The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Charles: Full disclosure: I graduated with an English degree. Like a Bachelor’s in great literature and stuff. I had a high GPA, received great grades and glowing comments on most of my papers, and led many class discussions on many a book’s themes and characters.

And I rarely finished, sometimes didn’t even bother to start, the books I was assigned.

I recall being better in high school, a more honorable student. I recall genuinely putting in the effort on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Lord of the Flies,” but then “Jane Eyre” came along and it broke me. Goodness did I not like that book, and when I realized I knew enough about what teachers wanted to hear in a discussion regarding themes and character development and the like, I put the book away for good.

And I insensitively ignored great syllabus after great syllabus for eight years after that. And got away with it!

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m more than a little bit ashamed of it. I’m happy I got through unscathed, for sure. I am not a fast reader at all and once I started to fall behind (which was always) it would become hard to catch up even when I wanted to very badly. So I’m glad I pulled off such dishonest behavior with flair and panache. But I do feel like I did all those books, from John dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer to Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a great disservice. This – the Culture Conquistadors Book Club – is my way of apologizing to them. Books, I’m sorry.

James, I’ll let you explain your reasons for spinning off our culture podcast into a book club when you respond in turn, but, so we all know, this olive branch to books is why I’m here. I want them to know I care and, now that I’m outside the rigid structure of syllabi and papers, I can show them I do care by, like, reading them. Novel idea, I know. Now I can build my own syllabi, write my own papers with my favorite partner in crime.

James: I’ve always enjoyed reading but assigned anything has been the bane of my academic existence. While I’ve devoured epic tomes like Cryptonomicon, A Game of Thrones, and The Silmarillion, I’ve basically failed at reading any high school required books except the Shakespeare plays. Being older and wiser, I’ve realized I did a great disservice to myself by skipping all those books. So, we’re going back to read a bunch of books I should’ve read a decade ago. At least they’ll probably be easier this time around.

Charles: So, favorite partner in crime, to start with, we picked up a book neither of us had ever read before – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.Frank Baum. We figured that since James Franco is in cinemas everywhere playing said wizard, it might be time to crack it open, see how the original compared to the vast cultural memory this book has accrued over the past century and change. Yeah, at just over 100 pages and with a narrative structure and vocabulary that are elementary school friendly at best, this was a bit of a soft pitch over the center of the plate. But I think starting off nice and easy before diving into the heavy stuff is good for us – it worked on the podcast, and it should work for this book club as well.

I’ll let you kick off discussion of the book and its relationship with its film adaptations in earnest, but I’ll leave you with a question I think might be very important to setting this book apart from its vast cultural legacy:
After the wizard has done his presentation of gifts (a scene that is a triumphant and elegiac climax to both the original movie and Oz the Great and Powerful, but that comes off as more than a little bit pathetic and anti-climactic in the novel, intentionally so since it comes only three-quarters of the way through) the three characters who have received gifts – Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion – walk around with puffed-up egos thinking they can conquer the world, when in fact they are no more competent then they were before. (Seriously, in the novel, before the gifts, these three are basically superheroes, slaying droves of animals… they just don’t know it.)

The difference is they have self-worth now, but they’re braggadocio isn’t necessarily endearing. Do you think we are we supposed to be laughing at them here? Pitying them? Or am I really misreading this, and Baum hopes we’ll be cheering them on in their newfound confidence, just like we do in the movie?

In essence, are we supposed to think the “wonderful” wizard’s gifts are empty gestures from an exposed liar, or are we supposed to be touched by them like we are when we see them doled out on the screen?

James: I re-watched the 1939 movie adaptation just before writing this post, and I have to say, like skipping all those books as a teenager, this movie does a great disservice to the book. The last time there was so much difference between a novel that I’ve read and its movie adaptation has to be Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World.” Characters and lots of the plot have been completely stripped out. Our main characters have been horribly reduced to shells of their written-word glory. So, before we continue, reader, pick up the book. It’s a quick, easy read and in my opinion, the book is so much better.

Now for discussing the actual book: I’m going to go a different direction and, regarding your question, I’m going to answer “neither.” Like most children’s books, there is a strong message presented throughout the book. All of the characters already have what they desire or need. They don’t quite realize it, but it’s all rather plain to the reader. And that’s why I say neither and why I’m so disappointed in the 1939 movie. As you said, the main characters are all heroes, filled with the virtues they think they lack. In the movie, they only have small flashes of those virtues.

In the book, Oz’s gestures are not completely empty because they are necessary for the individuals to believe. But it isn’t a particularly touching moment because of what we know – these characters already possess what they desire. In Baum’s novel, the Lion has courage to spare, the Tin Man has a heart of gold, the Scarecrow is a quick thinker, and Dorothy possesses the shoes that can take her home. I feel that they cut so much away from Dorothy’s companions in the movie that it makes the message of the story very difficult to see.

