Anyone remember Labyrinth? Of course you do, how could anyone forget David Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth?
Labyrinth is a musical, fantasy film which came out in 1986. Jim Henson, George Lucas and Brian Froud were the main masterminds behind the production and many of the characters were played by puppets produced by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. A young Jennifer Connelly played the role of 15 year old Sarah, and David Bowie played the role of Jareth, The Goblin King. The story revolves around Sarah, who wishes away her infant brother, Toby, to Jareth the Goblin King. She then has to embark on a quest through Jareth’s magical Labyrinth in order to get Toby back. It’s a coming of age story with strong metaphors highlighting what is important in life and what isn’t, it also serves as a reminder that not everything is quite what it appears to be and that you shouldn’t always trust that everyone will be true to their word. It shows the true values of friendship and forgiveness, and it also plays heavily on the idea that life isn’t fair and it’s hard work, but with a bit of effort and determination, you can reach your goals in the end.
Labyrinth didn’t do very well at the box office when it was first released, but it has since gained a cult following and is often termed a cult-classic, but I’m not here to talk about the film, oh no, I’m here to talk about the book. Yes there was a book. The film was novelized by A. C. H. Smith in 1986, and unlike most films today, the film wasn’t based on the book, the book was based on the film. The book is currently out of print but I believe a paperback version is available for pre-order and will be released on the 21st February 2019.
I’m going to be talking about spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, then go and do that first before reading the rest of this blog.
So is the book any good? Yes and No.
Yes, in the sense that it is nearly 100% true to the film, minus the songs, so lines like ‘I move the stars for no one’ are absent. There is very little deviation in the text away from the film and you do get a little bit more explanation and backstory which does strengthen the characters. Or at least, it makes sense of some of the erratic behaviours of certain characters shown in the film. For instance, Sarah, in the film she is seen to be very over dramatic, to the point where people have said that the acting is bad, but in the book this actually makes perfect sense. As Sarah is in her room looking at photographs and pictures on her walls she shares her thoughts on her mother, a character we see only in recollection in the book and we never see in the film. Her mother is an actress and Sarah sees her sparingly from time to time, she recalls how they go out for fancy meals with her mother’s new partner and have lots of fun. Sarah imagines her mother to have a busy but luxurious and wonderful lifestyle as an actress, and Sarah’s dream is to become an actress too one day. Therefore, her over dramatic acting at the beginning of the film actually makes sense, she is practising in order to become an actress like her mother, but you would never know it unless you had actually read the book.
If you love the film Labyrinth and you wouldn’t change anything about it then you will love the book. Some of the text and descriptions are a bit overdone and unnecessary in places, but the story and dialogue is exactly the same as the film. The fight scenes drag a little bit in some places, but the resounding metaphors throughout the film are actually stronger and more obvious in the book. I could go into all of that, and maybe I will in a later blog, but for now, I really want to talk about how A. H. C. Smith could have written Labyrinth.
The main disappointment for me, and I don’t know how restricted Smith was, but Jareth’s character had no backstory whatsoever in the book or the film. Smith could have really gone to town here and fleshed out Jareth’s character, but for whatever reason, he didn’t or wasn’t allowed to. If I had been writing Labyrinth and had to remain true to the film but was granted some leeway, then I would have given Jareth more of a character arc. He doesn’t grow as a character, he has no internal conflict or problem to resolve. His character arc could have been Jareth beginning as a selfish and cruel Goblin King, but then gradually upon seeing Sarah’s determination and struggles, becoming a selfless and kind Goblin King instead.
It is hinted in the book that Jareth and his goblins stole Toby because that is what they do, and it is also hinted that Jareth needs Toby in order to retain his youthful looks somehow, this has echoes of ‘Changeling’ folklore, but this is never clarified in the book or the film. And I have more questions that I would have liked answers for too; What is Jareth? Is he a goblin? Is he some sort of fairy-lord? How did he become the Goblin King? These are all questions which could have had interesting backstories and they never get explored or answered.
Also, lines like ‘I move the stars for no one’, god it’s a great line but it is not in the book. I know Smith couldn’t possibly replicate the music scenes from the film in the book, but a lot of what Jareth says in the film is in song, so it would have been nice if more of it could have been worked into the book.
Characters such as Hoggle, Sir Didymus, Ludo and the Fiery’s, again have no real backstories either. They just happen to be there in Jareth’s kingdom, but there is no explanation as to why they are there or where they came from. Were they born in Jareth’s kingdom? What are they? Why can Ludo summon rocks magically at will? I know it isn’t really supposed to make sense and in some ways Labyrinth takes on an ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ type of vibe because it doesn’t appear to make sense, but there is some room here for more story and character development.
Sarah’s character is actually pretty good in the book, she begins as a naïve, childish teenager and grows to become a strong, determined, and wiser young woman. I guess the romantic in me would have loved if somehow Jareth and Sarah could have had some sort of romantic relationship, as part of Jareth’s character arc to becoming a selfless and kinder Goblin King. I think I understand why this wasn’t done, as film Jareth played by Bowie was a lot older than film Sarah played by Connelly. It would have been weird for them to have a romantic relationship and I almost wish Bowie had been twenty years younger when he had been cast to play Jareth. However, I do think that originally the idea of a romantic relationship between the characters wasn’t ruled out, as in the book Smith writes in the ballroom scene that Jareth tries to kiss Sarah and hints that if Sarah had kissed Jareth, then she would have become trapped in the bubble ballroom forever. In the film however, Jareth makes absolutely no move to kiss Sarah, it’s almost like the directors and producers realised it would be weird for a 39 year old Bowie to kiss a 15 year old Connelly.
So the age restrictions in the film cast probably did scupper the chances of any romantic relationship for the book characters, am I sad about it? A little bit, but I wouldn’t change it. David Bowie is a legend and without him and his music in the film, I believe the film would have never worked and it wouldn’t be so popular today. If the book had been written long before the film and any casting decisions though, it would have been interesting to see a romantic relationship grow between Sarah and Jareth’s characters.
The last thing is the prose. The Story is told in third person from multiple POV’s, mainly Sarah, sometimes Jareth and very occasionally Hoggle. There is some ‘telling’ as opposed to ‘showing’ which is a bit tiresome to read, and as I’ve mentioned before there are some unnecessary descriptions and several sentences which could be removed completely. The style of writing feels a little old fashioned, but that’s hardly a surprise since the book was written thirty two years ago. It’s nowhere near as difficult as reading some of the classic fiction out there, but if you’re not a die-hard fan then it will probably take a little bit of determination to get through. The fight scenes, particularly towards the end of the book go on for far too long and could easily be reduced. The underlying metaphors of growing up, working hard, being determined, not being naïve, being grateful for what you have, and discovering what is really important in life, are really well done in the book and I can’t fault Smith on any of that.
If Smith’s aim was to remain 100%, or nearly 100% true to the film then yes, he nailed it with this novelization. I would have liked to see some more character development and backstories, but I’m also a fan of the film, so I like the book as it is. If I was completely new to Labyrinth and the book had been done way before the film, then I probably would still enjoy it, but it wouldn’t be up there with my favourites. There are just too many good opportunities missed that Smith could have really gone for, and I think that’s a real shame. But hey, I still like it, and no one could have pulled off film Jareth like David Bowie did. If I was to give this book a goodreads star rating out of 5, it would get 3/5.