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Monday, March 25, 2013

Returning to Oz

This article has been a long time coming, but, now that I have a bit of a short break from school, I can finally sit down and lay out my thoughts.  Inspired by the recent film Oz The Great and Powerful, I have decided to do an article discussing why we should have more films set in the land of Oz.  In this piece, I will be exploring the reasons why we should do this, some of the films that could come from it, and, most importantly, why we should begin to completely ignore the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz.  So, without further ado, journey with me down the Yellow Brick Road to a land that is much larger than some of you may realize.

Created in 1900 by author L. Frank Baum, the land of Oz has become a fantasy locale that has captivated the minds of readers and viewers of all ages.  There is just something appealing about the fact that, outside of our dull world, something wonderful exists which stretches our imagination.  This is not an entirely new concept for lovers of fantasy.  The worlds of Narnia, Middle Earth, Wonderland, and even the hidden worlds of the Harry Potter novels/films have all become classics in their own right.  So what makes Oz so different?  The more observant may have noticed that all of the lands mentioned above were created by British authors.  While we have certainly had many American authors create their own fantasy worlds, it still stands that the land of Oz is one of the only fantasy worlds that appeals to children that was made in the U.S.A.

Not only is Oz distinctly American because of the heritage of its creator, but Baum specifically modeled aspects of Oz after America.  While it is subject for debate whether or not Baum intended it, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is seen as a political allegory for the troubled times of the early 20th Century.  The now infamous Yellow Brick Road is seen as representing the Gold Standard and the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion representing American farmers, American steel workers, and the American military respectively.  Historians have found a wealth of potential symbolism in the children's book.  Baum may not have wanted his little tale to be seen as something more, but the potential presence of an allegory ties the text forever to the history of this nation as something more than just a popular story.

So why should there be more films done about the Land of Oz?  Frankly, because there are not too many at the moment.  As far as I can see (and feel free to correct me in the comments below), only the following four major films take any stab at Baum's world:

Sure, there have been various other film versions of Baum's first novel.  Everyone from Rugrats to the Muppets have done some sort of take on an Oz story.  A few years ago, the Sci-Fi channel had a mini-series adaptation of Baum's book called Tin Man.  All of these are fine, but we need to do more.  The Land of Oz offers many more narrative possibilities than what has been done thus far in film.  Through the rest of this article I hope to discuss the various ways this can be done, most of which involve moving away from the classic 1939 film (reasons for this below).  I will start with perhaps the most prolific Oz adaptation yet to be adapted to film, but one that definitely should be...


Based on the Gregory Maguire novel of the same name, Wicked is a 2003 musical which tells the story of green girl Elphaba and how a series of misfortunes in her life lead to her being labeled the Wicked Witch of the West.  The musical also focuses on Elphaba's friendship with the woman who would become Glinda the Good.  While Wicked did not win the Tony Award for Best Musical, it has more than proven its popularity.  In under 10 years, Wicked has been performed across America, Europe, and the rest of the world and is still running on Broadway to this day.  During its short tenure, the musical has eclipsed the popularity of Broadway classics such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.  Though the musical takes liberties with the novel, its overarching themes of acceptance and friendship, coupled with a fantastic score more than explain for the show's popularity.

So why adapt Wicked to film?  One of the more obvious reasons is that the show has proven to be a huge hit, continuously breaking records in London, on Broadway, and on Tour.  This musical is incredibly popular (and incredibly good), but that does not mean everyone has gotten a chance to see the show for themselves.  Adapting a Broadway musical to film not only provides a chance to give the musical a breath of new life into its Broadway run, but also gives the chance for ticket prices to see Wicked to go from $50+ to $7-12.  In other words, everyone would be able to finally see this show.  Not only would a film give the show a wider audience, but the musical is also very cinematic in a lot of ways.  The show has many aspects to it that are amazing on stage (the dragon moving over the proscenium, Elphaba's flight at the end of Act One, and the general clock-theme of the set), but it also has just as many aspects which could be expanded and improved in a cinematic adaptation.  Even a show with as much spectacle as Wicked still has moments which involve the audience having to use a bit of imagination.  Such moments are standard for theatre, but could finally be seen in a film version.

One aspect of musicals that can improve with film adaptation is the overall sound quality of the music.  When seeing a show on stage, productions are susceptible to any number of potential problems.  With a film version, not only could Wicked be sure that all of its words are being heard, but it also gives the show a chance to be scored by a much larger orchestra than is possible on Broadway.  What would be interesting to see would be if a film version of Wicked, owned by Universal, would take the route to its sound recording of another recent Universal musical movie: Les Miserables.  I do not see every song in Wicked benefiting from a live, on-set recording, but there are certainly many which could work.

Currently there is no film adaptation of Wicked in the works, though Universal has expressed interest in moving forward with a movie time and again.  A few months ago, Universal took the time to say that a Wicked movie would happen "sooner rather than later," but it would seem they are not in any rush to bring the Broadway hit to film.  This is a shame as Universal is sitting on an easy $200 million by adapting "the untold story of the Witches of Oz."

It is also worth noting that Wicked the musical is based on a popular novel.  While the musical version of the story is a bit more light-hearted, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a dark, political story which examines the perceptions we have of evil people and the effect of a corrupt government on an innocent people.  Despite it being more dark than its musical counterpart, Gregory Maguire's novel is just as adaptable as the musical.  There was talk in 2011 that Salma Hayek and ABC would be teaming up to produce a mini-series adaptation of the novel, but nothing has been announced since.  While I do not feel that ABC would be the proper network for a story like Wicked, I do think a mini-series would be the best way to assure that all of the political undertones of Maguire's novel are brought to fruition.  Not to mention, if successful, this could result in further mini-series adaptations of the three sequels to Wicked that Maguire has written: Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz.  

