Book Review | Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Novelization

Trigger warnings: domestic/child abuse, sexual assault/harassment

Full disclosure: I loved Labyrinth growing up. I went to see it again in the theater for its 30th anniversary, and found myself singing and saying every line quietly along with at least half the other audience members. It’s still one of my favorite films to this day.

And the official novelization…is awful.

In Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History, Brian Henson is quoted as saying that that in a market full of boys going on movie adventures, Jim was “very intrigued with the idea of a fantasy movie that has a little bit of scariness, with a girl lead who’s at that age where she wants to be respected and independent like an adult, but she actually is, in her heart, still a child.”

Jim Henson also said that “The movie is about a person at the point of changing from being a child to a woman. I think that’s a pretty magic time, right at that point. Times of transition are always magic […] And the film is about going through that little period of transition. You can’t really have a person grow up and mature over the course of an evening, or an hour-and-a-half movie, but it’s about one little element of maturing–and in Sarah’s case, taking responsibility for her own life.”

And Jareth is sort of a representation of all the things whirring in a teen girl’s mind at that point of transition. He’s seductive, alluring, dangerous. And his character design was deliberate, right down to the infamous tight pants:

…those pants are representative of that innocent girl’s imagination. We’re not looking at reality. We’re inside this girl’s head. Jareth has the tight pants because he is many, many things that a teenaged girl relates to. He is a rock star, and he is also a leather jacket guy–a classic ‘bad boy’–and he’s Heathcliff, and also a ballet dancer […] There are a lot of subtleties going on in there, but it was always this romantic figure I was after. He was never quite real. He’s an amalgam of the inner fantasies of this girl.

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History

And in the end, despite all that RAW ANIMAL MAGNETISM, Sarah makes the mature choice and walks away from Jareth. She grows up a little, but she knows she’s not ready for that step yet. And that’s okay.

But A. C. H. Smith’s novelization just hits wrong. It’s mostly a beat-for-beat retelling of the film, but twisted in several places in a way that’s weird and unnecessary. There’s not a whole lot of new information, but there are a few changes, and in all cases, it’s disturbing.

  • You find out that Sarah’s mother was physically abusive, slapping Sarah in fights, and then showing up with her boyfriend to love bomb Sarah before foisting her back on her dad and stepmother.
  • At the ball, Sarah gets groped by several people, with a bonus uncomfortable description of a masked reveler hitting on her while looking hungrily at her shoulders, breasts and legs. (How he saw any part of her legs in that ridiculous, glorious confection of a dress is anyone’s guess.)
  • Also at the ball, Jared is depicted as trying to kiss Sarah, which he never did, and then when she wakes up in the junkyard, she shames herself, thinking that if she’d really been innocent, she wouldn’t have been groped at the party. I honestly cannot believe that this book made it into the world with Sarah blaming herself for other people abusing her.
  • Then, when Sarah is in the junkyard and in her false bedroom, the junk lady is described as giving her a condescending litany of all the stuff she loved as a kid. But the woman in the movie wasn’t condescending. She was a little weird, for sure, but never in a way that mocked Sarah. Why would you mock someone you were trying to lull into never leaving? The trash woman was trying to entice Sarah with all the comforting things from her childhood so that Sarah would be trapped and become just another trash person shambling around the desolate landscape with what I always thought were the other people who’d failed to get through the labyrinth. This was never about making fun of Sarah–in the film, she’s clearly struggling with loving her old things, but knowing something’s not right. Knowing she has to move on from them, but dealing with the pain of how much that sucks. It’s here where she realizes that she’s letting the trappings of her past tie her down, and she’s ready to move on. Maybe not to the point of bedding the Goblin King, but certainly to take responsibility for her actions, win her brother back, and go home to do the rest of her growing up on her own terms.

The way I always saw the movie, and the way Jim Henson obviously did too, it’s about a girl coming of age and dealing with the uncertainty of being on that cusp between childhood and adulthood. In the movie it made sense, and it felt true to a teenage girl experience (minus the real-life David Bowie in tights, more’s the pity). But this novelization just makes a lot of the interactions feel icky, and it takes all of the charm and power away from Jareth and turns him into a petulant child who’s abusive and sort of rapey, and he stands in as a potential dream representation of Sarah’s mother’s boyfriend, which is in itself super problematic because it implies that Sarah has awakening sexual feelings for her mom’s boyfriend and that’s kind of gross.

I picked up the re-release of the novelization from 2021. It originally came out in 1986, as a tie-in with the film’s release. And listen–I don’t like it when authors and publishers and estates go back and change books from the past. They’re a piece of history. I would much rather see a disclaimer added to the beginning of new prints of the book, much like Disney has done at the start of some of their older movies, basically saying “there’s some racist, sexist, abusive, bigoted stuff in here, but instead of changing everything to hide it and pretend like it never happened, let’s have a conversation about why it happened, why it was wrong, why it matters and who it effects to this day.”

And in 2021, this book would NEVER have made it into print with some of the stuff in here.

But the really sad thing is that this came out when Jim Henson was still alive, which means he let this happen. It’s a bad, misogynistic translation of a movie that’s supposed to be all about a young girl finding her feet on the road to adulthood, and Smith completely stomps on that with victim blaming, condescension and sexual abuse.

The changes Smith made seem to say more about him and his views on women than anything else. But those views are problematic. They turn the nature and purpose of Sarah’s story into something it was never supposed to be, and it breaks my heart that the Henson estate allowed this novelization out into the world with some of the film’s content changed in the way Smith chose to change it.

Plus, to add insult to injury, more than half of the spoken lines are wrong.

Honestly, the best part about this book is the artwork that comes after the text. I will absolutely never read this book again, but I’ll keep it for the drawings and for the facsimile pages of Jim’s diary.

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