The Road to Oz

I have not seen Oz the Great and Powerful.  I’m not sure whether I ever will.  I feel uncomfortable about commenting extensively on it without seeing it, but I also really don’t want to have to experience 127 minutes’ worth of uncontrollable rage just so I can knowledgeably light into a Hollywood movie.  However, I’ve heard a few things about the film, and I shall use those few things as a springboard to discuss my own relationship with the Oz material.  I get a bit upset when people do silly things to the story that defined my childhood.

I’m not talking about the film, either.  My dad read me The Wonderful Wizard of Oz long before I could read myself.  I must have been four or five the first time he did it.  At that point, like any pre-literate child confronted with a marvellous story, I virtually memorised it.  My dad, forced to read the novel to me over and over, started amusing himself by changing the words around.  The Scarecrow became the Crowscare; the Tin Woodman became the Wood Tinman.  I was particularly indignant over this second change.  “No, Dad,” I would say, “it’s the Tin Woodman.”  I loved everything about the story.  I had my own copy, which was illustrated with brightly coloured pictures I still visualise when I think of the novel.  In my imagination, Dorothy isn’t Judy Garland; she’s the little girl in the book.  When I did learn to read, I expect that book was one of the first I got through on my own.

I never got into the sequels, mostly because I didn’t know they existed.  We did eventually acquire a copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz, which I liked too, albeit not as much as the first book in the series.  No one ever told me there were more books.  However, by the time I saw the film (as well, later, as Return to Oz), Oz was part of me.  I played Dorothy in our grade seven production of the musical, and even though the Cowardly Lion refused to hug me on stage because I was unpopular and he didn’t want his friends to mock him, I had a great time doing it.  I had always identified with Dorothy.  Until grade 4, when I cut off most of my hair, I had even looked a bit like her.

The story is, on the surface, a very simple one.  L. Frank Baum, in his introduction to the book, frames it as aspiring “to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”  In his opinion, the “horrible and blood-curdling incidents” in fairy tales could be dropped, as modern children, with their strong moral educations, didn’t need them.  Funnily enough, however, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains plenty of heartaches and nightmares.  The protagonist, Dorothy, is an orphan who spends the whole book yearning to return to her dour aunt and uncle.  Her companions all long for attributes that they already have, and in the end, they have to be tricked into acknowledging these attributes within themselves.  Throughout the story, Dorothy’s life is in danger; several times, she nearly dies, and twice, she inadvertently commits murder.  Oz is far from a safe, happy landscape.  It’s a land in which half the population is enslaved, and everyone respects and fears a charlatan whose main power is his ability to put on a show.  The simplicity of the story runs up against the complexity of Oz.  This supposedly safe, sweet little children’s tale has teeth.

In addition, it has a fantastic heroine.  I’ve heard that later books in the series (which I’ll soon be reading, as I’m on a bit of an Oz kick now) tend to focus on female protagonists too; in fact, Baum himself was a feminist with a bunch of strong women in his life.  The one other book in the series that I’ve read seems to focus on a boy but actually doesn’t (and if that sentence confuses you, I can only suggest that you go find The Marvelous Land of Oz, which, like the other Oz books, is in the public domain and thus available for free online).  In the first book, Dorothy is really just an ordinary little girl, and this ordinariness is what makes her extraordinary.  She’s just some kid who happens to be swept away into a strange land.  She doesn’t have the tortured, complex backstory of more recent young protagonists—except, of course, in the hint that her parents are dead—but she doesn’t really need it.  What’s great about Dorothy is the way she simply keeps rising to the occasion.  She wants to go home, but she doesn’t waste time whining about it.  When a Scarecrow winks at her, her reaction is not to question her own sanity but to walk up to it; when a Lion threatens her little dog, she whacks it on the nose.  Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Dorothy has a certain practicality that allows her to cut through the Wizard’s bluster and figure out what’s really going on.  She’s not the Chosen One, but she kills two witches and discovers the truth of the Wizard.  She doesn’t need to turn up surrounded by prophecies or urged on by destiny.  She’s iconic without being a pointlessly blank slate.

Part of the reason I don’t want to see the new film is that from what I’ve heard, it turns the Wizard into the Chosen One.  Never mind Baum’s heroines; let’s tell the same tired story of the young man who is, despite his own apparent laziness, destined for greatness.  Let’s also turn the four powerful witches of Oz into potential love interests.  What a good idea that will be.  There’s no way, after all, that a story about a girl could appeal to anybody but girls.  This interesting logic, which appears to drive the entirety of Hollywood these days, ignores not just the popularity of Baum’s books but the popularity of The Wizard of Oz, the fiercely loved 1939 film that inspired this new “prequel” in the first place.  A sequel to this prequel was apparently green-lighted before the film was ever released.  Oh, joy.

Do yourselves a favour and pick up the original books.  They’re not in 3D, and they don’t have special effects or James Franco mugging for the camera, but unlike the Tin Woodman (in his own mind, at least), they certainly have a heart.  In many ways, everybody, no matter what gender, is a version of Dorothy Gale.

5 thoughts on “The Road to Oz

  1. When I was a kid, I found 4 or 5 of the Oz books in the library and liked them quite a bit. I have a vague recollection of one of them happening underground… I must have been too old for them, though, because I do remember finding the action somewhat lacking in, well… action.

  2. A little feedback on the novel excerpt, written as I went along reading it:

    First paragrahp: Mel: I feel I need to know more about Mel – is she older
    than Freddy? is she a friend of Freddy? I don’t mind waiting for the rest
    of the information, but I need to know *something* now. Also, in the
    sentence where you introduce Mel, are the words bigger than Mel or than
    Freddy? this feels important somehow and I cannot tell what you meant
    from the sentence.

