The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the movie, too

Last month I accidentally watched most of the movie The Wizard of Oz twice.  I say accidentally because when it comes on TV it’s apparently impossible for me to turn it off.  Now this is a movie I know backwards and forwards – when I was a child I remember it coming on every year and it HAD to be watched.  It’s also a movie I have a love-hate relationship with because I love the books so much.  There are things about the movie that bug me every time I see it, and still if it comes on I’m absolutely glued and feel like an 8 year old all over again.

So while sitting and enjoying/hating on the movie (twice), it seemed a good time to re-read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Of the entire series, this was the book I read the fewest times, because a book loses something when you see the movie so often.  If I read The Patchwork Girl of Oz, for example, I’m lost in the story.  But if I read The Wonderful Wizard I’m mostly comparing it to the movie.

I read the book on my Kindle, which I don’t recommend because it lacked illustration (not all Kindle books do, so you know – Leviathan has wonderful illustrations – but this one was just straight text).  The illustrations are really a key part of the story, flowing throughout every page.  Frank Baum and WW Denslow worked side by side on the illustrations and story when they created the book.  But I know the illustrations well enough that it wasn’t too much of a problem to imagine them.

I came to a conclusion I didn’t expect – that the movie was actually far more faithful to the book than I gave it credit for.  In fact, the movie uses dialogue that comes almost exactly from the book, and follows the story very closely.  Everything from Dorothy falling on the witch, setting out on the Yellow Brick Road and meeting the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion, is pretty much exactly as written.  The theme that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion already have in abundance all of the qualities they think they lack also comes from the book (although the book is a bit more subtle about it).

I also think they kept the costumes and sets fairly consistent with the book.  The whimsical Munchkins and the glamorous ladies of the Emerald City are good examples.  I used to be annoyed with the “getting washed up” sequence in the movie, where Dorothy and friends are getting ready to see the Wizard.  It seemed a poor excuse to sing and change Dorothy’s hair, but in fact Baum paid a lot of attention to where the characters ate, slept, and changed clothes, so getting dressed up for the Wizard is entirely consistent with the book and with the times in which he wrote.  Remember that Dorothy is a poor country girl who doesn’t have any fine clothes, so this is actually important for her.  Also, Baum likes to highlight the differences between Dorothy and Toto and the magical creatures of Oz who don’t have to eat or sleep (and couldn’t if they wanted to) but do need a polish or fresh straw from time to time.

The Wizard is also pretty consistent, even the line “I’m a good man, I’m just a very bad wizard.” A line I tend to disagree with, but there it is. In the book he explains that the Wicked Wizard had terrorized him for years and he would do anything to be rid of her, even putting a young girl’s life in danger.  Baum tries in the later books to redeem the Wizard by teaching him to be an honest magician.

While most of the movie is happily consistent with the book, there are some major differences.  Some of them are perfectly understandable, and some of them infuriate me.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the adventures, battles, and strange creatures in the book don’t make it into the movie.  In the book, for example, Dorothy and the Lion are dragged out of the poisonous poppy fields by hundreds of field mice; the Tin Woodsman has saved their Queen and she helps his friends to return the favor.  The snow sequence in the movie is a poor substitute but understandable.  Can you imagine MGM in 1939, even with all its creativity, pulling off a scene with hundreds of mice?  How about a town where all of the people are tiny and made of china?  There are a lot of really cool (and some of them disturbing) parts of the book that didn’t make it into the movie.  But that’s okay. The trick of making a book into a movie is knowing what you can cut from the story, and the movie Wizard of Oz does quite a good job of this.

Second, and you probably know this already, Dorothy is aged quite a bit in the movie.   Dorothy in the book is much younger, I’d guess maybe in the 8-10 year old range.  Judy Garland is a grown adult, which doesn’t work for me.  MGM considered casting Shirley Temple in the role, who would have been much closer to the book character’s age.  One history of the movie says that the studio’s priority was casting a strong singer, and that made Garland the lead candidate.  They apparently tried to make her look younger by flattening her chest but you can see that didn’t work.  The songs are another issue I have with the movie, especially the dreadful Lion song in the Emerald City, but this is 1939 and the studios wanted lots of singing and dancing.

