Friday, December 14, 2018

Over the Rainbow—Where L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz Doesn’t Measure Up to the MGM Version

When I was very small, The Wizard of Oz made a triumphant comeback to local movie theatres. With television in its infancy, the return of a family classic like this one to a movie palace near my home was major news. I remember pasting into my scrapbook an advertising photo of Dorothy and Good Witch Glinda. With her poufy dress, cocker-spaniel hair, and helmet-like silver crown, Glinda didn’t seem all that beautiful to me. Still, I was fully prepared to be enchanted by the movie. And of course I was.

 It wasn’t until years later that I finally read L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And it took many more years—and many more viewings of the 1939 MGM film—before I returned to the novel with my children. I’m all too accustomed to feeling that movies adapted from famous novels lose something of the spirit (and the artistic integrity) of the original. And of course Baum’s brilliantly conceived characters—like the brain-addled Scarecrow, the sentimental Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and that humbug of a Wizard—will live forever. Still, in reading Baum’s masterwork, I caught myself feeling that its journey from Kansas to the Emerald City was rather plodding and far too moralistic. Baum, the father of four and by all accounts a charming and good-hearted man, was determined to use his writing as a way to improve children’s moral outlook. His great theme is that we all have inside ourselves the ability to achieve our fondest wishes. That’s why he continuously goes back to the Oz friends’ desires—for brains, for a heart, for courage, for home—to remind us that everything is possible if you simply look within.

The editor of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, argues strongly for the merits of Baum’s approach. Michael Patrick Hearn is, needless to say, a serious booster for Baum’s achievement. Where I find it annoying that, on her journey down the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy keeps stopping to look around for a meal and a place to sleep, Hearn argues that children appreciate the homey details with which Baum grounds his fantasy. He’s also not troubled by the long, meandering section of the book (Fighting Trees! The Dainty China Country!) that follows its most exciting moments: the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West and the unmasking of the Wizard. To Hearn, these long-winded latter segments only serve to reinforce Baum’s moral message.   

Even Hearn, though, admits there are areas in which MGM screenwriters have improved upon the original. There’s the beautiful visual image of Glinda saving Dorothy and her friends from the fumes of the deadly poppy field by sending snow. And, more important, there’s the dramatic payoff of the Scarecrow’s fear of fire, which is established early on. In the novel, Dorothy splashes the bucket of water onto the Wicked Witch of the West out of anger, because the witch has swiped one of her precious silver slippers. (They became ruby in the film when the Hollywood moguls decided red shoes would photograph more effectively than silver.) Essentially the book’s Dorothy drenches the witch in a fit of pique, because her prize possessions are being taken from her. See how much more impressively the movie handles this moment: the Wicked Witch, threatening the Scarecrow, hurls a ball of fire in his direction. To save her friend, Dorothy heroically douses him with water, some of which splashes onto the witch who then, as Baum so aptly puts it, melts away before our eyes like brown sugar.

Well, there’s no place like the movies.

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