    The writting is just convoluted enough that I feel the need to read slowly
    to understand everything. This has always turned me off when I was
    younger. It still turns me off in a ‘quick read’ novel.

    The writting is just convoluted enough that I feel the need to read slowly
    to understand everything. This has always turned me off when I was
    younger. It still turns me off in a ‘quick read’ novel.

    Clothes that have been through a shredder would be shredded, no? not just
    torn and dirty, but in little pieces or strips. You would not be able to
    tell slacks apart from a shirt after they have been through a shredder.
    You would not be able to wear them. I find your simile here confusing
    instead of image-building.

    Ah, so Freddy is 10. definitely old enough to know about ‘all that other
    stuff’ in today’s word. Unless she is a very young 10.

    Now that I have read to the end of the key encounter (he he he, the ‘key’
    encounter), I know why I was confused at the beginning. At some point in
    the first few paragraphs the perspective changes from the 14-year old
    Freddy to the 10-year old Freddy and it’s completely unclear when that

    “I’ve still got the scars …” – scars are for life, no? so she would
    always have them. Of course, she might just be saying something silly.
    But it does not sound right not be. “I’ve got scars from where …” would
    be more convincing.

    A 12-year old girl talking about cooties? she is old enough to want a
    boyfriend! (if not to have one)

    Wait – is Mel heavy? overweight? I am only now getting that (…did most
    things heavily…) Is Ronald heavy? or just very tall? I would like to
    think of him as tall and gangly, but I am not at all sure that’s right.

    Ok, so here is the thing: it’s ok to have the reader pick up things as
    they go along, but there are just too many things going on here for that
    to work well. We don’t know the kids ages or their relationships with
    each other or the kind of people they are or what they look like or, well,
    anything. It’s just too much. I can’t form a mental picture of what is
    going on. Would it be possible to focus on one aspect of the world you are
    building at the time?

    Nothing wrong with prologues, but maybe we can wait until chapter one to
    meet the 14-year old Freddy? and just have the 10-year old one in the
    prologue? maybe Mel can wait? and Jonathan? This reader is overwhelmed
    and this reader has an adult attention span and hundreds of novels under
    her belt.

    Anyway, just my in-the-moment comments. I am definitelly interested enough to
    keep reading, but would like to it be a bit easier to form a mental image of what
    is going on. Finally, I like the idea with the key as a coping device, but I feel
    it could make someone very separated from her emotions if she distracted
    herselves from feeling sad everytime she felt inclined to cry. Is Freddy angry
    because she has not allowed hersef to feel sad? was the woman is met
    the Wicked Witch?

    Anyway, back to work for me. Thank you for an entertaining break.

  3. Thanks, Emily. Those are definitely things to think about. It’s always rather odd how subjective reading experiences are; I workshopped those chapters extensively in my writing group, and I don’t believe I confused anyone there. (You never know, of course, but we were quite tough on one another). However, I can see where the confusion might come from. Yes, Freddy is 14 in the main text and 10 in the prologue.

    The woman in the scene is a character who will return. Very little of what she says, EVER, makes logical sense. The comment about the scars is no exception.

    Re. the kids: I believe their ages and relationships are clarified soon after this scene (we could post only 5,000 words), but I see what you mean about the text being confusing.

    Regarding the key: yes, it would certainly have that effect. No one said the woman’s advice was GOOD.

    (If I sound as if I’m complaining, I’m not. I very much appreciate getting honest criticism. A lot of people would be unwilling to provide it for fear of offending the writer. I just can’t resist replying, which is, by the way, something I wouldn’t be able to do if this were on Amazon, not because it wouldn’t be physically possible but because it is considered breaking protocol to respond to reviews.)

    Enjoy your work…

  4. About being confused: I was not. I can read a text and hold off on all my questions and even go back and re-check my assumptions. It’s just that in a novel of this type, I don’t want to. So it’s not that I was confused but that the text felt confusing and I was wishing it was not. Maybe I am lazy.

    I am still not sure what age Freddy is in the first paragraph. The paragraph talks about the key incident being a memory, but a memory how old? how old is Mel supposed to be when she talks about synapses?

    As for the ‘scars’ comment, that one was made by Freddy.

  5. Ah…I see. That still counts as being “confused,” though, with “confused” here being shorthand for “unwilling, with justification, to retrace one’s steps when reading a novel belonging to a genre that generally encourages clarity and snappy action/phrasing/characterisation over all.” I will readily admit that I often fall a little too much in love with long, snakey sentences, and I may very well get over-enthusiastic about the dribble-information-into-the-text-without-resorting-to-overt-exposition method. In other words, I need someone to slap me upside the head sometimes. One thing I do know from writing AND from marking other people’s writing is that it’s a wee bit too easy to assume that you’re getting something across clearly because it’s clear inside your own head, damn it. What I really need to do at this point is read through the novel again. It’s been a while since I have, so I’ll be able to notice the obscure bits and the gaps in information and logic. (I’ve deliberately avoided touching it for a long time; I’ve edited it quite vigorously, but it’s always a good idea to go back to a text after a substantial break. In this case, the break should probably end soon.)

    Freddy is fourteen in the first paragraph. The Mel who talks about synapses is twelve. Mel has a genius-level intelligence and likes big words. I could certainly make it clearer early on that Mel is Freddy’s little sister and that what I guess we can call the Base Freddy is fourteen.

    Re. the “scars” comment: sorry about that. Again, it’s been a while since I’ve reread this. It just sounded to me like something Cuerva Lachance would say. I’ll see what I can do about that.

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