Read an Excerpt
From J. T. Barbarese’s Introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
For readers who come to the novel after having grown up with the movie, the biggest shock is to find in the novel none of the film’s comforting, gap-filling backstory. Some of the cinematic revisions, such as the snowstorm that wakes the sleepers in the poppy field and that replaces their rescue by the Queen of the Mice in chapter IX, were cost-efficient alternatives to special effects that might have proven impossible or inadequate to the illusion.5 The change from Silver Shoes to Ruby Slippers in the 1939 movie, as most people know, was dictated by technical considerations (red showed up more vividly on the film stock of the period than silver); and American culture would be poorer without some of its memorable dialogue. But the principal changes are in the overall characterization and in retrospect seem less defensible. In the book Uncle Henry and Auntie Em never really emerge from the background and appear together only in chapter I, Auntie Em appearing alone in the very brief closing chapter. The film, however, shows them as loveable (if two-toned) representatives of a loveable Kansas home. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch turns out to be one more ripple in Dorothy’s concussed subconscious and the Kansas prototype of the Wicked Witch of the West, who even has a name—Almira Gulch. Auntie Em is hardly the “thin and gaunt,” childless old woman whose eyes had lost their sparkle and were as gray as Kansas. She is an all-American original with a tongue and a personality to match. “Almira Gulch,” she says on hearing of Almira’s plan to destroy Toto, “just because you own half the county doesn't mean you have the power to run the rest of us!” Perhaps the biggest change is in Dorothy herself, who is actually a feistier child in the novel than on film. Consider the witch’s death. The film stages the event as an accident—Dorothy aims a bucket of water at the burning Scarecrow and douses the witch instead. But the novel makes it no accident. The witch tricks Dorothy and obtains one of her Silver Shoes. Dorothy gets “so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch.” Judy Garland’s Dorothy is tearfully apologetic; Baum’s is outspoken and “angry.”6
The screenwriters (Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf) also expanded the roles of the three companions and turned the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion into metamorphosed versions of farmhands named Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke. Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), the genial fraud who watches Dorothy head off as the tornado prepares to descend, reenters her dream vision as the Wizard (as well as, once in the City of Oz, the doorman of the Emerald City, a cabdriver, and the Wizard’s guard). These were more than touches of simple psychological realism. Like the technical stroke to shift to color from black and white when Dorothy arrives in Munchkin Land and the suddenly indispensable musical score, these permanent contributions to the Oz mythology are also improvisations that may not necessarily constitute improvements.7 They blur the clarity of the original, superimposing a second relational network on a clearer original. Dorothy and her companions each lack something and venture to the Emerald City to request it of the Wizard to find it, but in the novel neither the companions nor their deficiencies have reciprocal counterparts in the “real” world of Kansas. Oz is no Purgatory or compensatory educational experience, and it is definitely no metaphor for unconsciousness. Yet the film persuades the audience of a nearly allegorical symmetry between Kansas and Oz and raises unique questions. Is this Dorothy’s way of disclosing in dream truths too dangerous or painful to bear while awake? Are the three companions, like the three beasts who temporarily block Dante’s entrance to Hell, reflections of flaws in her personality? We don’t really know. The movie supplies teasing closures to questions that only it raises. The screenwriters’ brilliant adaptation—whether you find it welcome or not—turns each character into a symbolic referent, a point on a carefully plotted postcyclonic rainbow that begins and ends in Kansas. As a result, the film displaces emphasis from fantasy to psychology and makes several “unforgivable” changes.8 Whatever its justification in commercial or technical terms, the film forces its audience to measure the distance between Kansas and Oz in psychic, not imaginative, terms; it tidies up certain loose ends, such as the origins of the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, each of whose histories is explained in the book, by eliminating the need for explanations. Everything that occurs in the end occurs in Dorothy’s mind.
This is an essential point: Baum’s Oz, like the Elysian Fields in Greek mythology or the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel,” is a place you can get to from here. There is no complicated prospectus, more fit for adults than children, of dream projections of waking originals. The text has a serene confidence in its own imaginative conditions that, along with its disquietingly simple style, are its lasting strengths. For those raised on the movie, what is “missing” is surface complexity, density of characterization, and witty dialogue. Baum’s prose is clear and childlike and represents an uncompromising attention to plot rather than style, to events over character. It’s almost as if children’s literature had found in Baum its own Homer, a writer whose straightforward and occasionally pedestrian style is the determined outcome of the oddness of the story he has to tell. You may miss the character overlays of the film and its calculated verbal ironies, derivative of the more sophisticated children’s books. You may long for the closure you feel when you see Ray Bolger behind the Scarecrow’s outlines or hear the Wizard in Professor Marvel’s voice.9 On the other hand, the novel dispensed with Wonderland-ish exits such as Dorothy’s coming to at the end or the final tableau where the ensemble, including Professor Marvel, gathers around her bed like a Broadway cast taking a second bow. While the last person to consult in matters of intention is the author, it’s noteworthy that Baum’s stated purpose was to “please children of today” with “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” Simplicity, in other words, was his goal, not stylistic flash or psychological nuance.