I’m pretty excited, I admit, for Disney’s new film Oz the Great and Powerful. I’ll be catching it tonight with some friends and, no doubt, I will have plenty to say about it. However, before I go into the film, there are a few folks online I feel the need to address. Every time somebody tries to touch upon the land of Oz at all, it seems, there are some people who crawl out of the woodwork and start complaining about how the filmmakers (or writers or artists or whatnot) are not “respecting the original,” by which they invariably mean the 1939 Judy Garland film. They complain about hints of darkness, more frightening monsters, new characters and environments that somehow don’t fit their vision of what Oz should be. And to those people, while you are certainly entitled to your opinion, I would like to make a friendly suggestion:
Read a book.
MGM Studios did not create Oz, people. The Land of Oz first appeared some 39 years earlier in the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Baum wrote 14 other Oz books (13 novels and a collection of short stories), and then other writers took his place after his death, stretching the “official” Oz canon to 40 novels before it finally came to a halt in 1963 with Merry Go Round in Oz. After that, the earlier novels began to lapse into public domain, and since that time hundreds — actually, probably thousands — of writers, artists, actors, songwriters, and creators of all types have joined in the fray to create their unique visions of Oz.
As magnificent a film as the 1939 Wizard of Oz is, as perfect as the music is, as brilliant the color and visual appeal of the film, here’s something people just don’t admit often enough: it’s not really a very good adaptation of Baum’s work. The tone is very different, many key sequences are omitted, and other things are changed for various reasons. There is, in fact, only one thing I would argue the MGM film does better than the Baum original, and that’s increasing the role of the Wicked Witch. Baum’s biggest weakness as a storyteller (I say as someone who has read all of his Oz novels and several of his non-Oz books) comes in his antagonists. Many of the Oz books are just a group of characters (often, but not always including Dorothy and her friends) stumbling from one adventure to another with little motivation except to get where they’re going (often, but not always, the Emerald City). The villains are often an afterthought, and rarely truly terrifying, with the one exception of Roquat, the Nome King. Margaret Hamilton’s version of the witch was not only iconic, but a vast improvement over the relatively minor character she was in the original novel. But it still wasn’t the “original,” as so many people say.
Hell, if we’re going to get technical, the Judy Garland film isn’t even the original movie version of Oz — there were several silent films in earlier years, including some written and directed by L. Frank Baum himself, that depicted a vision of the land of Oz that’s very different from the world most people today are familiar with.
But for all of the changes and alterations between the film and the novel, I’m okay with that. You see, there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to creating new Oz stories. There are the creators who try to remain as faithful as possible to Baum’s universe, giving us new adventures in a world that feels like it could seamlessly fit with that Baum created. These books exist to expand upon Baum, giving us new characters and locations, but also presenting new adventures of our old friends like Ozma of Oz, the Hungry Tiger, the Sawhorse, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, Billina the Yellow Hen, the Shaggy Man, Polychrome, Professor H.M. Wogglebug, T.E….
Sorry, you were all thinking of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion, weren’t you? They’re in there too, don’t worry, but even Baum went far beyond those four characters. And in books and comics like these, we see all of them in stories that feel like they belong with the original “Famous Forty” books of old. Eric Shanower, for example, creates novels and comic books in Baum’s world, sometimes alone, sometimes illustrating the work of other writers like Edward Einhorn. More recently, Shanower has been adapting the original Oz novels into comic books for Marvel, with magnificent artwork by Skottie Young (to the left of the above image), which doesn’t fit the original art as well as Shanower’s own (shown to the right), but is a beautiful vision of Oz nonetheless.
Then there is a second school of thought, one which has become increasingly popular in recent years. These creators take Baum’s framework as their inspiration, but turn out a work that is unique and incompatible with the official Oz canon. Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked is probably the most famous example, at least since it became the basis for a smash hit Broadway play. Then there’s Angelo Tirotto and Richard Jordan’s No Place Like Home from Image Comics, which recasts the elements of Oz into an intriguing horror story. Big Dog Ink. has given us The Legend of Oz: The Wicked West, which mixes Baum’s universe into a dark western realm that reminds me increasingly of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (which, itself, plays on Oz imagery at several points in the story). A few years ago SyFy gave us the miniseries Tin Man (more of a sci-fi take) and just weeks ago some enterprising writers came out with the book Oz Reimagined, in which 15 contemporary science fiction and fantasy authors each created a new short story based on their own personal visions of Oz. (The book is available in paperback, or each individual story as a $1.99 “single” for Amazon’s Kindle device.)
Some of the creators in this group even go so far as to meld Oz with worlds of their own creation. Stephen King I’ve already mentioned, but one of the Oz Reimagined shorts takes place in the Oz simulation of Tad Williams’s Otherworld science fiction novels. Bill Willingham has incorporated the characters into his Fables comic books, and we’ve seen visions of Oz mixed up with such diverse casts as the Muppets, Tom and Jerry, the Veggietales gang, the Justice League, and several stories that have mixed together the denizens of Oz with the characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass books.
And the thing is, there’s plenty of room for both schools of thought. I love seeing what new creators can bring to Baum’s world (you may even remember my review of Einhorn and Shanower’s Paradox in Oz from a few years ago). I also love seeing what the likes of Maguire and Tirotto and countless others can create from the mythology Baum gave us. Oz is a world that’s simply too big for there to be any one version of it, that’s part of the magic. That’s one of the things I love about it.
Now if I come back and I think Oz the Great and Powerful stinks, I’ll admit it. I’ll tell you everything I think is wrong with it. But if that is the case I can promise you this much: it won’t be because director Sam Raimi dared diverge from the world Judy Garland landed in.
But if it is good… the hopes for a new Oz renaissance is thrilling to me. More visions, more images of Oz… yes, a lot of it will be sad, tired drek, but that’s true of any cultural movement. I’d rather see people try and fail to live in the world of L. Frank Baum than give us another Twilight rip-off (or worse yet, another Fifty Shades of Grey). And if Disney goes ahead with the sequel they’ve already proposed, even before the film opened yesterday, even better. In fact, I hope they’ve got the guts to go all the way and do an adaptation of the original novel in their land of Oz — an adaptation which, from everything I’ve seen so far, would probably be more faithful to Baum than the Oz Judy walked through 74 years ago.
There’s plenty of Oz out there already. Try a little more of it, then get back to me. You may get lost, of course, but that happens in Oz from time to time. It’s okay. Ultimately, all you’ll need to do is click together the heels of your Silver Shoes and repeat to yourself, “There’s no place like home…”
And thus I leave you with one more point, a visual this time… just a few of the many, magnificent, valiant, viable visions of Oz.