Saturday, August 18, 2012

Seek the Original: The Wizard of Oz

88% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

The internet can be very depressing because when I have a great idea, I search it and discover about 100 people have already done my idea better than I could have. The internet just drives home how unoriginal we are. One reason I abandoned my youtube account. At least without the net there was no way to know! But oh well. I'm gonna keep seeking the original for myself, and if anybody else wants to know what it's like for me, that's even better.

Here's one I've been looking to do for a very long time because I am probably the last person in the country not to have seen the movie. Yup, somehow I never saw the 1939 film with Judy Garland, so it was a perfect opportunity to check out the public domain children's book.


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum


A magical journey through Wonderland--er, I mean the land of Oz. Oz is a country ruled by witches and wizards. Four witches rule the four compass points of the land. The good witches are in the north and the south. The wicked witches are to the east and the west. The Wizard rules Emerald City in the center of Oz.

Dorothy's house is lifted up by a tornado and dropped down onto Oz, killing the Wicked Witch of the East. The Munchkins, who live in the eastern land of Oz, greet Dorothy with open arms, for the witch kept them oppressed and in slavery. Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas, and is told the Wizard can help her. She takes the silver shoes the wicked witch was wearing, and she and her dog Toto walk west towards the great city.

On the way she encounters a scarecrow who wants intelligence, a woodsman made of tin who wants a heart, and a lion who wants courage. Together they brave the dangers of the country of Oz and reach Emerald City.

It's very much a children's book of the era. It's not descriptive, action is not dwelt upon, but simply told, and the characters speak in unnaturally formal dialogue. Did people really talk like this in the early 1900's or is it just how storybook characters were expected to sound?

I have only one real problem with everything up until this point: none of the characters lack their respective traits! The scarecrow is supposed to be stupid, and yet he himself comes up with the most ideas for how to get out of danger. The Lion lacks courage, and yet he is the one brave enough to try jumping over a great chasm. The Tin Woodman is supposed to lack the ability to love, and yet he cries after stepping on a bug.

I think I get it... everyone sought what they lacked, when in reality they possessed courage, intelligence and compassion the whole time. If this is so, and not simply bad writing, it was so obvious I nearly missed it...

The origin story for the Tin Woodman is grotesque. The Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his ax to chop off his limbs one at a time, but this doesn't phase him, as he simply goes to the local tinsmith to have new limbs made to replace them. For kids!

They must cross chasms, rivers, a dark forest full of dangers, and a field of deadly flowers. It takes many days, but they reach Emerald City.

They meet the Wizard, and he wants them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West before he'll grant their wishes. So the group sets out for the West land of Oz. The Witch throws everything she has at them (bees, crows, wolves), but each of their unique talents helps them survive the attacks. Finally she calls the winged monkeys on them! Dorothy is captured, and her friends are nearly dead. Surprisingly, Dorothy kills the Witch quite quickly, she and the natives of the West find her friends and the winged monkeys fly them back to the Wizard.

But it turns out the Wizard is just a big fraud. He gives the scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion their wishes, but it's obvious to the reader these are placebos. He tries to take Dorothy home, but the hot air balloon he builds takes off without her. So now Dorothy has to go to the Witch of the South to find out if she knows how to get back to Kansas.

I like this last leg of their journey the best because of the land of china. No, not China. This is a land where the animals, the buildings and the landscape itself are all made of porcelain! It's funny, and it reminds me of something that would be in Gulliver's Travels.

She meets Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and in the end, much like the other members of the group, Dorothy always had the means to go home. She clicks her heels together and returns to Kansas. In her absence, her uncle has built them a new house.

I do wish for more details instead of just telling the reader this happened and then that happened, but it was how stories were written at the time. I had not seen the movie before reading this, so it was a fun little adventure.


Compare that to...


The Wizard of Oz (1939)
starring Judy Garland


Talk about hype. Do a search for best movies of all time, odds are The Wizard of Oz will come in either first or second place (with Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind as its only potential equals). I'm surprised I never saw the whole thing until now.

Well of course it was the 30's so everything becomes a musical and every actor is expected to sing and dance. It's just how movies were made back then. The acting is very "theatrical," which is a nice way of saying it's overdone. Nobody reacts to anything like a person would if he or she were actually there. They act like they're acting. I recognize it was meant for kids and this is also how movies were made back then, but it's still very artificial and distracting. The sets are gorgeous and colorful, the makeup and costumes are elaborate and these are spectacular special effects for the time. It looks like a big budget blockbuster. The movie was a real triumph of filmmaking for its time, and thanks to the numerous restorations MGM has done over the decades, it still looks amazing today.

The entire first act has nothing to do with the book though. Dorothy is in trouble because Toto chased the neighbor's cat, and the evil witch of a neighbor wants to take Toto away. Yeah, that ferocious terrier is just a menace to society and needs to be destroyed. So to save her dog from being taken away, she runs away from home. This lasts all of five minutes and then she decides to go home again, worrying how she must have upset her adopted parents.

We have to go through all that to get to the first pages of the book. Ah, the tornado. Outstanding special effects for the 30's! No computer animation here--somebody had to make that tornado and make it look like it was tearing up the land behind the house, larger than life! It works. I know it's a special effect, but I still believe it.

