04 January 2012

Judging MGM’s Wizard of Oz as an Adaptation

Last week I quoted a Salon article collecting thoughts by a bunch of writers about their favorite and least favorite adaptations of children’s books. Several had interesting (and varied) things to say about the most famous Oz movies.

Gregory Maguire, author lately of Out of Oz:
I would insist that the 1939 film of “The Wizard of Oz” is better constructed than the 1900 novel on which it is based, and that “Return to Oz” is an overlooked masterpiece much better than the several Baum novels upon which it is based.
(More to come on the contrast between Baum’s and Maguire’s approaches to Oz. I need to get my notes together.)

Jane Yolen, author of so much:
I think the Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz” is better than the book, which, while wildly inventive, has such flat affect and overly simplistic prose that it makes my teeth ache.
(More of Yolen’s thoughts on the book, and my response to that assessment, back here.)

Daniel Nayeri, editor and author:
I don’t think “The Wizard of Oz” can rightly be called a “good” adaptation. It might be a good movie, but it didn’t do the world of Oz any favors (aside from keeping it in print for so long).
While the MGM Wizard of Oz does a lot of things right, it also gets a lot about Oz wrong. The need to add a valuable lesson about life to the story—“She had to learn it for herself”—both brings absolute jibberjabber out of Judy Garland’s mouth and turns her whole trip to Oz into a punishment. I think that’s even more off the mark than making Dorothy a wimp and making Oz a dream.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I believe Baum when he says he intended Wizard to be a fairy tale. If you read Andrew Lang's fairy tale collections, then switch to Wizard, it fits in, seems relatively modern, the characters seem relatively fleshed out. The repetitions in the Lang collections can be numbing, the arbitrariness of the action tiresome, the thinness of the characters see-through. Worth reading, though.

I liked Maguire's prose stylings in his version of Oz. But I don't think his idea of the Wicked Witch's backstory meshed at all well with Baum's Wizard. When Maguire's Wicked starts to recapitulate Baum's Wizard it really hits the shoals. I thought Son of a Witch better because it's all Maguire; he doesn't have to contort the plot to fit with something entirely else. (I have yet to get to Lion or Out.)

My own thoughts on the MGM adaptation - as a lover of the books I was pissed at MGM for a long time, as a fan of the music it's great. In perspective, I think Baum would have LOVED it, it's theatrical and relatively faithful and showcases a lot of craft and talent - I'm judging by Baum's own adaptations of his work. And I've let my objections fade away. We are fortunate to have such a classic - and the book really can stand on its own, whatever Yolen & Maguire say.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm reading Baum's script for the 1903 Broadway Wizard now, and I strongly agree that the MGM movie was well within his scope for adaptation. Its success, both artistically and commercially, would indeed have delighted him beyond measure.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

It took me years to forgive The Movie for not being a better representation of Oz. In a lot of ways I still resent it for being the picture of Oz that most of the public knows. Elphaba in Wicked is the Witch from the movie not the book.

As an adult I can recognize the art and craft in The Movie. I think it does tell its story more effectively than the book does. The ruby slippers are a better visual than silver ones. The songs are pretty great.

But I do prefer the stories that the books tell. And I definitely prefer the Dorothy of the books to the character in the movie.