It’s like Glinda says in the movie; Dorothy had the power to go home all along, but even if Glinda had told Dorothy that, Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her until the conclusion of her journey. That is a major throughline in the book, for all the characters, and the movie just throws it all in there in one dues ex machina line from a character who can do anything she wants: but only when it’s narratively convenient.

The movie was obviously a technical marvel for its time period but, like any movie adaptation, they had to cut a lot. What did you miss most from the movie that was in the book?

Charles: Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa… Whoa.

Here we were having a fair-minded discussion on a century-old book and how it relates to a hallowed film I thought we were both approaching with this frame of mind: “Obvious classic. Duh.” And then, right off the bat, you had to go punching Judy Garland in the face with your criticism. It’s like you just kicked a puppy.

Obviously, to dismiss your claims about the movie’s inferiority outright, I had to make like you and pop in the old girl again, see how she holds up. And you know what? You’re kind of right about The Wizard of Oz… But only a little.

Upon further review, I have to admit that, to a surprising degree, the 1939 adaptation of Baum’s novel has many of the same problems that this most recent Oz film has, though it is critical to note, these problems are nowhere near as detrimental to my enjoyment of the former. Judy Garland’s Oz is still way better than James Franco’s Oz – the 1939 film’s merit as compared to the book may be in question here, but its merit as compared to this most recent Oz shouldn’t even be broached in polite company.

Yes, like Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Wizard of Oz starts both ploddingly slow and hysterically (not an easy combination), thanks in large part to Garland’s giant, wet eyes and ear-splitting hysterics (I am sympathetic to the hysterics, there are just so many of them…); it way overplays its hand on the whole double-casting gimmick (where actors play characters in both Kansas and Oz, get it, get it!); and all of its characters go only a few flakes of skin beyond skin-deep – reduce them to that thing which they lack and sing a song about it. Rinse, repeat.

But you can never underestimate the power of charm – you just know when a movie is charming your socks off and when it is making your skin crawl. James Franco and Zach Braff set my teeth on edge, while the hams in the Wizard of Oz cast stepping in sync down the Yellow Brick Road will always put me in a happy place. Lollipop Guild for life!

Which brings us to the book: your points on the book have merit, no question. I actually miss a lot of things from the book, things that I wish the movie had explored in more detail – or at all! Like the entire back third, especially the town made of china. (Side note: the china girl in Raimi’s Oz is a better-drawn, better-acted character than any of Dorothy’s companions in the 1939 film. Fact.)

Most glaring absence: I can see why the triumphant stand of Dorothy’s compatriots against hordes of wolves and birds and Winkies was never put on film – it would have been impossible to coordinate and film with 1939 technology, and, even with unlimited money and time, it would have been far too gruesome on the silver screen – but it’s the book’s best passage by far. It’s triumphant, almost god-like violence adds so many interesting layers to the story! But, come on… imagine Ray Bolger’s goofball Scarecrow twisting the neck of crow after crow while Judy Garland’s Dorothy beams proudly… Absurd.

Which brings us to what I suspect is actually your biggest problem with the movie – the movie’s campy tone neuters the characters Dorothy meets along the way to such a drastic extent that they barely feel like the same characters. Dorothy’s companions are transformed from uber-competant immortals with interesting and relatable confidence issues into bumbling comic relief – the Three Stooges in cosplay.

The Scarecrow actually comes through the adaptation ringer best. He is still Dorothy’s closest confidant (first friend is best) and those notes of complexity we noted, where the character who lacks something actually expresses it more than anyone else because they have to try so darn hard, are still present here. The Scarecrow laments his lack of a brain, which makes him a clumsy oaf for sure, but, from the get-go, he is the cleverest one in the bunch, using problem-solving tactics to get out of tight jams.

The Cowardly Lion could not be more different; the movie blows up the book’s “noble and fearsome Aslan-predescesor with a relatable desire to quash even the pangs of fear a mighty lion feels,” and, from those ashes, it gives us the toothless ancestor of Snagglepuss. For shame? No. I like the Lion. He’s my favorite thing about the movie. What can I say? He’s so supercamp, his performance is so over-the-top bluster and song-and-dance and affectation, and, hey man, that’s what this movie wants to be, and I love it for that.

I won’t argue if you say that it is the Tin Man who suffers the most here. I cannot lie; that the movie forgoes Baum’s backstory for this character is indeed a crime. It takes the book’s most tragic and fascinating character – a mighty ax god who can only be stopped by his own tears, a man who did everything for love and will never feel it again thanks to the cruelty of the witch, a warrior who tries so hard to make up for his lack of heart by caring about every little thing extra hard and is accordingly the most compassionate character by leaps and bounds – and gives us a weepie softy, an also-ran. Notice how Tin Man’s Kansas counterpart gets basically no lines, how Tin Man gets the shortest good-bye. They gut this character and it’s a shame, no doubt.

