“Where Everything Seems Possible and Nothing Is What it Seems”: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and a YA Fantasy Author
“I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”
I was only a toddler when Jim Henson’s Labyrinth first hit theaters, so I know I wasn’t anywhere near the first person to become enamored with the movie. Based on its box-office-failure-turned-cult-hit status, I don’t think a lot of people who call themselves fans were. I know my sister liked it and showed it to me on VHS, and I was definitely a fan by 6th grade because I remember goofing off with a friend before and after a class (okay, and maybe just a bit during…), whispering quotes from the film—“‘Ello! Come inside and have a cup of tea!”—to one another while drawing doodles of the characters from the film. (No, the drawings below are not from that time. My art skills have not at all improved.)
I remember my sister and I liked blasting the soundtrack on a boom box on hot summer days while playing outside—the (mostly David Bowie) music is part of the appeal, and I (seriously) try to listen to the soundtrack at least once a day even now.
So why the obsession with a decades-old movie, one that even those involved with the production admit wound up a bit of a mishmash of several different visions for the project, never quite pinpointing its theme between “an adolescent girl grows up,” “life’s not fair” and “let’s watch goblin Muppets get funky”? The answer to that would be this guy:
(From when I had way too much on my hands time a few years ago.)
Or more accurately, this guy:
Jareth the Goblin King (played by David Bowie in a rad ‘80s wig very few could pull off). The antagonist of Labyrinth. Or the love interest. Or something… It was hard on a pre-pubescent girl to really figure him out. After maybe Aladdin and Michelangelo from TMNT (don’t ask), Jareth was my first fictional crush. And if you’ve seen the movie, you might feel the same—or know that’s not necessarily a good thing.
My Film Recap for Those Unfamiliar with the Movie
Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), a gorgeous 15-year-old girl, is having difficulty coming to grips with growing up. She adores the fantastical and has an incredible imagination. And like her absent professional actress mother, she lives for the theater. Sarah’s “stage” is just a park, her “audience” her dog, but that doesn’t matter. Sarah’s lost in her own world, a fact that her stepmother is only too anxious to point out when she implies that Sarah has no friends and no interest in boys.
One evening, Sarah has an especially childish meltdown when her father and stepmother force her to babysit her baby half-brother, Toby. Her irritation is magnified when the crying baby won’t shut up. (Sarah did just steal a teddy bear from his crib, but her excuse was that it was hers and he didn’t have permission to play with it… Even if he’s only one year old.) Quoting what we presume is lines from her favorite play (*wink wink, it’s called Labyrinth*), she makes a grand speech asking for a “goblin king” to take her brother away so she can have some peace. She doesn’t seem to notice that actual Muppet goblins show up and listen closely, ready to snatch the baby if only they hear “the right words.” Well, much to their disappointment, they don’t. At least not when Sarah’s quoting play lines. When she does accidentally utter, “I wish the Goblin King would come and take you away. Right now,” the spell is cast and with a flourish, an owl enters the nursery and transforms into a handsome man named Jareth.
From then on, the film is a competition between Jareth and Sarah for possession of Toby. (Because, duh, Sarah regrets her words as soon as she says them.) Sarah must beat the clock and make her way to Jareth’s castle at the center of an elaborate labyrinth. Oh, and Jareth cheats and the other creatures living in his kingdom don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “fair.” Of course, it doesn’t help that stubborn Sarah taunts Jareth at every turn, making him even more eager to play dirty. (Uh, that’s not intended as a double entendre, but it’s not that far off the mark even so.) Jareth’s interest in Toby—he does intend to adopt him as an heir at first and seems to think he’s a cute little kid, but maybe he just plans to turn him into an ugly goblin for all we know—is secondary to his strange obsession with Sarah. As the movie progresses, he lets out more and more of his true intention, an odd juxtaposition of the desire to rule over Sarah’s heart and to break free of the enslavement he feels she has over him.
She was like 14 and he was in his 30s when they filmed this, by the way…
Jareth’s Byronic Nature
Let me take a time out here to say that my best friend is absolutely tired of me mentioning the term “Byronic hero.” But I’m a little obsessed with that fictional trope. (Although if I knew a guy who acted like that in real life, I’d want to slug him. So score 1 for my real life taste in men being healthier than my fictional taste at least.) And it’s all thanks to Jareth.
Seriously. I did an informal poll among my friends and every single one who gravitates toward the three-dimensional villain as her favorite character loved Labyrinth growing up. And my other friends who think we’re all bizarre for our taste in fictional men didn’t even see the movie. So who are some of my favorite characters from other franchises? Magneto. Snape. Darth Vader. Loki. All bad guys/jerks who whine and have maybe a little *smidgen* of good in them. Oh, Jim Henson, did you know you were going to form some strangely unhealthy habits in young women? (He wasn’t the first. “Byronic” heroes get that name from Lord Byron, and I’d go on to love Darcy, Mr. Rochester and a whole score of classic fictional figures with the same personality. But I wasn’t reading those stories when I was in elementary school.)
So back to the quote at the beginning: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.” Wow. That makes no sense. Yet somehow it’s incredibly sexy. When Jareth claims that he’s been generous to Sarah and she asks him how on earth he’s been generous (remember she just fought her way through a crazy unfair labyrinth to get there), he replies:
“Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that child be taken, I took him. You cowered before me and I was frightening. I have reordered time, I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous?”
