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Wizard of Oz

November 6, 2008

I’m reading here that John Boorman is directing a new computer-animated non-musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Last week, I read that Kenny Ortega, the evil genius behind the High School Musical phenomenon, wants to make a musical version with those kids he works with. Artist Skottie Young, who also hosts The Devil and Me, is drawing an Oz comics adaptation. So it seems Oz, more than a century later, remains a hot property.

Oz is public domain. Anyone can take its ideas, do what they want. That’s kind of cool. But Oz began as a series of books by L. Frank Baum, books that pretty much birthed the concept of alternate fantasy worlds, a concept that would, over the course of the next century, lead to Middle Earth, Narnia, Krynn, Hogwarts and many, many more.

We all know the Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz. But here, today, I want to take a look at how Oz has been presented over the years.

1: The stage version. This premiered in Chicago in 1902, two years after the first book was published, then went on tour for three years. It was different from the book, and not much like the Garland movie, so it may surprise you to know that the Tin Woodsman was a Scottish robot named Nick Chopper, the Cowardly Lion was barely in it, and the story was pretty much entirely different. It was this play, not the book, that brought Oz to the masses; literacy was a rare skill in those days, but everyone loved a stage show. Also, based on the poster here, the Scarecrow was a bit of a lech, and that sells.

2. The first movie, from 1910. It even had sequels: Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz, The Land of Oz, and John Dough and the Cherub. They’re gone, long lost like so many silent movies. Later, someone made The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, in 1914. Also lost. The only survivor is a fragment of the first one, which is a combination of the book and the play:

3. The next movie, from 1925. Look for Oliver Hardy in one of his earliest roles. There was another attempt in 1921, but it was never completed and its footage, like the 1910 sequels and the 1914 films, turned to jelly decades before any of our parents were born. This 1925 version has a story that bears no resemblance to the books or anything else, and also features some regrettable racism in its treatment of the black farmhand.

4. The Wiz. Diana Ross was Dorothy, and Michael Jackson was a Scarecrow made of trash, and Nipsy Russell was the Tin Man, and it was set in 1970s New York, and that’s all you need to know. Oh, everyone was really sweaty, and it’s terrible, and it gave us the “classic” song Ease On Down The Road. It was a broadway musical made into a feature film, and is still performed today. I saw the movie when I was a teenager and had to start listening to heavy metal to ease my pain.

5. Return to Oz. This was a 1985 sequel to the Judy Garland movie. There was a TV animated version with the same name in the 1960s, too. The 80s version starred Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, which pretty much doomed it right there.

I could keep going. There was the strange cartoon from my childhood, and the Mego action figures … but really, you should read the books. The original Baum books are still in print, and are worth getting if you or any children you know want to explore some pure fantasy. Look for the oversized versions with the original art. My favourite is The Land of Oz, which features a talking pumpkin, a flying armchair and some serious androgynous drama.

You all know about the Gregory Maguire novels, Wicked and Son of a Witch, and there was an adult Oz comic in the 90s. Honestly, there’s so much Oz out there that you could spend your whole life searching it out, not that I know anyone like that.

But for a very, very unusual take on the whole Oz story, look for a novel called Was, by Geoffrey Ryman, which tells the story of an 1890s Kansas teacher named Baum, a scruffy farm girl named Dorothy, and how it all happened in a pretty different way.

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3 comments

  1. I saw a really cool version of the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at the Yorkshire Playhouse. It was mixed media and had projection, video and weird puppetry… as well as Patrick Stewart as the Wizard of Oz’s giant projected head!

    I have to admit that I prefer the film ‘Return to Oz’ to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ – it was darker and those wheelies scared the crap out of me. I wonder if it’s still scary now.


  2. It’s public domain?!?! That changes everything. I have really got to start exploiting the public domain.


  3. I should clarify: the original Baum novels are in the public domain, as are the concepts and character contained within. But some elements of later adaptations are not.



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