“How You’ve Turned My World:” Growing Up in the Labyrinth –“Labyrinth” (1986) film analysis

A/N: I really, really enjoyed film studies.


In typical fantasy style, Labyrinth brings audiences to a world unknown to all but its inhabitants, the world of the Underground. Within the Underground exists the Goblin Kingdom, and of course, what kingdom is complete without a king? Jareth, the fae ruler of the goblins, would do anything for Sarah, beginning with an offer that he won’t let her refuse…

Labyrinth has multiple frames of reference for analysis; it boasts itself anything from the ultimate, dark romance to a family friendly adventure of epic proportions. While it’s been said that the movie is “ [f]or Goths, geeks, and Henson apologists only,” (Jensen), it’s developed a cult following over the years. Arguably, the film’s biggest frame of cultural reference is its purpose as a coming-of-age tale, or growing up story.

Does it strike any viewer as odd that many of the features present in the Underground are already present in Sarah’s room during the exposition of the film? It shouldn’t! The whole context of the story takes place in Sarah’s imagination, a feat made possible by Labyrinth’s genre classification. Labyrinth fits into the fantasy genre through its liberal (as liberal as Jareth’s love of glitter!) sprinklings of magic usage, mystical creatures, and whimsicality. While one may snidely remark at the incredible objectivity of Sarah’s imagination (events of which she has no knowledge occur in a world of her imagination, such as goblins changing the direction of her making arrows as she wanders through the labyrinth), the fantastic setting is necessary for the theme of the film to apply itself so beautifully; growing up is a difficult journey of self-discovery and to do so involves several requirements. Namely, one must let go of childish notions, impossible hopes, and relics of the past. Sarah must triumph over her childhood represented by a world of her own design—complete with a seductive adult villain—to ultimately grow from whiney teenager to mature, competent adult.

Jareth’s love for Sarah is evidenced when one watches the characters with acuity; David Bowie (Jareth) is the master of using facial expression to tell a story, as seen in the perfectly blocked ballroom dreamscape. A medium tracking shot follows Sarah as she forces her way through the rowdy fae party guests. The next shot cuts to Jareth as he allows himself to be swallowed by the rush of bodies. His expression, however, is anything but accepting. As Sarah rushes away, the longing look on his face says so clearly what his words have not; he loves young Sarah, and the sound in the sequence which plays in the ballroom and is sung in Bowie’s (Jareth’s) voice coveys another message—“I will be there for you, he says, as the world falls down.” (Labyrinth)

Undoubtedly, Sarah creates Jareth with her words, and herself initiates his obvious infatuation with her. “But what no one knew,” she narrates to Toby in the film’s exposition, “is that the goblin king had fallen in love with the girl [Sarah].” That she created him is evident during their confrontation in the M.C. Escher room, as Jareth points out that he has been only that which she required. “Generous! What have you done that’s generous?” Sarah asks. (Labyrinth) “Everything! Everything that you wanted I have done,” Jareth insists:

 “You asked that the child be taken; I took him. You cowered before me; 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?” (Labyrinth)

Sarah’s subconscious knew that she needed a villain to face on this journey to adulthood, but what of this villain?

Jareth is an embodiment of Sarah’s childhood longings, and these longings are her dreams (as elaborated upon in various pieces of additional Labyrinth media). This embodiment she must face down takes the form of a frankly seductive man, a clearly more adult longing, yet even her adult urges are marked by noticeable childhood whimsy. Jareth is attractive, seductive, and powerful, but he is also a flashy, glittery, fae. He is a king who wants to make Sarah his queen, a typical fairytale, and even uses the poison fruit trope (think Snow White’s poisoned apple) to achieve his ends when he drugs a peach to force Sarah into a dreamscape. At one point, Jareth even threatens to turn Hoggle into a Prince (abet of Stench, and out of jealousy) if Sarah ever kisses him, which besides its threat alludes to Hoggle as being the frog in a certain classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Additionally, he practically sweats glitter (a gust of which bursts through the window with him at their first introduction)! In creating a villain, Sarah’s subconscious wars with itself as to what should be the villain’s nature.

Whilst fighting her way through Jareth’s labyrinth to retrieve her baby brother, Sarah confronts many a frustration. A repeated motif of the film is the protagonist’s penchant for saying, “It’s not fair!” As a child, one thinks that the world ought to be fair and that by making its lack of fairness known, the issue will be corrected. It’s a childish thing to say, “But that’s not fair!” Children have said it of bed times, house rules, homework, and all manner of topics for decades, and it’s one of Sarah’s favorite phrases. She says it to Karen about watching Toby. She says it to Jim and Tim the riddle doors, who agree with her and laugh. Finally she says it to Jareth about his labyrinth rules, who having been watching her aptly remarks, “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.” (Labyrinth) Sarah has to come to a realization about the world before she stops using her favorite phrase, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to the viewer when we find her on the opposite end of the line some time later. When Hoggle cries, “It’s not fair!” as Sarah holds his jewels hostage until he agrees to help her through the labyrinth, Sarah, in a sudden moment of realization remarks, “No, it isn’t. But that’s the way it is.” (Labyrinth) Once Sarah learns that the unfairness of the world isn’t something that can be rectified and to accept what life throws her way, she matures, and part of her battle to grow up—part of her battle against Jareth—is won. The solving of the labyrinth becomes both easier in some instances and harder in others with the accompaniment of Hoggle (e.g. easier when he saves her from the Fireys and harder when he drugs her with the peach).