So I’m with you, there are some shortcomings in the adaptation, but before you step up to the plate, I challenge you on two points:

1) Why does it matter that the adaptation is different? This movie gets to be its own thing, not beholden to every whim Baum had in 1900, every tonal and thematic notion he contemplated; all this per the rules of art (which I just made up). It’s the beauty of adaptation.

The film didn’t burn the book when it became a big success. The book is still there for people like us to discover anew. If anything it’s made sure thousands more people have gone back and read Baum. The movie even salutes the book’s story with its opening epigraph essentially calling it timeless. (Which it is.) How many movies do you know that give that many props to their source material?

If the movie wants to be the campy, song-and-dance version of Baum’s story, why you got to hate on that? If the book is good, and the movie is good in a different way, but still good, then that isn’t bad adaptation. It’s great adaptation. It takes something that was great, and, instead of imitating, it makes a different great something out of it. Brilliant. That is, if you think both are great…

2) You say the book is much better. Do you really believe that? Ultimately, why I can’t just cede my point and reward you the win here, even though I do have to admit the movie isn’t as perfect I thought it was, follows: the book is good I guess, but I didn’t like it very much. It is richer thematically than the movie by leaps and bounds, for sure, but I felt no emotional investment in it. Why?

Two reasons: Baum throws us into Oz way too soon, before we’ve had any time to invest in Dorothy as a character. If I overlay Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Dorothy over Baum’s blank slate Dorothy, I feel more involved, but that’s cheating. It takes all the good feelings and investment Garland brings out in me (and she brings out a lot of my feels) and it puts them somewhere Baum never intended them to go. He didn’t write Dorothy that way, all melodrama and plaintively-sung desires and tearful farewells; he wrote her as determined, unemotional, and sensible. Very Kansan. Very pragmatic. Like every other character in his book.

Which brings me to my even bigger problem: Baum’s writing style lends none of his characters any distinct voice. Take away the narration (“said the Scarecrow…”), just give me the dialogue and I’d have no idea who’s saying what. The Scarecrow, Glinda, Dorothy, the Lion, the mice, the monkeys. They all have the same voice. It’s a bit of a monotonous reading experience if you ask me. Did you not find a similar lack of voice and character in Baum’s writing?

James: Let’s get down to what is sure to be a defining difference in taste going forward. I love movies but I prefer books. You like books but prefer movies. And I expect that these conflicting tastes will be a great source of debate now that we’ve added a book club to our cultural exploration.

So with that in mind, I veto your law of art and substitute my own: “If your derivative work isn’t at least equal to (though it should be strictly better) than the original, find a way to make it better, or start over (burn the previous attempt).”

I’ve already conceded the technical achievements of The Wizard of Oz. I’m ever so slightly disappointed that they changed the color of the slippers, but I understand it in context of the new medium. The movie is a testament to Technicolor.

Dorothy in the movie is a more defined character. I’m not sure that she’s better, but we at least get to know more about her and that is completely necessary as we change the medium of the story.

But that doesn’t mean you have to turn the rest of the characters in the movie into single-shtick suckers! “The Wizard of Oz” has its technical achievements, one beautiful song that was almost cut from the movie, and one better-defined character. But this comes at the cost of the message and the supporting cast and I’m just not sure I can condone that kind of butchery.

As far as the book, I don’t find any problems with the time it takes us to get to Oz. In Baum’s novel, there’s no need to setup much more than that we’re in boring old Kansas where everything is gray. The whole story is really about Dorothy and her companions going on an adventure and learning about themselves. We don’t need to know that Dorothy is a well-mannered, sheltered and naive little girl. We’ll find out all of that as we adventure through Oz.

I agree to an extent that Baum’s characters can at times sound the same when they talk. However, it’s often the case that you only need a few keywords to actually differentiate them. And yes, Dorothy is a relatively blank slate, but that’s expected. If a book is basically trying to impart a lesson upon a child, which this one is, it’s probably best for the child to be able to imagine themselves in place of the protagonist. So the less defined that protagonist is, the better.

I’m not sure we can really resolve our differences about the movie and the book. I found the book a good read and would probably share it with my children if I had any. As for the movie, it has its place in film history as a technical marvel. But I don’t really see many more areas of worthy of praise.

Charles: Alright, alright, I’m ready to get out of the cyclone of your discontent and land on firm ground. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

As I said, I am ready to concede that the film is not perfect. It 100% passes my “Show-It-To-The-Kids Test,” of course – I’ve already slotted it in for my imaginary child as essential viewing somewhere around the sixth or seventh birthday. But your skepticism forced me to evaluate the movie anew and I’m glad I did – I have a much better understanding of the film now, and you’re right… the seams show, the characters ache to be explored more deeply than what we get in this musical revue, and, ultimately, the high-pitched munchkin reverie can only hide so much of that shallowness.