In his novels, Maguire uses both Baum's version of Oz as well as the version of Oz seen in the 1939 film.  The main draw from the 1939 film would be the green skin of Elphaba and the use of the infamous Ruby Slippers.  While I do not take too much issue with an adaptation of the musical and/or novel of Wicked having connection to the MGM movie, I believe that any adaptation of the work should be the last time we have an Oz movie that has such a connection.

Why the MGM Film Should be Ignored

Okay, so this will probably be the most controversial part of this entire piece, but stick with me.  I am not going to try and act like The Wizard of Oz is not a classic film.  It is a great movie in its own right and so many aspects of it have risen beyond the film and become part of our everyday jargon.  Very few films rise to such notoriety and I do not have a problem with this at all.  I have two main issues with The Wizard of Oz: 1. So many other films feel beholden to The Wizard of Oz, 2. It is not a very good adaptation of Baum's novel.

This is a problem which has perplexed me for some time: why do so many versions of the Land of Oz feel that they have to be beholden to the 1939 film?  I can understand the film being a classic that any given adaptation may not live up to, but that should not come at the cost of originality.  The recent film Oz the Great and Powerful did everything it could to be a prequel to The Wizard of Oz while delicately maneuvering the mine-field of copyrights surrounding various aspects of the classic film.  While Oz the Great and Powerful does incorporate some elements of the Baum books (namely, the character of a China Girl), it spends far too much time setting up the Judy Garland film.  Sure, it has some nice homages, but why is this necessary?  The story of the Wizard's arrival in Oz is one that not even Baum took the time to tell.  In other words, this film was brand new territory for stories about Oz and there could have been a lot of rich narrative there.  I do not wish to get in-depth into what I liked and disliked about the film, but Oz the Great and Powerful is a fine case study in Hollywood's fear that an Oz movie that makes no reference to a 74 year old film will fail.  It is time for this mentality to change.  If Hollywood had felt beholden to the 1960's version of Batman, we would have never gotten Batman Begins.  It is time to abandon The Wizard of Oz and embrace the story-telling possibilities that it brings.

To say that The Wizard of Oz is an abridged adaptation of the novel would be an understatement.  Sure, the basic story is there, but there is very little of the 1939 film that resembles Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It is understandable that, in 1939, a perfect adaptation of the story would be next to impossible.  There are some changes made to the story, however, that are done for seemingly no reason at all.  For one, the shoes in the book are silver, not ruby.  Perhaps ruby shows up better on film, but the change is quite unnecessary and the change has become so famous that most of the general public probably has no idea that Dorothy's shoes are the wrong color.  Many changes are also made to the characters of the witches.  Glinda is moved from being the Witch of the South to the Witch of the North and the Witch of the West looks nothing like the illustrations done by W.W. Denslow in 1900.  You may be saying "But. Shane, no adaptation of a novel is going to be perfect.  Changes are going to inevitably be made."  Such an argument would most definitely be right.  I would argue, however, that there is a keen difference between having an adaptation that makes only a few changes and one that only takes the bare bones story and does its own thing.  What makes The Wizard of Oz so frustrating is that it is the only major film adaptation of Baum's novel.  Hollywood has become so frightened to touch the story that we have yet to get a more accurate adaptation when today's technology makes one completely possible.

So what do we do?  If Hollywood abandons the crutch of the MGM film, what will it do for future Oz adaptations?  I have two answers that are relatively simple...

Return to Baum's Oz Books

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is only the first book in which Baum describes the marvelous Land of Oz.  Baum, in fact, wrote fourteen novels which take place in the land of Oz.  Each of these books chronicles the story of a different character, all of them coming together to form a collective history of Oz.  While some of these books are certainly better than others, they are still works which have been largely untouched by Hollywood at large.

Out of the fourteen Oz books written by Baum himself, only three have been adapted.  We all know that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted time and again, while Disney's unsuccessful film Return to Oz remains the only attempt by Hollywood to-date to adapt another Baum book (that film adapts The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz).  While I believe that the main reason we have not seen further films from this series of books mostly comes from Hollywood's fear to stray away from the 1939 film, I think it is time for that to change.  Hollywood needs to take a new look at these books and begin to look for them to adapt.  Instead of trying to find some new nuance to explore in the MGM film, lets find another Oz book to adapt.  Baum gave us these stories and, over time, they have become unknown.  What better way to revive an interest in the original stories of Oz than to adapt these books?  While Hollywood certainly does not have to feel the need to make fourteen individual Oz movies, it would be nice to see a reboot of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz followed by sequels based on the additional books.  Each new adaptation does not even have to feel beholden to a particular interpretation of Oz in the film before.  W.W. Denslow did not illustrate every single Oz book, so Oz naturally looked slightly different with each installment.  Baum's works are all public domain, so Hollywood has no excuse to not adapt them.

Tell New Oz Stories

If Hollywood is unwilling to adapt the remaining works of L. Frank Baum, then there still remains the possibility of telling new and original stories about Oz. Oz the Great and Powerful was a good step forward in that direction, but it is a film so reliant upon a knowledge of the 1939 film that it is not as fully realized as it could have been.  Comic books have taken any number of properties, including Oz, and adapted them to tell new stories.  While comics can be cheaper, that does not mean Hollywood cannot do the same thing.  

I have been a fan of Baum's original Oz book and have eagerly awaited a good version of this amazing land.  Oz the Great and Powerful is very close to how I have wanted to see Oz done on film, but the possibilities should not end there.  Hollywood should be more willing to take risks and give us more stories from such a gold mine or story-telling possibilities.  Unfortunately, in a Hollywood bogged down with remakes, reboots, and prequels, today's Hollywood does not seem to be too interested in taking the Yellow Brick Road in a new direction....

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