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.