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.
“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