The second lesson Sarah needs learn on the road to adulthood is this; holding onto things of the past will weigh you down. Just after Sarah awakens from her Jareth-induced enchanted sleep, she finds herself in a sort of junkyard inhabited by the strangest little creatures called Junk Ladies. Junk Ladies carry what they deem valuable with them on their backs. We carry important life events and the memories of people with us in our hearts, just as people involved even distantly with Labyrinth carried it’s momentous influence with them. (David Bowie’s son, Duncan, found that his time on set actually made him want to be a director.) (Hoffman) Yet, the Junk Ladies clutter themselves under small mountains of unimportant items. Sarah is introduced to the inside of a hut looking not unlike her bedroom, in which she finds herself being piled upon by all her childhood items. “Don’t you like your toys?” (Labyrinth) a Junk Lady asks. These mementos of the past are a distraction from her future, a distraction from saving Toby. Sarah shakes herself free of these burdens, saying, “It’s all junk!” (Labyrinth) She recognizes the lesson and breaks free of the Junk Ladies only to be reunited with Ludo and Sir Didymus. They get back on their way to the castle.

Sarah’s final lesson is learned at a cost to herself. She gives up her fairytale fantasies by forsaking the love of Jareth that she might retrieve Toby. Their confrontation begins in the M.C. Escher room, where a sulky and intense Jareth startles Sarah with impossible feats of defying gravity, some of which are filmed using Dutch tilts and worm’s-eye-views to create a feeling of magical unease.

The sound in the scene is haunting; unlike the song in the dreamscape, Jareth himself sings Bowie’s composed, “Within You” of Sarah in near mourning. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you; I move the stars for no one!” (Labyrinth) he insists, and yet he has done just that by messing with time, and all for Sarah. “Live without your sunrise,” he sings, “Love without your heartbeat…” as he realizes, “I… I can’t live within you.” (Labyrinth) Sarah has decided to forsake him, and he knows this, yet he makes one final attempt to sway her. Why would he think he has a chance after seeing her determination?

The Neverland desire is strong, and growing up is hard. The embodiment of Sarah’s childhood longings delivers false promises. Whereas maturing requires real effort and responsibility, childhood promises safety and happiness simply by the virtue of being a child. This element of temptation we all face on the road to adulthood, from our first brushes with teenage independence to the young adult life post-college. Jareth capitalizes on her insecurities during their final confrontation in the Underground. “I ask for so little,” he says, in contrast to the demands of maturity, “Just let me rule you and you can have everything that you want.” (Labyrinth) All her childish dreams of Toby being gone, or her mother coming home… Sarah rises to the occasion beautifully, defying Jareth who is very nearly begging. “You have no power over me,” she says. (Labyrinth)

Sarah forgoes her childish whimsy without denying her longings, acknowledging that everyone must grow up. When Jareth tells her to forget her brother and give in, “I can’t,” she says, “Don’t you understand that I can’t?” (Labyrinth) She cannot, in essence, let him rule her. She cannot be ruled by the past, and the secret to her happiness lies not in childhood’s fantasies, but in growing up as she should. The teenage years are some of the toughest to navigate, and the angst and confusion during them is second to perhaps no other period in life. But the happiness of childhood innocence can be recaptured in new ways as one grows into who they were meant to be. It is as the Wiseman says, “Going forward is sometimes the way back.” (Labyrinth)

Though it has been mentioned that Jareth’s expression of love in the dreamscape preludes the revelations of their later conversation in the castle’s M. C. Escher room, the lyrics of the song “As The World Falls Down” have a much deeper meaning as well. Jareth—again, representing childhood longings which much be realized as impossible—will always be there for Sarah when she is at the end of her rope. This revelation is reflected at the end of the film when Sarah tells her labyrinth friends in the mirror that, sometimes, for no reason at all, she will need them (they too as aspects of the labyrinth—and initially her bedroom—representing her childhood), to which Hoggle responds, “Oh, you do? Well, why didn’t you say so?” (Labyrinth). The shot pans to show Sarah in the midst of her friends, and shorty after we see an owl, Jareth, flying from the window; he’s there too. While moving forward is natural, difficult, and necessary for her eventual happiness—while accepting that the world isn’t always fair and leaving her childish toys, her past, behind her must be done—Sarah, like all of us, understands a deeper moral. She isn’t truly sacrificing her childhood for maturity; the whimsical memories will always be there to welcome her home, when she needs them.

Works Cited

Jensen, Jeff. “According To Jim.” Entertainment Weekly 949/950 (2007): 120. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Hoffman, Claire. “Space Oddity Jr.” Rolling Stone 1080 (2009): 78. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Labyrinth. Dir. George Henson. Perf. David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Tri-Star Pictures, 1986. Film.

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