Jen Grew Up: Moving on from The Dark Crystal

Even the Urskeks knew when it was time to leave.
Sunday afternoon I turned on The Dark Crystal for my annual re-watch, a New Year’s tradition of mine. As I was sorting through old mail and generally cleaning house, something odd happened:

I turned it off midway through.

My feelings about this beautiful, imaginative film have evolved over the past few years. I was deeply invested in this film not too long ago. Yet after my disillusionment with the Henson Company’s prequel writing contest in 2013, I started taking a more critical look at it.

I typically don’t do this to movies. Books, including both prose and graphic novels, I can engage in with some distance, which allows me to tease apart a story more easily. Yet movies have always been visceral, and I’m usually too emotionally involved with the visuals to properly engage them.

But The Dark Crystal meant a lot to me, and I had to figure out why. The writer in me had to know whether it was the storytelling or the production design that drew me to it.

Well, here’s what I found.


More Thoughts on Dark Crystal’s AuthorQuest

After a few months of reflection, I may have been too harsh on the contest. (Here’s the updated page, including the submission form, which is open through the end of the year.)

True, the terms are still pretty bad, especially if you don’t win first place and the coveted publication spot. Royalties should always be part of an author’s compensation, and there ought to be some kind of monetary compensation for the runners-up whose work gets published on


Why I’m Not Participating in the Dark Crystal AuthorQuest Contest

My first thought was, “Oh my God, I could get paid to write Dark Crystal tie-in fiction!”

This is no small matter. The Dark Crystal is, completely unqualified, my favorite movie. It got me hooked on genre stories from a very early age, and it’s been a touchstone for when I need to remember why I write in the first place. The worldbuilding, characters, and that peculiar Jim Henson touch make it fun, even if the pacing is sloppy and the main character a bit dull.


Easy Prophecy

“The prophecy didn’t say anything about this!”
“Prophets don’t know everything!”
–Jen and Kira, the Dark Crystal

I saw Oz the Great and Powerful this weekend. It was an enjoyable but very problematic movie. While I won’t get into the sexism present throughout the movie, I’d like to talk about one plot device in particular that I just can’t stand anymore: easy prophecy.

Within two minutes of our protagonist landing in a forest in Oz, he is approached by Theodora, Witch of the West. “Are you the wizard the prophecy foretold?” she asks. Oz, played lovingly smarmy by James Franco, smiles. “Yes, I am your wizard.”

In the remaining two hours of runtime, not only is the prophecy not elaborated on, we don’t find out who made the prophecy or under what circumstances. It’s just a vague prognostication: “wizard will come to Oz and save the world.”

This is an incredible cop-out.

Prophecy, as understood in biblical studies, is a veiled description of current or near-future events in religious symbolism. When the writer of Revelation described the “beasts with seven backs,” he was referring directly to the Roman Empire (specifically, the seven-hilled city of Rome). Prophecy was understood not to be a form of prediction or future magical fulfillment.

That understanding changed over the centuries. Nowadays, writers of all flavors throw around prophecies like confetti. It can be done well, such as in Harry Potter’s dark and ambiguous prophecy, and poorly, such as in the latest Alice in Wonderland film. Oz the Great and Powerful, released by the same studio, falls back on the same tired device.

Please. No more prophecy unless you can make it count.


The Tao of the Dark Crystal, Part 2

What was sundered and undone
Shall be whole, the two made one. . .

Aughra, The Dark Crystal

Still from

December 1982.  Jim Henson, Brian Froud and the rest of those at Jim Henson Productions hoped that the premiere of The Dark Crystal would bring high fantasy films into the popular spotlight and prove to be a success.  It was, but only a modest one, eclipsed by a children’s film that no one in Hollywood had paid attention to: Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

But despite E.T. and other films making 1982 a remarkably crowded summer for blockbuster movies, The Dark Crystal did modestly well, earning $40 million on its $15 million budget. The Dark Crystal is notable that it wasn’t based on an existing property (an aspect it shares with E.T.).  Henson and Froud developed the world and the story of the film from scratch; it had a piece of Henson’s heart at its core.  Henson was deeply spiritual — raised a Christian Scientist, was later influenced by Eastern religion — and the film reflects his beliefs.


The Tao of the Dark Crystal, Part 1

The world knows beauty as beauty,
So there is then ugliness.
The world knows good as good,
So there is then the bad.

Tao Te Ching, trans. A. S. Kline

I first saw The Dark Crystal when I was three on HBO.  I remember being mesmerized and frightened in equal amounts, although I had little idea of what was happening.  I remembered a young elfin boy wandering through a dangerous, mystical world, pursued by black crab-like monsters.  The film left such an impression that I rediscovered it at a Wal-Mart twelve years later in the discount bin, having never seen it since my first viewing.  The fright and the amazement returned, and with it a great deal of appreciation for the thought and passion put into its inception.  This was the film that ignited my love of fantasy, put me on the road to writing fiction in my spare time, and led me to explore alternative religious traditions.

And it wouldn’t have existed without the creator of the Muppets.