Where is that damn rainbow?

One of the things that I can’t stand about all this clean country living is how far away I am from everything that resembles human civilization. When I say “I have to run to town,” I’m talking about a two and a half hour drive, one-way. It’s an all-day undertaking just to get some errands done. Pain in my homesteading ass, let me tell you. So when we were down there the other day I really wanted to go to the movies, but was thwarted yet again by travel-related time constraints. Grr. Argh.

Because I want to see the new Oz movie, damn it! The trailer is awesome. I like most of James Franco’s work, and I adore Sam Raimi. More than that, though, I really love the Oz mythology. Did you know that there are sixteen books in Baum’s series? A lot of people don’t. I think the Judy Garland movie is what’s at the forefront of the cultural saturation of this particular pop culture iconography. And for good reason. I hate a musical, but I do enjoy that film quite a bit, between the sing-songy bits. Also, I just finished reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire so Oz has been on my mind lately. I really wanted to compare the four different approaches to the story (because the new Raimi movie is a prequel, you see). Another time, perhaps.

There’s a particular paperback edition of the Baum books that I’ve been trying to collect for years. They’re not special, really, but it’s a fun hobby, looking for them in used bookstores and running across a couple at library and garage sales. I’ve got the first eleven so far, but I’ve only read the first four. Quick reads, and super fun, so I’m waiting until I have them all to read the rest of the series. Remember back in October when I did the lists of my all-time most important scifi and fantasy books? The Oz books really should have been on there somewhere. But here’s the thing: which list? Because basically, those books are a science fiction story set in a fantasy world. They defy categorization. Which is impressive, considering that they were written (well, published) between 1900 and 1920. There’s nothing else like them from that period. Especially not for children.

Baum was the son of a rich oil baron from New York. He had a bad heart and wanted to be an actor. How much farther from Dorothy’s dustbowl Kansas can you get? It’s really amazing worldbuilding, and while I’m tempted to say that tired Lit Crit thing about “the only real American fairy tale,” I don’t think it’s accurate. These stories are bigger than that, more than just cautionary tales and thinly veiled moralizing. I’m not going to put words in Baum’s mouth and tell you what he was trying to do, but I can tell you what I get from the series. There’s the social commentary about Kansas being poverty-stricken and bleak for farmers, versus the wealth and plenty of Oz. No one’s starving in Oz. There’s the fact that Dorothy is an orphan and even though Auntie Em and Uncle Henry seem like a good family, there’s no replacing dead parents. Dorothy has a deep emotional hole to fill and does so, in Oz, by surrounding herself with similarly broken or incomplete people. Codependent, perhaps, but effective. There’s the juxtaposition of science and religion (magic is always a stand-in for religion – we’re hardwired for that metaphor), frequently directly at odds with each other. The Wizard’s balloon versus the Wicked Witch’s broom, for example. Also man versus nature. Our technology is weak. The Tin Man rusts. The house gets shredded by a tornado. Tiktok always needs winding.

The 1939 movie is based on the first two books in the series, and is definitely more well-known than the books. And I’m fine with that. But there are some things that have made it into our common cultural knowledge that are different (read: wrong). Like the ruby slippers. In the book they were silver, but they were made red for the movie because the filmmakers were in a race against Gone With the Wind to be the first Technicolor sensation. That’s fair. It doesn’t change the story. But when I say “Dorothy’s silver slippers” no one knows what I’m talking about. The book is episodic and reads like several short stories stitched together, which is covered pretty well in the movie by all that pesky singing and dancing breaking up the action. But there are some pieces left out. Again, I’m fine with that. If they did everything in the book the movie would be six hours long. However, it requires some rearranging and finagling. For example, Glinda the Good Witch is really an amalgamation of three or four characters from the book. It’s done well, very neat and tidy, but when you read the book it’s a glaring difference. Probably most importantly, though, in the books it’s not a dream. Everything is real. I hate that the movie took that away from Dorothy. She retains what she learned, maybe, but she still has to go back to her everyday, horrible life, with no hope of escape. In the books she can go back and forth, like Narnia, sort of, without the time distortions. Making it all a dream works for the movie because it makes for an easy ending. There’s no reason to continue the movie on into the next story from the series, true, but what lazy writing. And I think that the success of that particular film with that particular trope has made it easier and more acceptable for subsequent writers and screenwriters to get away with using it. Bleh. Boring. I’m looking at you, J.J. Abrams. I’m looking at you.

I borrowed Gregory Maguire’s Wicked from a friend. I didn’t expect to like it. Maybe because it was such a popular book when I worked at the Giant Evil Bookstore and I tend to not read the things that are extra hyped up (does that make me a book hipster? I don’t know). I think a lot of people wanted to read it because of the success of the Broadway show, which goes back to that whole “I’m only reading a book because I liked the movie” thing that bugs me so much. But with the extra added bonus of my hating musical theater. Although I must say that Idina Menzel, the woman who plays the Witch on Broadway, also played Maureen in Rent and she has got some impressive rock and roll pipes. She can wail. I still hate musicals, though. Anyway, I really liked Maguire’s take on Oz. He makes a lot of concessions to the movie, probably because that’s what more people know. But he also sticks in a bunch of stuff from the books. It’s very clever. Like inside jokes, really, for readers in the know. Nothing that would derail the story he’s trying to tell, but little details here and there that I appreciated quite a bit. It shows that he knows his shit, that he’s not just using our easier, shallower cultural knowledge to his advantage (but I think he totally could have and no one would’ve noticed – this is ‘Mericuh).

