constantin, demanding the reversion of the rights. His publishers counselled against it and organized an emergency meeting with Eichinger. On 10th March 1983 the two parties gathered around the table at K. Thienemanns Verlag: Michael Ende, Hansjörg Weitbrecht, Gunter Ehni and their lawyer on one side, and Bernd Eichinger and his legal consultants on the other. Michael Ende did everything in his power to call a halt to the production, but Eichinger threatened to sue him if he reneged on the rights. Without his own lawyer, Ende could only follow the recommendations of K. Thienemanns’ solicitor, who advised him that Eichinger had a case. Simple economics dictated that Ende back down. A document was drawn up which barred the author and his publishers from obstructing the production or influencing its reception in any way. Michael Ende retained the right to withdraw his name from the movie if the preview failed to meet with his approval.