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“Most of the main story elements really can be related to by people from all over the world,” says MIT’s Schiappa. “The fact that Dorothy cannot succeed solely on her own (or so she thinks) and is helped by many others is in tension with the American myth of rugged individualism.”
Baum’s 14-book series on Oz has inspired pop hits (Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), numerous revisionist novels (including Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” and “Son of a Witch,”which tell the backstory of Oz’s history) and stage musicals (the “Wicked” adaptation is celebrating its 10th year on Broadway, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical “The Wizard of Oz” about to begin its U.S. tour). Marvel Comics has published a line of graphic-novel adaptations. There are film spinoffs (1975’s “The Wiz” with a pop score and all black cast) and prequels.
Disney tried this before
Even though Disney’s new Oz film is riding the coattails of a cultural phenomenon, its success is not assured. Oz adaptations have flown out of film studios like squadrons of flying monkeys, most of them crash-landing soon after. In 1985 Disney released the ill-fated sequel “Return to Oz.” Director Walter Murch, with the encouragement of his friends George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, drew on the scary and disturbing elements of Baum’s books. “Return” opens with Dorothy about to receive electroshock to dispel her “fantasy” of flying monkeys and melting witches. Audiences, repelled by this dark, subversive approach, stayed away in droves.
The public was similarly indifferent to “Zardoz,” a trippy Oz-inspired science fiction made in 1974 by John Boorman on the heels of his hit “Deliverance.” A campish action comedy set in a postapocalyptic future, it featured Sean Connery as an illiterate, brutish executioner for the mysterious deity Zardoz. After he teaches himself to read and reads Baum’s book, he realizes the godlike being is a sham (like the WiZARD of OZ, get it?) and leads a revolt. The film was considered a laughable, pompous disaster.
Other underwhelming Oz adaptations include “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” a 2005 TV production featuring Quentin Tarantino playing himself, 2007’s Sy-Fy Channel miniseries “Tin Man” starring Zooey Deschanel, Alan Cumming and Richard Dreyfuss, and the 2012 film “Dorothy and the Witches of Oz,” which turned Dorothy Gale into a grown-up children’s writer battling sorceresses in New York City.
The fact that “Oz” still fascinates despite lackluster retellings is proof of its magic. “The Wizard of Oz” has gone from a film that only broke even in rerelease to a perennial favorite. Having mesmerized six generations of adults and children, it’s clear that L. Frank Baum really was a wizard after all. The opening title introducing the 1939 film has proved prophetic: “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186