Maguire has done some interesting things in this book. It’s the life story of the Wicked Witch, and we don’t get to connect the dots to the story we already know until the very end. Well played. He gives her such great depth, as well as Oz iself, really turning the country into a character all its own. Expanding even more on the themes that Baum put in place, he makes the Witch a social outcast in her youth and a political activist during her college years. She’s isolated as a kid because her father is a radical preacher and she’s the only green person anyone has ever seen. Religion and racism, basically, play a big part in her becoming a frustrated and volatile young woman. Then, when she’s a bit older, we get to see some of the inner workings of Oz. It’s a little darker than Baum’s Oz. The Wizard is not a benevolent father figure, but a crazed tyrant who swooped in from the “Other Land” (our world) and took over. Which is a good use of the psychology of religion, the “Other Land” being a place that was established in the mythology of Oz, much like Christianity’s Heaven or the Norse Valhalla. It’s the best way to take over a country, to hijack its myths and gods. Also, a great way to set up the later arrival of Dorothy. The portrayal of technology plays a part here, too, because science and magic are at each other’s throats in Maguire’s Oz. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as we know from Arthur C. Clarke, but Maguire turns that on its head, making them both the objects of accepted religions, and they are at war. Brilliant. There’s an interesting bit of social commentary throughout, as well, which could be read as either racism or classism. Remember the Cowardly Lion? In Maguire’s Oz there are animals and there are Animals, sentient beings who are a part of human society. During the Wizard’s dictatorship, he’s gone all Hitler on the Animals, putting them in camps and using them as slave labor, as we use animals. This is the civil rights issue that the Witch takes up as her personal cause in college, becoming a radical and destroying her life and relationships over it. It’s really very well done. The whole point was to make her a real person and not just a caricature of mindless evil. And Maguire pulls it off. By the time the Witch and Dorothy finally meet, I was totally on the Witch’s side. Didn’t expect that.

So, yeah. You know you already know the story because we’ve all seen the movie. But you should definitely read the original books by Baum. They’re awesome. And maybe check out Wicked, as well. If you’re going to do both, though, I would tell you to read the Maguire first. I think the writing is more approachable and modern, and the story is only a slight sidestep from the one we already know. Whereas the Baum books, while amazing, are very much early twentieth century children’s fantasy literature. A bit of an acquired taste, maybe, is the easiest way to describe them. And if anyone sees the new Oz movie, let me know how it is. Where does it fit in all this? What an interestingly layered American cultural phenomenon. A century of adaptations, allusions, bastardizations. How we do love our little stories.

6 thoughts on “Where is that damn rainbow?

  1. Two thoughts: first, religion is that which cannot be proved but that we are taught to believe; whereas magic is that which cannot be proved but we want to believe, all on our own. And second, if it weren’t for movie Dorothy’s dream, we would never have had Patrick Duffy in the shower, Bob Newhart waking up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette with stories of being an inn keeper, and all the other obvious take-offs of the dream sequence. On the other hand, movies like Brazil, Inception, Total Recall, and Pan’s Labyrinth make effective use of that theme, I think.

    1. I agree that the impact of the movie wasn’t all bad. The “it was all a dream” trope CAN be done well and occasionally in new and exciting ways (Inception probably being the most visible of these – awesome!). But when it’s done badly it just comes across as a storytelling cop-out. I’ve used it myself, with disastrous results.

  2. So I have finally watched every episode of Buffy and am now getting all of the JW Grr Arrgh references. I feel so much more in the loop. Secondly, if you’re not overloaded with Oz mythology just yet, you should very much check out the graphic novels put out by Marvel. I started reading them because I love love love the artist, Skottie Young. I’m not sure where they stand up with the books, etc, but they are amazing.

    1. They’re definitely on the list. I think I’m going to take a chunk of this summer and blow a bunch of money and brain-hours on reading just comics/graphic novels. I need a witty name for this project.

  3. Another really awesome thing about the original Baum books was that Baum was one of the first American literary feminists. All of his strongest, most grounded characters are women in a time when that just didn’t happen. There’s Dorothy, of course, but also Princess Osma (who is in disguise as a boy in the army) and the female general who leads an army when the Scare Crow takes over Oz. Did you know that his mother in law was close friends with Susan B Anthony during the women’s rights movement? Baum was a feminist author before there was really a category for that.

    1. Love it! You’re totally right, his ladies aren’t schlubs, for sure. They get shit done. I didn’t know the thing about his mother-in-law and Susan B. Anthony, but that’s awesome. What an interesting guy.

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