Book Review – Labyrinth By A.C.H. Smith

Title: Labyrinth
Author: 
A.C.H. Smith (story by Jim Henson and Dennis Lee, screenplay by Terry Jones)
Illustrator: Brian Froud
Format: 
Hardcover
Written: 
1985
Published: 2014

As a long time fan of the film, I was very happy the Labyrinth novelization was reprinted as hunting used book stores had proved fruitless.  The novelization sticks fairly close to the plot and dialogue of the film with enough changes to make me wonder if it was written based on an early version of the script rather than the completed film.  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, Labyrinth follows melodramatic fifteen-year-old Sarah who is discontent with her life and takes it out on her baby half-brother Toby by wishing him away.  To her dismay, the Goblin King Jareth from the book she’s reading (also called Labyrinth) does steal her brother away as she wished but refuses to simply give him back.  Instead Sarah has thirteen hours to make her way through the strange, shifting labyrinth populated by goblins and other fantastic creatures to save her brother.

While the film blurs the lines of reality to the point where it’s unclear whether Sarah has really been transported to another world or is simply having an elaborate dream/fantasy sequence, the book feels a tad more grounded in the fantastic.  Jareth’s motivations for kidnapping Toby are a little clearer and more ominous.  We’re given more backstory for Sarah and some hints at Jareth’s past, which make it harder to consider him purely a figure of her imagination.  However this world is densely packed with psychological and life metaphors, which make it a delightful reread (or repeat viewing) to catch all the nuances.

While Sarah starts out a bit whiny and self-centered in the film, she manages to start off even more petulant and cruel in the book.  I’m glad the film lacks her many jibes at Hoggle’s height, which were a bit uncomfortable and on the repetitive side.  But this is a coming of age story and transitioning from childish thinking to a more mature perspective is important to the story.

The book did impress me with how it dealt with the film’s musical numbers, focusing on the spirit and idea of the music rather than lazily reprinting the lyrics, which would have lost impact without the sound to go with them.  I think this approach worked much better for prose, particularly given the pop style of the music.

Labyrinth was YA before YA was cool.  While not crude, it does deal with themes of budding sexuality which make it a more appropriate to a teen audience than young children.  In some ways, the book is a little cleaner than the film, but in others, it’s more blatant about certain themes like desire and infidelity.  So YA but fairly tame on the YA scale.  And it’s certainly clever enough to entertain adult readers.

As a bonus, this hardback includes some previously unreleased sketches by Brian Froud, some notes on the creative origins of the film, and reprints of some of Jim Henson’s notebooks pages with early concept notes on it.  (For a writer, this is a bit like having your baby pictures shared with the general public, so I decided not to read them.  But a treat for dedicated fans and those interested in the creative process.)  Sadly, it’s not illustrated in the normal sense.  The story did not need illustrations but given the distinct visual nature of the film, they would have been fun.

Overall, I give it 5 stars.  There were a few changes that I wish had been done a little differently, but they were matters of preference rather than quality.

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