When it comes to adapting the wonderful world of Oz, Hollywood is, admittedly and regrettably, in a bit of a bind. All things Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City are so tightly linked to the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” that trying to venture back into L. Frank Baum’s mythology is treading on the memories of millions of fans. The film is such a massive piece of film iconography that it has become the definitive version of this tale, and outstripped the Baum book itself. It doesn’t matter that it’s a loose adaptation of Baum’s work, it is *the* adaptation, and any filmmaker itching to make a more authentic version has their hands permanently tied. The outcry – “How dare you remake The Wizard of Oz!” – would be deafening, no matter how illogical the idea (“Hamlet” can survive a hundred versions, but not the adventures of Dorothy!).
Yet Baum’s Oz mythology didn’t begin and end with Dorothy. He wrote 17 Oz books (18 if you count “The Royal Book of Oz,” but you shouldn’t, because it was written by Ruth Plumly Thompson) in all, and they’re marvelously weird, violent, and enchanting. Baum styled himself as “Royal Historian of Oz,” trying to maintain the illusion Oz was a real place, and that he received the stories by telegraph by Dorothy and Princess Ozma themselves. Despite such a wonderful conceit, there’s no real sense of continuity or central mythology binding these stories, as there is in J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Rather, the books simply read as tales Baum felt like telling at that particular time. If he contradicted himself, he didn’t stress about it, but kept on writing.
In addition to Baum’s original 17 stories, there are dozens of canonical Oz tales by other authors, as well as a dizzying array of non-canonical/alternate Oz fantasies. It’s a vast and delightful world for Hollywood to draw on, and yet it sits, waiting. Understandably, Hollywood’s hands are tied a bit –- any foray into Oz runs the risk of unfavorable and negative comparisons to Judy Garland and her ruby slippers – but a clever, creative filmmaker could do wonders with Baum’s work, and a studio would have a major franchise on their hands.
And what does Hollywood do? The exact thing they shouldn’t — a prequel to the 1939 movie. Yes, in the most technical of terms, it’s a prequel to Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” but it’s deriving most of its power from MGM’s vision of Oz, not Baum’s. But even more troubling and disappointing about Sam Raimi’s 3D spectacle “Oz The Great and Powerful” is what character it chooses to crown as its hero: The Wizard.
Why is this sad and troubling? Well, as you go through the Oz series, one fact can’t help but jump out at you: The feisty, heroic characters of Oz are all young women. Dorothy returns, again and again, to have adventures in Oz. “Tik-Tok of Oz” features a Dorothy surrogate in Betsy Bobbin (no Toto for Betsy! Her animal companion is a mule named Hank.) Glinda often reappears to do battle. General Jinjur leads an all-female coup against the Scarecrow, and despite its failure, Baum lovingly stops in to see how she’s faring in the common Munchkin life.
But most intriguing and revolutionary of them all is Princess Ozma, who actually makes her first appearance in “The Marvelous Land of Oz” as a young boy named Tip. Tip is the “hero” of the book until it’s revealed an evil witch named Mombi did a magical gender reassignment, and Tip becomes Ozma, restored not only to her rightful throne, but to her own feminine self. It’s a strange and fascinating twist for both Tip and the audience alike, and one with very modern implications.
There are male characters in Oz, of course, but they’re rarely also lead characters. Occasionally one breaks out as a hero, like Ojo the Munchkin boy in “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” or Cap’n Bill and Trot, but they’re one-offs, never to return. The recurring male characters are always faithful and familiar sidekicks like the Wizard, Tin-Man, Tik-Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead. Alternately, they’re enemies, like the Nome King.
The reason for this is simple: Baum was a feminist. He was an avid supporter of women’s suffrage, and was happily married to the outspoken, intelligent, and energetic Maud Gage Baum, who had gone to Cornell, and sacrificed dreams of degrees to marry him. Their marriage was an unusual one for the time, as Frank happily let her wear the pants, assert her authority, and rule the house.
Baum’s mother-in-law was none other than famous activist and suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage. She was a frequent visitor at their house, as were many other suffragettes of the time, including Susan B. Anthony. Baum was not only sympathetic to their cause, but active towards it, serving as the secretary for Aberdeen Women’s Suffrage Club, and writing editorials for the “Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer,” urging citizens to vote for women’s suffrage. The revolt of Jinjur in “The Marvelous World of Oz” is an allusion to the women’s movement, and it’s said that the gutsy character of Dorothy was inspired by Matilda, though one can easily see a bit of feisty Maud in her, too.
Though Baum brushed off claims that Oz was at all political, he made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They’re princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat. Perhaps most significantly, none of the characters -– not Ozma, Glinda, Betsy or Dorothy –- ever engage in romantic relationships. Baum made a point of avoiding such trappings as love interests, because he believed children would find passionate romance boring, and an emotional element which they wouldn’t truly understand. Perhaps there was a personal element in this as well, as Baum, conscious of what Maud sacrificed in order to marry him, allowed his heroines perpetual youth and personal freedom.
With such a rich tapestry on and off the Oz page, it’s depressing that 2013 finds our return to Oz burdened with a reluctant hero (the dominant kind in the 21st century), and not one of Baum’s plucky young heroines. In a bitter reversal of Baum’s stories, “Great and Powerful” casts the women as the sidekicks, standing by to aid the Wizard should he need it. No longer instigators of action, the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived (“Aren’t you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” asks Theodora, voice trembling. Actually, all the female dialogue seems to be on the wobbly verge of tears). Whereas Baum’s charlatan Wizard accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process, now we have one who has a place carved out for him, and is hailed as the man “who can set things right” (silly witches, always making a mess of their kingdoms!). Who knew three sorceresses –- who were all-seeing and all-knowing in prior Oz tales -– were actually helpless compared to a man from Kansas? And helpless against him! Yes, Michelle Williams’ Glinda is smart enough to see through our hero’s lies and bluster, but otherwise she’s completely stripped of any real agency. “Great and Powerful” corrects Baum’s grievous abstinence, and reminds us all women must fall for a handsome traveler. The modern day Wizard now wins at least 2/3 of the onscreen hearts instead of being shamed as a liar.
No doubt the focus group responsible for “Great and Powerful” convinced themselves that female protagonists weren’t marketable (odd coming from the studio of Disney Princesses), and that a pouty, doubting hero would draw in a wider range of moviegoers. It was probably believed no one would ever see an Oz film unless it directly tied into the version they already knew and loved, and that trying to draw on original Oz tales would be too confusing and difficult. Audiences can follow along with Marvel and Tolkien, but the origin of Ozma would undoubtedly be too complicated. Why bring in Betsy and her mule, when we can have a Hollywood hunk on the poster, and witchy cleavage at the denouement?
But one can’t help feeling that “Great and Powerful” is two steps back from the feminist bent Baum proudly and freely leant his work, and in a day and age when there wasn’t even a label for it. With a wave of his pen, he transformed the boy Tip into Ozma, and no one complained. Nowadays, such a gender swap is so unthinkable that our storytellers did the reverse, and swapped a female for a fraud. What spell do we need to change it back, and enjoy Oz in all Baum’s original equalitarian glory?