Book Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Since The Dark Crystal has been occupying so much of my creative space these last couple months, it seemed worth sharing my review of the new Jim Henson biography here. As a creative person, I found the biography to be inspiring on many levels — in its reassurance that even cultural icons faced drawbacks and rejection, and in the knowledge that it really is possible (although perhaps rare) to be successful and to stay true to one’s artistic and moral compass. I feel honored to be participating, even in the smallest of ways, in Jim Henson’s great legacy.

If you’re going to read this book, you need to be prepared to cry for about an hour at the end.

I listened to it on audiobook, which meant I cried through the last hour or so, while I was doing the dishes.

Just so you’re prepared, Jim Henson dies at the end.

The book leading up to that point is mostly fascinating. At moments I may have felt that too much time was given to Jim’s early career (and I certainly didn’t need to know all the lineage stuff in the beginning, although that seems to be standard in biographies), but I understand the importance of examining how Jim got to where he ultimately ended up. What intrigued me most about his early career was how he wasn’t specifically interested in puppets — he was interested in producing TV entertainment, and some early opportunities in puppetry, along with his realization that puppetry was more appreciated as an art form in Europe, set him on that path. Still, he struggled throughout his career against being “boxed in” as just a “puppet guy.”

I’ll be honest and say that what I most adore about Jim Henson’s legacy is his puppet-related work because there is so much warmth, depth, and magic in it. Reading this made me want to rewatch everything I’d already seen and hunt down everything I hadn’t. A few things about Jim didn’t totally gel with me — his inability to hold onto his marriage, his weakness for fancy cars and fine furnishings, his penchant for humor that involved explosions. But other things resonated with me deeply — his interest in imagination and mythology, his feeling that there would never be enough time to do everything he wanted to in life, and the integrity with which he treated his work, especially that which was aimed at children. His ethos, focused on acceptance, warmth, forgiveness, and optimism, is part of what makes his legacy so powerful, and the reason that I was so inconsolable when the author related his death and its aftermath. (I remember crying when I watched the Muppets’ Tribute to Jim Henson when I was 9. Then I cried when I read this book. Then I dug up the tribute on YouTube, watched it again, and … cried again.) Perhaps I would have preferred not to know about some of the more gruesome moments in Jim’s last hours, and although I wept as I listened to it, when I later related the story to Ivan I found myself angry. Jim died of complications from Strep throat — something that almost killed me when I was a child — and something that could have absolutely been prevented if he had been less stubborn about seeking help earlier in his illness. If he had, perhaps we’d see where his imagination and his dreams would have continued to take him. It’s especially painful to know he always imagined himself “sitting in his rocking chair, performing Kermit when he was eighty.”

We’re lucky that his family and colleagues saw the value in his work and have continued his legacy. If there was one thing I would have wanted more of from this book, it was an examination of how Henson-related projects unfolded after his death. (Happily, we’ll get another one in March of 2014 — what a lovely birthday present!)

Overall, this is a book that will stick with me for its humanization of a cultural icon, for its balanced examination of a brilliant dreamer, and for its Kleenex-box ending. Definitely worth a read.