Finally we land in Oz, and pow! TECHNICOLOR! It was quite a shock to go from sepiavision to glorious Technicolor, even for me! I can't imagine what it was like for theatergoers in the 30's.

The movie exchanges story for song and dance. Most of the music numbers are sequester, meaning they help to tell the story instead of interrupting it. Though I was very eager for the Munchkin's number to be over and the story to move on. Meeting the scarecrow, his backstory is sung. Same for the tin man and the lion. It's not nearly as detailed as what the book gives us, but it's enough to know what each character wants.

The tin man's disturbing backstory is omitted. We don't know why he is the way he is. I wanted to hear a song about that!

The scarecrow and the tin man don't lack their character traits, just like in the book. The tin man still seems to have feelings and the scarecrow comes up with ideas, but at least the lion lacks courage.

They don't encounter a lot of danger in Oz. In the book, the land itself is dangerous in places, there are monsters they have to face, chasms and rivers they must cross to reach Emerald City. In the movie, the Witch of the West is stalking them the whole way, and she's the cause of the danger. Well, really just one obstacle, the field of deadly poppies.

The scene is very weak compared to the book. It's not explained exactly why the flowers make them sleep. Something the Witch of the West does, maybe? How do they get out of it? Do the scarecrow and the tin man carry Dorothy out of the field and make friends with the field mice and employ them to build a cart to carry the lion out of the poppies where the toxic fragrance can't affect him? No. Of course not. That would've been too complicated to pull off on screen, even with the budget this movie had. Instead, the good witch makes it snow, and somehow that... neutralizes the flowers... cancels out the witch's evil magic... something?

The only other threat the witch seems to dish out is the flying monkeys. They're a bit of a mystery in the movie. In the book, their leader speaks to Dorothy and tells her the story of who they are and how they came to be under the witch's command. The filmmakers let the image of monkeys with wings stand alone without explanation, and it works well enough for the film. Letting them talk would have looked ridiculous!

The rest of the movie follows the book fairly closely, reaching the witch, killing her, the Wizard turns out to be a fraud and Dorothy misses her chance to go back to Kansas in the Wizard's balloon. But the movie leaves off the final leg of the journey, traveling to the south to talk to the Good Witch to see if she knows how Dorothy can go home. Instead the Good Witch of the North comes to Dorothy right then and tells her how to return home. All she has to do is click her heels.

By the way, it was a good design decision to change the silver shoes in the book into ruby shoes for the film. They look way better on camera than plain ol' silver would have.

So Dorothy clicks her heels and wakes up in bed. It turns out the whole thing was a dream. A dream... The movie goes out of its way to dismiss everything as the dream of a little girl coming to terms with how glad she is to be home after running away because their neighbor wanted to take her dog.

It's such an anticlimax to turn it into a dream. In the book, Oz not a dream. The tornado really does hit the house, lift it off and drop it smack dab on the Wicked Witch of the East. In the movie, the house is never even hit. Dorothy dreamed the whole thing up. It's like if it turned out Gulliver only dreamed up the fantastic countries he visited--totally ruins the whole setup and everything he was trying to say.

The story was strong enough in the book with a journey through the bizarre country of Oz. The movie adds this confusing, weak setup for the people in Dorothy's real life to be characters in the dream of Oz, loosely inspired by her one-act drama to keep the neighbor from stealing her dog. Why make a simple story more complicated when there was nothing wrong with how the book did it?

Well if Wikipedia is to be believed, someone in the studio assumed audiences were too sophisticated to buy the fantasy, so it was changed into a dream. Too sophisticated, or too stupid? I wouldn't doubt either possibility. After all, Hollywood producers are good at gauging what audiences are smart enough to handle. They sure nailed it with Star Trek!

In the movie, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, knew the whole time that Dorothy could use the ruby shoes to go home at any time, but she didn't tell her because she knew Dorothy wouldn't have believed her, and she needed to go through all of Oz first to learn an important lesson.

What did Dorothy learn? Some sort of lesson that now she realizes that she can dream of a place she'd rather be and where everything is better, but everything she needs to be happy is right at home? Where did that come from? How did going through Oz and killing the Witch of West teach her that? I really don't get what Dorothy was supposed to have learned. It's supposed to tie into what happened in the first act, but the connection is barely there. If this is a dream, I'd think her subconscious is trying to tell her the best way to keep her dog safe is to kill her neighbor!

It's so much weaker than the book, which seems to be going for the theme of "we believe we lack what we already possess." Why not have her learn the same lesson, that she's always had the power to go home? Much like the scarecrow has always had intelligence, the Tin Woodman has always had a heart, and the Lion has always been courageous. They had been looking for an outside solution to their personal deficiencies, but the answer has always been with them. The subtext is barely there in the book, but at least I caught it! Why didn't the movie do this, too?

Well, story wasn't the point back then. Technicolor musicals were all about being colorful spectacles for pure entertainment, and The Wizard of Oz is definitely that. I'm glad I watched it because it is a cultural experience and everyone should see it at least once.

I'm done with it now. With the lone exception of the scarecrow's song, I didn't like the song and dance sequences. They did a poor job telling the story. I prefer the book creating Oz as a real country with a rich history and magical objects over the movie's excuse for a dream. I liked the beautiful sets and the wonderful 1930's special effects, but the acting was so artificial it dulled the joy. I enjoyed the story the book told more than the spectacle the movie presented.

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