Thursday, June 14, 2012

Better than the Book: The Wizard of Oz

I’ve never met anyone else who’s read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it’s always in print.  And since it’s public domain, there are lots of versions of it.  There are those who love to point out that the ruby slippers from the film are silver in the book, but that’s the least of the differences.  First of all, there’s no dream sequence.

For L. Frank Baum, Oz was a real place where Dorothy went for a while.  He revisited Oz in thirteen sequels, and there have been about 30 more written by others.  He wastes no time getting Dorothy and Toto to the place, and there are just a few sentences about what happens when she returns.  There’s no real reunion scene, just Aunt Em (which sounds awkward to me after hearing Auntie Em in the movie for so long) seeing Dorothy coming toward the farm. 

So, Oz in the movie is a dream.  But in the real world of the movie there is conflict that shapes the dream.  In the book, none of the people with whom Dorothy interacts in Kansas will show up in Oz because there are no people with whom Dorothy interacts in Kansas.  There’s really just the hard life of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, then the twister.  The three farm hands who will become Dorothy’s traveling companions don’t exist, the snake oil salesman isn’t there, and the woman who wants to kill Toto isn’t there, either.  So the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, Wizard, and Wicked Witch have no “real world” prototypes.  In the movie, the correspondences give us not only the great reunion at the end (And you were there, and you, and you…) but it also makes the dream so very satisfying.  I can’t even imagine how a prose writer would accomplish the correspondences between the characters on the page without it either being too obvious or ridiculously obscure:  “And Dorothy couldn’t be sure, but the Scarecrow seemed to flail and flop about in a manner strikingly similar to one of the old hands on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm.”  It’s just the sort of technique that works well on film without even trying, but could be silly on the page.

Yellow? I only see a red brick road.
Other things just don’t quite work on the page once you’ve seen the way the movie does it.  A simple one is the yellow brick road.  In the book, it’s “the road of yellow brick.”  It works well enough, I suppose, but once you’ve heard “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” you can’t imagine why anyone would ever switch those words around.  Then you realize that the book came first, and it still doesn’t make sense. Eventually your brain just makes the switch for you and you forget all about the word ‘of’ in the sentence.  It worked well enough in the book, but the movie perfected it.

Then there’s that scene where the Wizard gives everybody what they ask for.  In the book, the Wizard gives the Scarecrow some fake brains, the Tin man a fake heart, and the Lion some fake courage.  In the movie, of course, the Wizard merely demonstrates that these characters have always had what they already want.  I suppose that the book also does this, since the Wizard doesn’t actually give anybody anything, but it works so much better when he points it out to them.  They’re no longer under illusions.  Like the dream element of the film, it’s much more satisfying to see these characters come to terms with themselves than to see them being further illusioned.  The former can never be taken away; the latter can. 
Oh, the music’s better in the movie, too.

The recent comic adaptation by Shanower and Young is great.

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