Friday, January 08, 2010

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Frank Baum's original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) with the W.W. Denslow illustrations represented a real breakthrough in children's literature and paved the way for what Walt Disney would master. While the 1939 film is terrific, the original novel offers the superior tale, rich with social and political commentary oozing between the lines.

Unlike earlier children's tales, which featured European themes of princes, princesses, nobility, castles, and dragons, Oz is a truly American story. The characters discover their virtues, qualities they seek, not nobility. Free of the Wicked Witch of the East (Europe), equipped with her silver shoes (Locke, etc.) Dorothy has lost her way and found herself in a new world (modern America). She is desperate to return to her home as it was (early America - Kansas). With her we have the Scarecrow (farmer) without any brains, the Tin Woodsman (industrialist) without a heart, and the Lion (politician) without any courage. All will follow the road of yellow brick ($$) to find the Wizard of Oz (God).

Book: The road of yellow brick
Film: The yellow brick road
Book: Silver shoes
Film: Ruby slippers
Book: The Tin Woodman
Film: The Tin Man
Book: Oz meets with them separately, one at a time, appearing as a different image to each. All are given the same task – kill the Wicked Witch of the West.
Film: Oz meets all four. The task is to obtain the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The difference I found most interesting involved Dorothy herself. In the book, she is a small pre-pubescent girl (12) yet the leader of the group, the focal point around which the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and Lion rally. In the film, Dorothy is a sexually viable 16 year old damsel in distress, "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

I highly recommend the 100th Anniversary Edition which can be had at Amazon for $18.

Anyone dismissing the work as trifling story for kids has no clue. Those who appreciate writing that operates on multiple levels will find it an intriguing read. Some notable quotes:

Scarecrow: It is such an uncomfortable feeling to know one is a fool.
Dorothy: You may come with me if you like. If Oz will not give you any brains you will be no worse off than you are now.
The Tin Woodman: I shall take the heart, for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.

They shock Oz by killing the Wicked Witch, and then find themselves shocked to learn the wizard is nothing but a frail, old man. Consider what's below in the context of religion.

"I thought Oz was a great head," said Dorothy.
"And I thought Oz was a lovely lady," said the Scarecrow.
"And I thought Oz was a terrible beast," said the Tin Woodman.
"And I thought Oz was a ball of fire," exclaimed the Lion.
"No; You are all wrong," said the little man, meekly. "I have been playing make believe."

"I think you are a very bad man," said Dorothy.
"Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man; but I'm a very bad wizard."

Rich. Like all classics, the ideas are as pertinent today as they were 110 years ago. Any ideas on the Wicked Witch of the West? What did she want? How did she get it? What brought her down?

Baum's novel is a magnificent addition to the best works of American fiction.

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