My son’s elementary school recently read the Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, so I decided to read along with him. He’d become obsessed with the story and movie a couple of years ago, but it seemed as good a time as any to review the various treatments of the original book. The movie is a classic and hasn’t been improved upon in almost eighty years, but there are still some things I would like to see that aren’t included. I’m not a fan of Wicked or any of the other productions that have come out over the years. The most successful retelling I’ve seen is the first installment of Marvel’s ongoing Oz project to convert all the Baum books into comic form. There was no way my son would sit for the three-hundred-page original, but the Marvel graphic novel made for some great reading time together.
Marvel’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz stays true to the original novel in a way that most movies can’t because of their limited time. It captures the rich visual world that the movie provides, but the art style offers more grit, which there is plenty of in the darker parts of the book. Unlike the movie, Dorothy isn’t in a dream. She is whisked away to a land full of wickedness and thrust directly into the power struggle between its heads of states when she unwittingly lands on one of them with her house.
A Larger World
There are so many unique differences between the movie and the book that I could go on for pages, but I’ll only identify some of the more interesting points here. And that’s the main thing to keep in mind: the land of Oz is huge. The movie simply doesn’t have time to cover it all, even though it makes an effort through its elaborate sets and backdrops. Just look at the yellow brick road.
While the movie might show Dorothy and friends hampered by the occasional fighting tree or field of poppies, the road largely stays intact. But there are parts of it that are fully broken, and her friends must put their individual strengths to use in order to continue on. The erosion of the road suggests both how old the land is and also the kind of disrepair it has fallen into thanks to the ongoing tyranny in the East and the West.
The movie casts the Wicked Witch of the West as the one main villain, as if she’s managed to claim dominion over the whole land of Oz, but she only has power in her own realm. Glinda even says so to her face when she first shows up in Munchkin Land. And speaking of Glinda, there’s never a mention of the Good Witch of the South, which is who Glinda is in the book. It’s the kindly old Good Witch of the North who greets Dorothy initially. She tells Dorothy what kind of a mess she’s landed herself in and offers her protection against the trials she and her friends will face.
There’s much more to all of the characters in the book, but the most notable are Oz and the Cowardly Lion. The movie paints the lion as a literal coward riddled with anxiety who runs away from danger (even leaping through windows when given the chance), but he’s actually quite fearsome and his cowardice more nuanced, almost in modern therapeutic parlance. He’s afraid for anyone to get close to him, so he pushes them away with extreme acts of aggression.
The Great and Powerful Oz turns out to be much more menacing in his aspirations when he enlists Dorothy’s friends to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. He also takes many forms, each one tailored to the personality of Dorothy and her friends.
His ruse is much more elaborate, and we come to see that this humbug from Nebraska has much more in common with Dorothy than a Midwestern upbringing. He landed in the same situation she did, but he accepted the role that was thrust upon him instead of staying true to himself.
Much of the darkness in the book comes from its violence. The friends in the movie always act in self-defense, whether they’re storming the castle or pitching buckets of water. The Wizard even arms Scarecrow with a gun, and he never fires it. Seriously! I completely forgot he’s packing heat when I watched it recently. He walks out of the Emerald City with a cane and a revolver.
The book has a penchant for beheadings, both literal and figurative. When defending themselves against the Wicked Witch or saving the beasts of the southern forest, the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Woodsman behead a number of foes.
Dorothy is less formidable, but she removes heads of state. Her actions are noble though, because each time, she frees a nation from slavery. When she lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, she frees the Munchkins, and when she accidently kills the Wicked Witch of the West, she frees the Winkies and herself. Upon arrival to the castle, because Dorothy doesn’t understand that she’s more powerful than the Wicked Witch, the Witch manages to enslave her. It’s only after toiling away in the castle for a while that the Witch manages to push Dorothy too far by stealing one of her silver shoes (not ruby, even though that’s a much better color). Full of fury, Dorothy flings her bucket of mop water at the Witch. In the movie, she’s trying to save the Scarecrow, and there just happens to be a bucket in a window. Screaming “Give me back my shoe!” before dousing the Witch is much more pleasing and funny.
Killing the Witch and returning to the Emerald City is just the start of the second half of the book, but that’s where the movie ends. It completely leaves out the assumption to power of Dorothy’s friends. The Wizard does leave the Scarecrow in charge of the Emerald City, but the movie doesn’t show him assuming the throne, which is symbolic of continuing the role of the previous ruler by putting an actual scarecrow in place. The Tin Woodsman takes charge of the West and sits on the Witch’s throne. And the lion becomes the king of the forest in the South.
Dorothy finally figures out how to get home thanks to Glinda, but when she clicks her heels, she’s actually carried away. In three steps, the shoes fly her over the desert surrounding Oz and back to Kansas. They fall off her feet in midflight, but she lands just outside Uncle Henry’s rebuilt farm and sees Aunt Em in the distance.
I don’t know why the movie decided to make Dorothy’s adventure into a dream after a bump on the head, and it’s even stranger to see that insistence when the credits role. Everyone from Oz is only listed according to their Kansas counterpart with not even a slash to show the dual role. For one of the greatest American fantasies, that’s an odd move. It’s much more satisfying to think that Oz might be out there somewhere if you can find a way over the rainbow, though I’d go with a balloon over a tornado if I had a choice.