It's hard to believe that Yellow Brick Reads is one-year-old today! I wanted to write a special post today to mark this first blog birthday, so what better book to review than the one which gave this blog its name? I am of course referring to Frank L. Baum's children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
First published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has not only become one of the most-loved children's books, it has spawned numerous sequels; stage, television and movie adaptions; biographies; scholarly studies; and countless toys, games and other Oz merchandise. But when so many other children's stories fade into obscurity, what makes this book a classic?
Here are 5 reasons why The Wizard of Oz is still wonderful today:
1. A Modern Fairy Tale
In his introduction to the book Baum specifies that he wanted to write a 'modern' fairy tale. He planned to eliminate the 'stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy' from 'historical' fairy tales and to come up with new and exciting characters. His talking scarecrow and band of munchkins are definitely a break from the traditional fare. What's more, this new brand of fairy tale leaves behind the castles and forest of Old Europe. From the dusty grey prairies of Kansas to the the powerful cyclone that whips Dorothy's house up into the air, Oz is a wholly American fairy tale.
A primary concern for Baum was to remove the moral message from the tales and to focus on entertainment instead. He disliked 'all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral'. Instead of scaring children into obedience, his book aimed to fill their minds with wonder.
2. The Wicked Witch of the West
|Margaret Hamilton's 1939 portrayal|
The Wicked Witch of the West is one bad ass enemy. Not only has she armies of wolves, crows and bees, trained to attack at will, but she has also enslaved the Winkies. Even the all powerful wizard of Oz is afraid to face her. He sends Dorothy and her friends to slay the evil witch in his place. And, as if that wasn't enough to scare the pants off you, she has (drumroll please!) FLYING MONKEY HENCHMEN! Enough said.
Despite her bad reputation the Witch has her own sympathisers. It seems that not everyone has fallen for Dorothy's sweeter than pie routine. In his 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire sets out to tell the witch's side of the story.
3. The Confidence Trickster
Dorothy has defied death in the poisonous poppy fields; she has won the loyalty of her friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Lion; she has even killed the witch. Just when she we thought she would finally be able to go home to Aunty Em, it turns out that the wonderful wizard that she seeks is a fake! Oz is nothing more than a jumped-up ventriloquist from Omaha. The green spectacles worn by all who enter the Emerald City (which makes everything appear green and bejewelled with emeralds) are a symbol of the wholescale fakery of the realm. What a brilliant twist in the tale.
4. The Journey, not the Destination
Dorothy's quest follows the classic hero tale structure as laid out by Joseph Campbell. She journeys to the Emerald City at the centre of the land of Oz to find the all-powerful wizard who will be able to return her home to Kansas. But the revelation of the wizard's humbuggery throws the journey off course. It turns out that the wizard cannot save her - she must save herself. When she accepts this truth, she merely has to click her heels together three times and her greatest wish will come true.
Philosophers have noted too that Dorothy's companions correspond with the three-part division of the self as outlined in Plato's Republic.
- The Rational Soul (Thinking) is aligned with the virtue of Wisdom. The Scarecrow who seeks a brain corresponds with this virtue.
- The Spirited Soul (Willing) is aligned with the virtue of Courage. The Lion who wants to be brave corresponds with this virtue.
- The Rational Soul (Feeling) is aligned with the virtue of Moderation. The Tin Woodsman who seeks a heart corresponds with this virtue.
Dorothy, who is by turns clever, brave and prudent combines this virtues. According to Plato, it is the harmony between these three elements will lead to the overarching virtue of justice. Dorothy earns the right to return home - it is just.
5.The Movie Adaptation is Better than the Book
MGM's 1939 film adaptation of the book is a technicolour masterpiece. In fact, the imaginative use of colour is its hallmark. The black-and-white opening and closing sequences contrast the bland world of Dorothy's Kansas with the magical, multicoloured land of Oz. From the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, the red poppy field to the ruby red slippers,* the color coding in the book is manifested vibrantly in the deep saturated hues of the technicolour process, making it one of the most remarked upon features of the film.
And yes, the film is actually better than the book. Baum's book is hugely enjoyable, but after two trips to the Emerald City, the extra journey to the palace of good witch Glinda's in the South (via the mountains of the Hammer-heads, the Dainty China people country, and the forest of the Fighting Trees) is just a bit much. Far better to have Glinda conveniently pop up in the Emerald City after Oz takes off in his hot air balloon.
Even the notoriously overused 'just a dream' device, which is absent from the book, is imaginatively worked in with the doubling of characters from the opening sequence in Kansas with their counterparts in Oz: Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Marvel/ The Wizard of Oz.
Finally, the decision to enlarge the role of the Wicked Witch of the West (who only occupies a single chapter and a few mentions in the book) unifies the story and clarifies the battle between good and evil at its core. Literary purists may disagree, but this incredible film gets my vote every time.
So there you have it. 5 reasons to like, love or obsess over The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And if you can't get enough of original books, films, and adaptations, keep an eye our for next's years movie offering from Disney: Oz: The Great and Powerful. Starring the delectable James Franco as Oz, the film provides the backstory of the 'very good man' and 'very bad wizard.' Keep you peepers peeled, folks.
*Originally silver in the book.