Note: This essay first appeared in the magazine Black Lamb.
It’s a common belief that if you have read the book first, and if you loved the book, you’ll be disappointed by the movie. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve found I agree with the cliché nearly always.
I read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before I saw the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the first book-length book I ever read by myself, and I have reread it many times, at least once for every decade of my life, every time discovering new truths. I have seen the movie several times too, and I am brave enough to say aloud that every time I’ve seen the movie I’ve been disappointed.
It is not the purpose of this essay to trash one of America’s cherished treasures. Yes, “The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderful movie, the Wonderful Movie of Oz. Because, because, because, because the music is great; the special effects were stunning for their time and still hold up; the joy and hope expressed were an antidote to the Depression-Era doldrums; and of course there’s Judy Garland, who deserves her tenure in American hagiography. Believe me, I like the movie. But it ain’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Land of Oz, and it falls short of the book.
The movie’s factual errors and the trivializing of the story don’t bother most people. Well, most people haven’t read the novel, or have read the book only once, a long, long time ago, and have seen the movie dozens of times since. For a while I belonged to the International Wizard of Oz Club and subscribed to the Baum Bugle, but I quit when I realized that the members of the club were just as interested in the MGM movie memorabilia (e.g. the non-canonical Ruby Slippers) as they were in the history, politics, economics, values, and theology of the written Oz. Honestly, I don’t denigrate those fans. All the more joy and color for them, and I confess that one of my favorite novels, Geoff Ryman’s Was, celebrates both the book and the film equally. (It’s a brilliant novel, with startling things to say about mental illness, child abuse, AIDS, the childhood of Judy Garland, the dotage of Dorothy Gael [sic], the Kansas prairie, the desolation of Southern California, and much, much more.)
Okay, so who cares, and they’re split hairs, but let’s get the short list out there, just in case somebody ever decides to do a new movie version of the novel. After all, much more is possible nowadays in the realm of special effects, and Hollywood has a nothing-sacred attitude towards remakes. Anyway, if you are a filmmaker, and you decide to refilm “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” please take note:
Dorothy is young. Her age isn’t stated in the book, but judging by her unsophisticated wisdom, by the number of times she breaks into tears, and by the Denslow illustrations, she’s clearly pre-pubescent, not in the midst of adolescence and trying without success to make the least of her bust.
Silver Shoes, not Ruby Slippers, please.
Our homeless, brainless, heartless, and spineless (not, not, not, and not) foursome are rescued from the poppy field not by a snowfall but by a nation of stout-hearted field mice.
The Emerald City is—or appears—monochromatic: all green.
The Wizard demands that our foursome kill the Wicked Witch of the West, not merely bring back her broom.
The Witch doesn’t even have a broom, as far as we know, and she’s not tall, and please, she’s not green. She has only one eye, but it has the power of a telescope. There’s no hourglass. (I should mention another favorite novel of mine, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, in which he borrows liberally from both the movie and the book. In his tale, the broom is important, the witch has two eyes, and her complexion is quite green. I recommend Maguire’s book highly, for it justly dumps on the “wonderful” Wizard.)
When the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes good on his promises, he doesn’t just hand out certificates, testimonials, or medals. He gives real (fake) brains, heart, and courage. The brains are made of sawdust, pins and needles; the heart is a silk sack stuffed with sawdust; the courage is a bowl of patent medicine, probably alcoholic. The crafty con man knows what he’s doing: “Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?’”
One more thing. Dorothy, young though she may be, and at times a crybaby, is for the most part a take-charge mensch. She doesn’t whimper or wring her hands; she acts. She’s the decision-maker of the questers. And she has a temper. She bops the Lion on the nose, she tells off the Wizard, and as for killing the Witch, it’s no accident. In the midst of a fierce argument over the ownership of the Silver Shoes, Dorothy loses her cool, picks up a bucket of water, and douses the bitch. Serves her right. Dorothy apologizes as she watches the witch melt like brown sugar, but once the Witch is just a mess on the floor, Dorothy throws another bucket of water on the puddle, sweeps the mess out the door, reclaims her stolen shoe, and gets on with her life.
There is a lot more to get on with in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because at the point the Witch gets washed away, the book’s only halfway finished. There are other adventures in the novel, both before and after midpoint, which were dropped by the movie. I’ll mention some of them below.
Right now, though, I want to talk about the irony in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Irony puts the wonder in “wonderful,” a word left out of the movie’s title. Irony is what makes the book both funny and wise. Check out this exchange between the Scarecrow and Dorothy, in which he challenges the premise of her quest:
“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”
“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.
