After 113 years, L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” remains a pop-culture phenomenon.
"Avatar” opens with a briefing for Marines who have just arrived on Pandora, a distant moon populated by strange life forms. The commander cautions the newcomers with a gruff warning: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
So there you have it, on the authority of James Cameron himself: Even in 2149, halfway across the galaxy, we will still be quoting “The Wizard of Oz.”
No matter how many times we visit L. Frank Baum’s magical kingdom, it keeps calling us back. On Friday comes Disney’s $200 million extravaganza, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco as a small-time circus magician hurled into Oz and taken as its savior by the inhabitants.
Every prominent nation has its classic work of kid lit. In England it’s “Alice in Wonderland,” in Italy “Pinocchio,” in Sweden “Pippi Longstocking,” in Germany it’s a multiple choice among the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel.”
In the United States, there are plenty of options, too, from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s plucky frontier girls. But our undisputed classic is Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Baum, a onetime South Dakota shopkeeper, claimed he conceived his “modernized fairy-tale … solely to please children of today.” Instead of using clichéd European-style fairies and ogres, Baum invented fantastic new characters. He also rejected the didactic nature of older folktales, crafting an odd, ambiguous story that refused to settle into a pat moral framework. Should Dorothy leave gray Kansas behind, or return to the safety of home? The story’s mixed messages provide a large share of its appeal.
“It’s really a weird book,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, editor of a new full-color illustrated gift edition just published by Harper Design. “People don’t generally realize that. When they talk about ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ they’ve read the book, but when they talk about ‘Oz,’ they’re referencing the movie. You have the land of the China cups, guys with necks that boink out, a guy who almost drowns in a river. The thrill of the unknown freaks kids out, and then when they get through it, it’s like a scary ride at a fair.”
Sullivan thought the new edition needed a contemporary visual style.
“I was thrilled and terrified when they approached me to interpret these iconic characters,” said Austin, Texas-based illustrator Michael Sieben. His path to fine art started with his gnarly graphic designs for his fellow ramp rats’ skateboards, mostly monsters and teenagers with skull heads. Sieben’s “Oz” illustrations combine a rough, edgy line with a sense of dreamlike weightlessness reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s work. “I’m hoping that there’s crossover from adults interested in art and contemporary illustration, and I certainly hope children enjoy it.”
The possibility of endless reimagining is one of the keys to the ongoing popularity of “Oz.” “It is open to revision and extension far more than a down-to-earth set of stories like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,” says Edward Schiappa, a professor of media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The wizard, the witches, her trio of friends all are richly written characters that allow one to pick and choose who to like and who one can relate to. Dorothy is crafted nearly perfectly: Strong enough at times to be a role model for girls, but not threatening in any way to boys.”
Published in 1900, the book was an enormous, immediate success, the “Harry Potter” of its era, spawning its first Broadway musical production two years later. Baum’s first Oz book alone sold 5 million copies before entering the public domain.
Original ‘Oz’ movie no hit
The 1939 Judy Garland MGM musical was not a hit in its original release, failing to earn back its $3 million budget. But through theatrical re-releases and regular TV presentations it has become a beloved, enduring classic, probably viewed more times by more people than any other film.
It has left its traces on ABC’s “Lost” and on movies from “Star Wars” to “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Joel Coen acknowleged the tale’s tenacious hold on moviemakers’ imaginations when he declared, “Every movie ever made is an attempt to remake ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
In addition to its compelling story, indelible songs and dazzling Technicolor visuals, it is surely the most widely quoted movie in Hollywood history, working its way into daily conversation like no other.
“Everybody knows the lines from the movie,” said Robert Silberman, a professor of film studies at the University of Minnesota. “ ‘And your little dog, too.’ ‘I’m melting.’ People use those in all kinds of ways, and that helps keep it going.”
Oz’s universe of witches (wicked and kind), Yellow Brick Roads, Emerald Cities, imperiled innocents and unforgettable sidekicks like the Cowardly Lion is so entrancing it couldn’t be contained in just one book, one movie, one era, or even one country.
In his 2002 British Film Institute monograph about the film, novelist Salman Rushdie acknowledged, “ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was my first literary influence.” He delighted in the rites of passage that reveal to Dorothy the inadequacy of adults, and her adventures as a newcomer in a strange land — the prototypical experience of so many immigrant Americans.