One of the most widely debated issues surrounding Labyrinth is the ‘reality’ of the film’s fantasy world. Is it a creation of Sarah’s mind, or an independent land that she is pulled into on account of her wish? The film is far from clear.
While certain clues – Sarah’s obsession with fantasy stories and, more persuasively, the toys in her room that resemble the creatures she meets in the Labyrinth – suggest it is a wild flight of fancy, other details contradict such an interpretation. Hours pass on the clock at Sarah’s home while she is away on her adventure – Sarah magically moves from her parents’ bedroom to the downstairs hall – the ring and bracelet Sarah left in the Labyrinth remain missing.
The most compelling argument for the ‘reality’ of the Labyrinth itself can be built around the character of Jareth and his portrayal. He is the first character from the fantastic realm we see in reality, as he watches Sarah in the form of an owl in the first moments of the film. He appears in this shape again when he comes to meet her after she makes her wish, and for a third and final time when he is banished after she defeats him. This blurring of the man and the bird is reinforced by the film’s climatic depiction of Jareth – he is chalk-faced and covered by a cloak of feathers.
Jareth is a particularly interesting villain because the film actively constructs him as an emotional, independent being with agency and motivations separate from Sarah’s own. While he is depicted as a gleeful antagonist in the first part of the film, care is taken to chart the progression of his emotions – the viewer follows him as his confidence slips, replaced by growing concern and anxiety. His strange, increasingly desperate attempts to throw Sarah off course – he alternately attempts to romance her and place her in perilous situations – only add to his interest as a character.
His independence is a particular point of emphasis during the ballroom scene. The attention is split between Sarah and Jareth but we see the former almost as Jareth sees her, disorientated as she wanders through the crowds; we see Jareth himself as a mischievous but appealing figure, initially revelling in Sarah’s distress but later softening and drawing her into the dance. When Sarah breaks away from him, the film-makers made a point of showing a close-up of Jareth’s shock and distress.
These choices encourage the audience to engage with Jareth and even empathize with him, shifting the focus from Sarah and briefly establishing Jareth as a figure of sympathy.
While the film undoubtedly charts Sarah’s – literal and figurative – journey, it also follows equally seismic changes in Jareth. We see him lose his strength and power gradually, and by the end of the film he is a broken, somehow diminished creature. While Sarah is stoical and unfeeling in their final scene, Jareth is pale and drawn, desperate and grasping. Because the film takes care to construct him as a character in his own right, his fall provokes sympathy. By creating such an attachment between the character and the audience, the film gives Jareth – and, by extension, his world – depth and presence.
While this has given the film longevity – if fans did not believe in the world the film presents and feel inspired by it, they would not write novel-length sequels – it also detracts from what ought to be the film’s main point of interest, namely Sarah’s quest to rescue her brother. By constructing Jareth as an attractive and, to an extent, sympathetic character, some of the empathy we should be concentrating on Sarah is transferred to the being she is trying to overcome.
This is paradoxically the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness – while Jareth is often cited as a fan favourite he is appealing at Sarah’s expense. Sarah is a wonderful character in her own right: clever, resilient and determined. If the film had a clearer focus on Sarah’s journey and presented her as the true heart of the film, I have no doubt that those who consider her ‘stupid’ and ‘bratty’ would find her admirable.
Those are my thoughts on this matter – I’d love to read yours. Do re-blog and add your thoughts! Also, if you enjoyed this piece let me know as I’m happy to consider writing more.