THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
October 1, 2016
<photo: john teaching>
It’s a common belief that if you have read the book first, and if you loved the book, you’ll be disappointed by the movie. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve found I agree with the cliché nearly always. What follows is an example of this very cliché. I wonder how many people will agree with me. Not many, I expect, but I’ll stick to my guns. What follows first appeared in a much longer version in the magazine Black Lamb.
I read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before I saw the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the first book-length book I ever read by myself, and I have reread it many times throughout my life, every time discovering new truths. I have seen the movie several times too, and I am brave enough to say aloud that every time I’ve seen the movie I’ve been disappointed.
Yes, “The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderful movie, the Wonderful Movie of Oz. Because, because, because, because the music is great; the special effects were stunning for their time; the joy and hope expressed were an antidote to the Depression-Era doldrums; and of course there’s Judy Garland, who deserves our enduring love. Believe me, I like the movie. But it ain’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Land of Oz, and it falls short of the book.
The movie’s factual errors and the trivializing of the story don’t bother most people. Well, most people haven’t read the novel, or have read the book only once, a long, long time ago, and have seen the movie dozens of times since. Honestly, I don’t denigrate those fans. All the more joy and color for them.
Okay, so who cares, and they’re split hairs, but let’s get the short list out there, just in case somebody ever decides to do a new movie version of the novel. After all, much more is possible nowadays in the realm of special effects, and Hollywood has a nothing-sacred attitude towards remakes. Anyway, if you are a filmmaker, and you decide to refilm “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” please take note:
Dorothy is young. Her age isn’t stated in the book, but judging by her unsophisticated wisdom, by the number of times she breaks into tears, and by the Denslow illustrations, she’s clearly pre-pubescent, not in the midst of adolescence and trying without success to make the least of her bust.
Silver Shoes, not Ruby Slippers, please.
Our homeless, brainless, heartless, and spineless (not, not, not, and not) foursome are rescued from the poppy field not by a snowfall but by a nation of stout-hearted field mice.
The Emerald City is—or appears—monochromatic: all green.
The Wizard demands that our foursome kill the Wicked Witch of the West, not merely bring back her broom.
The Witch doesn’t even have a broom, as far as we know, and she’s not tall, and please, she’s not green. She has only one eye, but it has the power of a telescope. There’s no hourglass.
When the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes good on his promises, he doesn’t just hand out certificates, testimonials, or medals. He gives real (fake) brains, heart, and courage. The brains are made of sawdust, pins and needles; the heart is a silk sack stuffed with sawdust; the courage is a bowl of patent medicine, probably alcoholic. The crafty con man knows what he’s doing: “Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted.”
One more thing. Dorothy, young though she may be, and at times a crybaby, is for the most part a take-charge mensch. She doesn’t whimper or wring her hands; she acts. She’s the decision-maker of the questers. And she has a temper. She bops the Lion on the nose, she tells off the Wizard, and as for killing the Witch, it’s no accident. In the midst of a fierce argument over the ownership of the Silver Shoes, Dorothy loses her cool, picks up a bucket of water, and douses the bitch. Serves her right. Dorothy apologizes as she watches the witch melt like brown sugar, but once the Witch is just a mess on the floor, Dorothy throws another bucket of water on the puddle, sweeps the mess out the door, reclaims her stolen shoe, and gets on with her life.
There is a lot more to get on with in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because at the point the Witch gets washed away, the book’s only halfway finished. There are other adventures in the novel, both before and after midpoint, which were dropped by the movie. These further adventures were dropped along the side of the Yellow Brick Road to Hollywood.
But the main thing dropped when the book became a movie was the element that most defines good story: irony. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a novel packed with irony. Irony puts the wonder in “wonderful,” a word left out of the movie’s title. Irony is what makes the book both funny and wise. Check out this exchange between the Scarecrow and Dorothy, in which he challenges the premise of her quest:
“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”
“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.
Throughout the story, adventure after adventure, the “brainless” Scarecrow is the problem-solver. He figures out how the companions can get across an impassible ditch. He outwits the Kalidahs, who are fearsome beasts combining the features of tigers and bears (Oh, my!). Of course he never needed brains to begin with, but he feels all the brainier after his head is stuffed with sawdust, pins, and needles. The citizens of Oz accept this change and proudly declare, “There is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” Talk about irony.
The Tin Woodman (and by the way, his name is not “The Tin Man”) is a master builder and he keeps his axe sharp enough to chop off the heads of wolves, though it saddens him to have to kill. He is so sentimental that when he steps on a beetle he weeps and rusts himself stiff. This man has heart. As for the kind of heart it takes to love a woman, he never lost that while he was lopping off his body parts and replacing them with tin fixtures; in that way he had more heart than was good for him. The Wizard, that old cynic, knows that too much heart is not a good thing: “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.” More irony.
And the Cowardly Lion? Well, for one thing, he’s big—a lot bigger than Dorothy, which makes him bigger than your average Munchkin. He is to be taken seriously, not laughed at like some retired vaudeville comedian. And although he, like his companions, has a fierce inferiority complex, he also has a fierce roar. Whenever bravery is called for, the Cowardly Lion’s your man. He leaps over the impassible ditch time and again to carry his friends to safety. He stands up to the Kalidahs and the Hammerheads, and he slays the giant spider who is tyrannizing the beasts of the forest. When he’s held captive by the Wicked Witch, he roars and rushes at her every time she comes near him, and he steadfastly refuses to be her slave, under penalty of death. This is no coward, this Lion.
Scholars more learned than I have talked about the “hidden meanings” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with theories about the Gold Standard, political struggles between agriculture and mineral rights, the pros and cons of industrialization, and so on; but the irony of religion in this tale deserves more attention. Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story of a quest for the Eternal/Emerald City, the residence of God, at the end of the Straight and Narrow Path/Yellow Brick Road. In this case God is a total phony, whose only claim to divinity is that he’s fooled an entire population, and in the process has exploited their natural resources for his own coffers. In order to keep his subjects’ faith alive, he never shows himself before them, and he forces all the citizens of the city to wear green (“rose-colored,” if roses were green) glasses permanently and constantly.
For many reasons, but especially because of its irony, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, is my choice for the Great American Novel of the Twentieth Century. It made me think when my mother first read it to me when I was five. It made me think when I read it to myself at the age of six. It has made me think, and laugh, and sometimes even weep, with every reading since.
Oh. One major error I forgot to mention above, in my list of corrections for the remake of the movie. The Land of Oz is a real place, or as real a place as any fictional land can be. It may be a goofy place, a place landlocked by impassable deserts, where the grownups are as small as children and where they speak English, as do half the animals, where scarecrows think and metal men cry, where monkeys fly and lions lie down with terriers, but it’s real. It’s not “over the rainbow,” and for Ozma’s sake, it’s not a dream.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for November’s 99-word story submissions is November 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for November 12, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.…
Calling all published authors—
I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
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