Throughout the story, adventure after adventure, the “brainless” Scarecrow is the problem-solver. He figures out how the companions can get across an impassible ditch. He outwits the Kalidahs, who are fearsome beasts combining the features of tigers and bears (Oh, my!). Of course he never needed brains to begin with, but he feels all the brainier after his head is stuffed with sawdust, pins, and needles. The citizens of Oz accept this change and proudly declare, “There is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” Talk about irony.
The Tin Woodman (and by the way, his name is not “The Tin Man,” and his limbs are as thin as pipes) is a master builder and he keeps his axe sharp enough to chop off the heads of wolves, though it saddens him to have to kill. He is so sentimental that when he steps on a beetle he weeps and rusts himself stiff. This man has heart. As for the kind of heart it takes to love a woman, he never lost that while he was lopping off his body parts and replacing them with tin fixtures; in that way he had more heart than was good for him. (The back story on that would make a fine movie in itself. The story of Nick Chopper.) The Wizard, that old cynic, probably knows from bitter experience that too much heart is not a good thing: “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.” More irony.
And the Cowardly Lion? Well, for one thing, he’s big—a lot bigger than Dorothy, which makes him bigger than your average Munchkin. He is to be taken seriously, not laughed at like some retired vaudeville comedian. And although he, like his companions, has a fierce inferiority complex, he also has a fierce roar. Whenever bravery is called for, the Cowardly Lion’s your man. He leaps over the impassible ditch time and again to carry his friends to safety. He stands up to the Kalidahs and the Hammerheads, and he slays the giant spider who is tyrannizing the beasts of the forest. When he’s held captive by the Wicked Witch, he roars and rushes at her every time she comes near him, and he steadfastly refuses to be her slave, under penalty of death. This is no coward, this Lion.
Scholars more learned than I have talked about the “hidden meanings” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with theories about the Gold Standard, political struggles between agriculture and mineral rights, the pros and cons of industrialization, and so on; but the irony of religion in this tale (like the irony of religion in general) deserves more attention. Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story of a quest for the Eternal/Emerald City, the residence of God, at the end of the Straight and Narrow Path/Yellow Brick Road. In this case God is a total phony, whose only claim to divinity is that he’s fooled an entire population, and in the process has exploited their natural resources for his own coffers. In order to keep his subjects’ faith alive, he never shows himself before them, and he forces all the citizens of the city to wear green (“rose-colored,” if roses were green) glasses permanently and constantly.
I shall close by retelling a self-contained chapter toward the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, titled “The Dainty China Country.” Our four companions are on their way to the Land of the Quadlings, to ask Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, to help Dorothy return to her gray aunt and gray uncle in their gray house on the gray prairie in the gray land of Kansas. They are stopped by a wall made of white china. The Tin Woodman builds a ladder, and they climb over the wall, all four of them, and come down into a land made entirely of colorfully painted china: china barns, china houses, china people, china trees, and china livestock. They’re like porcelain toys, waist-high to a Munchkin. The newcomers cause a commotion, during which a cow’s leg is broken off and a milkmaid’s elbow is chipped. Dorothy is delighted by the quaint, dainty people and wants to take a China Princess home with her and set her on the mantle-shelf. Fortunately Dorothy is persuaded to give that idea up, and the four friends continue south to the other side of the Dainty China Country, where they are stopped by another china wall. One by one they climb up on the Cowardly Lion’s back and pull themselves over the wall. When it’s time for the Lion to leave, he leaps to the top of the wall, and as he does, he accidentally swats a china church with his tail and smashes it to pieces. Collateral damage.
So much for America’s well-meaning but clumsy and acquisitive foreign policy at the beginning of our age of imperialism. Collateral damage is, in itself, always a cruel irony.
For these and other reasons, but especially because of its irony, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, is my choice for the Great American Novel of the Twentieth Century. It made me think when my mother first read it to me when I was five. It made me think when I read it to myself at the age of six. It has made me think, and laugh, and sometimes even weep, with every reading since.
Oh. One major error I forgot to mention above, in my list of corrections for the remake of the movie. The Land of Oz is a real place, or as real a place as any fictional land can be. It may be a goofy place, a place landlocked by impassable deserts, where the grownups are as small as children and where they speak English, as do half the animals, where scarecrows think and metal men cry, where monkeys fly and lions lie down with terriers, but it’s real. It’s not “over the rainbow,” and for Ozma’s sake, it’s not a dream.