That actually… kind of makes sense. But only because Jareth has a very twisted “I’m doing the right thing in my eyes” point of view, like any good villain.
I think Sarah liked him more in these images than she did in the movie…
It’s no surprise that Sarah doesn’t take Jareth up on his offer to stay with him and be his ruler/slave, much to the disappointment of many fans who insist that they would never be so stupid as to turn down Jareth themselves. But the movie’s supposed to be about Sarah learning to balance creativity and child-like imagination with growing up and responsibility. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence, particularly if you read the recently-back-in-print official novel adaptation of the movie, that Jareth and all the world of the labyrinth is entirely Sarah’s fantasy. Consider the lyrics of “Within You.” Or the fact that the novel explains that Sarah’s mother ran off with a fellow actor named Jeremy. And look at Sarah’s room in the beginning of the movie. There are pictures of Sarah’s mother with a handsome, clean-cut… David Bowie. That’s Jeremy, explains the book. Perhaps Sarah had a bit of a crush on her mother’s lover and created Jareth based on him. So Sarah can’t really hook up with her imagination, can she? But the line between Sarah’s fantasy and the power of that fantasy to break through to the real world is nevertheless blurred.
If the film were about a 15-year-old throwing herself at a hunky immortal (?) despot just because he loves her so, so much—and let’s not forget Jareth doesn’t quite understand that love isn’t about ruling one another, but co-existing—I have a feeling the parents who took their kids to see the dancing Muppets in the movie would leave the theater with their mouths gaping open.
Even stick-figure Jareth needs a stick-figure Sarah
These days, the film has reached cult status and is more popular with adults than children, mostly because of Jareth (and perhaps the infamous “bulge”), so “what the parents think” is largely moot. But still, even in the sequel, Sarah is her own person and not just the throw-yourself-at-Jareth-already Mary Sue fans want her to be. But I love her for that. I admit I liked Twilight, but I love the ladies who fight back against their Byronic heroes (à la Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or more recently in YA, Alina vs. the Darkling in the Grisha series) and can function well even when apart from their lovers much more than the ones who immediately become as obsessed with their Byronic men as they are with them.
She’s just not that into you…
A Few Words About the Sequel:
There’s a sequel in which Sarah still pushes Jareth away? Yes, now-defunct American manga publisher TokyoPop published a four-volume OEL (original English language) manga called Return to Labyrinth from 2006 to 2010. The series was supposed to be three volumes, but high demand and good sales extended the series to four, much to the fans’ delight. Luckily, the entire tale was told before TokyoPop went under. Volumes are out-of-print, though.
The covers, which feature artwork from Japanese mangaka Shurei Kouyu, are gorgeous. The inside artwork, by otherwise talented North American (?) artist Chris Lie… Not so much. At least at first. (An over-the-top screentone job by another artist in the beginning doesn’t help either.) Lie actually always demonstrates a remarkable talent for drawing the Henson goblin creations and the world of the labyrinth. But his jarring take on the “manga style” for human characters leaves a lot to be desired. Thankfully, Lie listened to feedback and his manga style improves over subsequent volumes. It seems he becomes less boxed in by “manga style” (complete with blocky mouths and sweatdrops) and just draws people with slightly larger eyes than the typical art style requires—and it works, for the most part. (I still wish they could have afforded to have Shurei draw the art inside, though!)
Writer Jake T. Forbes originally intended his series to focus largely on now-teenage Toby’s literal return to the labyrinth—and that shows in the first volume. Perhaps because Labyrinth has a different sort of appeal to a (straight) man, I imagine it didn’t really occur to him what the majority of Labyrinth fans would be looking for in the sequel. But those fans let him know after reading the first Toby-centric volume: More Jareth! Way more Jareth! Way, way, way more Jareth, please! And focus on his relationship with me, er, I mean, Sarah!
So Forbes delivered and somehow merged his intentions with Toby and his original additions to the story into a series with a heavier focus on Jareth and Sarah as well quite admirably. As far as THE ONLY EXTRA LABYRINTH we fans seem poised to get, it works. (Archaia Entertainment has the rights now to all Labyrinth comics and releases short issues featuring only the Henson puppet characters most Free Comic Book Days, but they’ve yet to produce a promised Jareth-centric graphic novel—possibly due to likeness licensing issues. They re-released the novelization, though.)
What’s the Point of All This Again?
So why did I just write a dissertation (*slight* exaggeration) about a movie from 1986? Why did I embarrassingly let my (bad) taste in fictional men come to the forefront? Because it influenced so much about me, especially my writing career.
When I sat down to write Nobody’s Goddess (Patchwork Press), I wanted to write my own Byronic hero—and a heroine who could stand toe-to-toe with him. I wanted to show the strange sexiness of obsession and juxtapose it with the very “ick” feeling that kind of obsession should give a smart, free-thinking young woman. Jareth’s influence shines through in many subtle ways when it comes to the village lord in my novel. But even when I stop focusing so much on romance in my writing, I’m still fascinated by villainy, and villains who aren’t boring stereotypes.
So here’s to the Goblin King, my first ever Byronic hero!