Monday, January 22, 2018

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

A lot like the movie, but with more decapitations
We Kansans have a love/hate relationship with the Wizard of Oz. On the one hand, we’re proud of the fact that L. Frank Baum chose to set the Oz books in our state, a fact that is often played up at tourist sites and the like. (I was surprised to find out that Baum never actually lived in Kansas, considering how frequently he is claimed as an honorary native son.) On the other hand, we’re tired of all the Dorothy and Toto jokes foisted upon us by out-of-state friends and relatives every time the mention of our state comes up. Like everyone else, I’ve seen the 1939 film adaptation, but I had never read any of Baum’s Oz books before. As a 25-year resident of Kansas with an interest in classic literature, I figured it was about time I got around to reading the original text.

The purpose of reading a book after seeing the film is to determine how the original differs from the adaptation, in hopes that some new buried treasures might be unearthed from the text. The verdict on that score, however, is that there is little new to be found here, as the writers of the movie stuck pretty close to Baum’s book. The screenwriters obviously edited the story for brevity, as there are a few kingdoms and creatures that were left out of the film. In a couple cases it also seems some plot elements may have been left out because the special effects of the 1930s would not have been able to depict them satisfactorily. The most inventive example of the latter category would be the Hammer-Heads. Dorothy and friends also encounter a few talking forest creatures, such as a mischief of field mice and a stork. In general, however, the novel’s deleted scenes aren’t particularly integral to the main thrust of the story, and the film captures Baum’s original narrative quite well.

One aspect in which the two versions differ considerably is in the level of violence; the book certainly wins out in that department. In Baum’s novel, the tin woodman’s axe is not just for show. His origin story involves self-dismemberment, and in one scene he beheads an entire pack of wolves. Though in the minds of children these would likely be seen as bloodless decapitations, it is certainly odd to read a children’s book in which the heroine and her fanciful friends are sent on a mission to kill someone, in this case the wicked witch. That assassination plot is played down in the movie, but here the fatal intent on the part of both sides of that battle is much more evident. For that reason, one might want to reconsider reading the book to small children, but I suppose it isn't not any worse than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, originally published in 1900, is the first in a series of 14 novels by Baum. He also wrote Ozian plays, short stories, and a comic strip. Since his death, several other authors have also written books set in the world of Oz. There are those who delve deeply into this fictional universe and consider it on a par with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the history of fantasy literature it likely occupies an important place as America’s Alice in Wonderland. Having read a lot of science fiction from the 19th century and earlier, however, I didn’t find this book particularly groundbreaking. Sure, it’s imaginative, but other than the film adaptation I can’t see why Baum’s book continues to fascinate readers of fantasy literature after all these years, while so many other aged books of the genre have faded into obscurity. I still feel some Kansan pride towards Baum, but I’m unlikely to read any of the sequels.
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