Where the real differences come in?  First, everything that takes place in Kansas at the beginning of the movie is courtesy of MGM, not Baum.  Baum describes Kansas in a couple of pages, as lifeless, dry, gray and flat.  He says that if it wasn’t for Toto, Dorothy would be as gray and lifeless as everyone else.  Professor Marvel is the studio’s excuse to introduce the character of the Wizard, to set up the dream concept – and also to give Dorothy a whole lot of extra angst about running away and deserting her family.  In the book she simply runs to collect Toto and is swept away by the tornado. No guilt involved.

The things that really bother me about the movie all come at the end.  When Glinda floats down to Dorothy in her bubble after the Wizard has flown away, she gives her this annoying speech about how she always could have left Oz, but “she had to learn it for herself”. Not, “oops I forgot to tell you,” but “we’ve all been watching you put your life in danger for no good reason.”  And then Dorothy gives this even more annoying speech about how she should never have gone looking for her heart’s content and she’ll never again leave her own backyard.  In the book, the characters have to trek all the way to Glinda’s castle to find out about the slippers.  Glinda doesn’t just laughingly withhold the information.

Then, and even worse, when movie-Dorothy awakens in Kansas, the whole thing is a dream and her beloved family and friends all laugh at how silly she is.  Then she laughs and promises (again) never to leave the house again.

Why this bothers me – Baum was all about adventure.  Never in his books does he suggest that Oz is a dream, and never does he suggest that Dorothy is wrong to leave her home and explore the world.  Baum’s message is that Dorothy is right to care deeply about her family and put her home and responsibilities first, but the movie’s message seems to be that Dorothy should never again go out on her own, have adventures, or even leave her backyard.  Never mind that in her short visit to Oz she actually kills two wicked witches, saves her friends, and deposes a fraudulent ruler.  Even worse, the Dorothy in the movie appears to be a grown woman who definitely SHOULD be leaving home sometime soon.  I have to think this is some kind of societal message to women that should not have been introduced into a classic children’s fantasy.

It’s interesting to think of this “don’t venture away from home” lesson in the context of the timing of this movie, which was released in 1939, shortly before the U.S. entered World War II.  In World War II, women took on all kinds of exciting new roles, entering the workforce, sports, the military – and I’m guessing many people weren’t too happy about it.  Of course all of that happened after the movie was made, but maybe those were fears of the time that somehow influenced the movie.

So that’s my review of both the book and the movie.  If you love children’s fantasy, you should read the book for all the cool things that got left out of the movie.  Be sure you get a copy with all the original Denslow illustrations.  And then you should read The Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz.  Because if you’re anything like me, reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz will feel a little like you’ve heard it all before.

  5 comments for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the movie, too

  1. January 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

    It’s hard for me to convey how much I enjoyed your analysis of this book-movie 🙂
    I have not read the book, only saw the movie, and so alot of this was unknown to me. I was particularly fascinated to learn that the whole dream concept was never a part of the book, as you’re so right that that idea of never needing to look beyond your backyard for happiness is what you take away from the movie.
    Thanks for this informative post!

    • January 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm

      Thanks, I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  2. Sunayna Prasad
    June 20, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    Great post. I discovered that Dorothy is a stronger female lead in the book than in the movie, where she is more of a damsel-in-distress. I guess that was standard in the 1930s. But I would like to check out the book as well. I might like it more than the movie, even though I usually like the movies more than the books, which is the opposite of many others.

    • June 21, 2019 at 5:00 pm

      The Oz books have a lot of strong female leads, which is what I love about them. Dorothy in the movie was quite a bit older as well, so that’s a big difference. I’m glad you liked my post!

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