But Garland, James. Judy Freakin’ Garland.

What I struggle with is your amendment to my hastily created rule of art. I do not second it. I can’t tell if your new rule is willfully ignorant or particularly mean-spirited or both and it irks me (and I know my rule is overly democratic, and that irks you just as much), but I also know that it is quintessentially “James” and that it is an honest reflection of your philosophy: “Makers of art, don’t waste my time.”

And I respect that philosophy. That is a perfectly valid way to measure the success of a piece of art. Was it worth the time you put into it? But if you answer no, you have to consider that the same might not be true for everybody.

Where you see a shallow muchkin hoe-down that ruins the themes of a great children’s classic, I see one of the greatest cinematic expressions of all time, a film that endures long after the wonder of Technicolor can draw in a new audience; and I see a book that, when read, added to the depth of my understanding of that movie and introduced me to some themes I had been previously unaware of. I like them both in different ways (the film isn’t perfect but it’s perfect for me and the book scratches some really interesting thematic itches but falls short of fully engaging me), and I’m happy to let them both be.

I’m sure we will discuss our differences re: adaptation many more times in this space, so I will begin to trail off here since I think I’ve said everything I want to say about the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and the film that, love it or hate it, we had to spend a considerable amount of time discussing because it simply looms so large). I am going to sign out by leaving you (and me) with something to think about:

We are both very familiar with the world of comics. And the world of comics-to-movie adaptations.

I recognize that you have problems with the adaptation of a dark American fairy tale into a bright, munchkin hoe-down, but I rarely, if ever, see you take issue with comics’ adaptations. Even the really questionable ones.

I’m not going to go for a low blow here, I’ll go highbrow: consider Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins intentionally ignores huge swaths of what made Batman who he was, and very intentionally has its own characters, settings, tone and concerns. Heck a third of the movie takes place on a snowy Asian ninja mountain where Qui Gon Jin plays Mr. Miyagi. Not exactly faithful to what Bob Kane envisioned in 1940. However it is faithful to what Nolan envisioned when he decided the character was his. And we adore that vision. Thank goodness Nolan had a vision. And likewise, the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” is its own vision of Baum’s Oz – not just any vision, but the most enduring vision of all.

And I know, Batman Begins passes your qualifier that dictates the adaptation had best be an improvement or else, because, yes, Nolan does a great Batman… But someone might disagree with you and me. For them, Nolan’s adaptations may not pass your test. They might prize, above all other Batman adaptations, the 1966 television series starring Adam West, and think Nolan misses the point. And I am utterly serious. That show is a camp classic, and people take it very seriously.

Yes it reduces deep, dark characters to, as you say, “single-shtick suckers.” It may care more about cliffhangers, and POW!, and “Same bat-time, same bat-channel…” then the emotional heft Bob Kane might have envisioned for the dark avenger.

But it exists. It has merit. It deserves to be hailed as an enduring vision of a lasting character.

In my opinion, a different vision is not a waste of time because it is different; it is a waste of time if its difference is not interesting, engaging, or worthwhile. My opinion could be wrong, but for now, I will stand by it.

(And if you say comics aren’t the same because they are not literature, I will cry. That is all.)

Any last thoughts from you, you humbug? If not, you want to tell them what’s coming up next in the Culture Conquistadors Book Club?

Lollipop Guild: out.

James: I figured you’d lead us to comic books eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be in our first book club post. Yes, I generally have fewer problems with comic book adaptations. A big reason for that: we now know superheroes were made for the big screen. Yes, they started off bound in paper, and they’ve been beamed into our homes on television. But they belong on giant screens, in huge dark theaters with surround sound and stadium seating. Fact.

And, even outside of superheroes, I agree, different doesn’t default to bad. I don’t mind different. But I do worry about being different just to be different. I was worried when JJ Abrams, who had directed MI:3 (Tom Cruise?) and Cloverfield (shaky cam makes me want to vomit), was tabbed as the director of the rebooted Star Trek.

But he came in, brought Star Trek into the present and made it beautiful and exciting. If you’re going to use someone else’s creation, handle it with care, build atop it, improve it.

I’ve seen all the Transformers movies: the third movie was only okay and we won’t even mention the second movie (whoops). I was genuinely upset with Michael Bay when he ruined the character of Jazz.

Point being: Don’t be a Michael Bay. Don’t run around and kick over all the sand castles.

And that is what “difference” often feels like. Kicking over all the sand castles.

When we return for our April Book Club, we’re reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, which came out 50 years ago. Let’s see how it holds up.