The Wizard of Oz is one of a very few shared experiences that unite Americans as a culture, transcending barriers of age, locale, politics, religion, and so on. We all see it when we are young, and it leaves an indelible mark on our imaginations. We can hardly imagine not knowing it. It ranks among our earliest and most defining experiences of wonder and of fear, of fairy-tale joys and terrors, of the lure of the exotic and the comfort of home.
The story is the classic American fairy tale, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum (and followed by numerous sequels). As befits an American fairy tale, it contains nothing of royal weddings or births, princes or princesses, magic carriages or knights-errant, as one finds in classical European folklore. Instead, we have a young heroine from a Kansas farm, an ominous cyclone, a cornfield scarecrow, a newfangled sort of metal-work man, and an Omaha-bred sideshow huckster in the role of a wizard-king. (Just the sort of wizard-king you’d expect a Yank writer to come up with.)
Yet there’s also continuity with older, non-American tales and images: wicked witches, good queens (Glinda, who in the book lives in a palace and in the film wears a crown, and also the book’s Queen of the Field Mice), and a lion (not a New World beast). The "quest" structure of the story, too, is shared with many older fairy-tales.
Like all fairy tales, this one has suffered countless attempts by critics and commentators to explain its meaning and power. Countless interpretations have been advanced, of the book and of the film, from almost every conceivable angle: political, economic, religious, feminist, Freudian, you name it.
But is there any "explaining" this story? Baum himself, in his introduction to the book, professed that it "was written solely to pleasure children of today." Yet even Baum seemed not to understand what he had done. His express intention was to create "a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out." The conventions of traditional fairy tales — the "stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy" — were to be eliminated, "together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale." Such moralizing, Baum felt, was now superfluous: "Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident."
Leave aside for a moment Baum’s touching faith in the moral adequacy of "modern education," and the notion that the goal of children’s stories should henceforth be entertainment only. Who that has read the book as a child, or to a child, or seen the film, can agree that the story "dispenses with all disagreeable incident" and does away with "the heartaches and nightmares" of traditional fairy-stories? Just how far removed from "stereotyped" dwarves and elves are Baum’s "Munchkins" and "Winkies", and how much difference is there between a fairy and a "good witch"?
To be fair, Baum did manage to abolish any sense of a "fearsome moral" to his tale: Unlike such tales as "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Goldilocks," in which it may be possible to identify some particular point at which the heroine makes some sort of mistake or error in judgment, and to see how her subsequent peril is related to her actions, in Baum’s book Dorothy does nothing wrong and still has frightful things happen to her. In that sense, Baum did succeed in divorcing the fearsome from any obvious moral. (Not that this is necessarily a fault; after all, we aren’t always responsible for our own misfortunes — and traditional fairy-tales can reflect that too; for example, "Cinderella" and "Hansel and Gretel.")
In any case, in Victor Fleming’s film the story reverts to old-style "fearsome morals." Dorothy runs away, without so much as a thought to her family’s feelings; and that is why she’s in the house when she ought to have been in the storm cellar. Thus, with perfect fairy-tale symbolism, Dorothy is whisked far away from home only after having already decided to leave home, and her initial inability to anticipate her family’s feelings is the cause of all Auntie Em’s subsequent worry and sorrow, so grievous to Dorothy throughout the film.
That the film also provides a naturalistic explanation for Dorothy’s adventure — viz. a dream following a blow to the head — doesn’t really affect this moral dimension. Whether in Oz or dangerously injured, Dorothy is really unable to return to her worried family, a circumstance connected to her decision to run away.
Actually, the decision to run away appears to be Dorothy’s second mistake. The first (pointed out by one of her uncle’s hired hands, played by Ray Bolger, who’s also the Scarecrow) is that Dorothy repeatedly chooses a route home from school that takes her past the house of Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton, also the Wicked Witch of the West) — a choice she knows sometimes results in Toto chasing Miss Gulch’s cat.
This, of course, precipitates the conflict that leads to Dorothy running away. (The movie never ties up this subplot, by the way: Miss Gulch presumably still has the sheriff’s order for Toto’s destruction. Assuming, of course, that her midair transformation into the Witch was just a dream after all…)
But Dorothy’s route home from school is in the back-story, and much less important than her running away. It is this latter decision that’s responsible for all of Dorothy’s extraordinary and sometimes frightful experiences.
Some of Dorothy’s experiences are indeed so
frightful that they can still make
Not all of these elements come from the original book — and, of those that do, not all carry the same emotional weight in the book — but Baum’s story is full of dreadful things left out of the film: a monstrous giant spider with foot-long fangs and a wasplike neck so slender that the Cowardly Lion is able to swat its head off; the violent origin of the Tin Woodman, which involves repeated catastrophic injuries repaired each time by a local tin-smith until nothing human remains; a showdown between the Tin Woodman and a pack of killer wolves in which the Tin Man with his spinning axe decapitates each foe in turn like a martial-arts swordsman bloodily dispatching a long queue of attackers.
How could Baum have imagined that his story "dispenses with all disagreeable incident"? More importantly, why do we introduce our children to stories (in book or in film) with such nasty and frightful elements?
Part of the answer, surely, is that the stories with dark elements seem also to be, paradoxically, the most joyous and wondrous stories. The film’s Winged Monkeys and Wicked Witch may be hauntingly unforgettable — but so are a host of magical moments: the first glorious Technicolor views of the Munchkin wonderland; the arrival of Glinda; the meeting of the beloved Scarecrow; the first sight of the Emerald City skyline; the emotional Kansas reunion with its famous closing line; and, of course, the song-and-dance numbers, every one a classic: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead," "We’re Off to See the Wizard," "If I Only Had a Brain," etc. "Disagreeable incident" there may be, but also "wonderment and joy" in glad abundance.
But that only pushes the question back a step: Why must the most delightful stories also have frightening and disturbing elements? Did Baum have the right idea about jettisoning such things, even if he retained them in practice? Would it be better to raise children on stories that know nothing of tragedy and heartache, and let them confront the fallenness of the world when they’re older and more mature?
C. S. Lewis, in his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," suggests not. For one thing, children well understand that bad things really happen — that they are "born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil." In his day Lewis noted the shadow of the atomic bomb and the Soviet secret police; today’s children have global terrorism, not to mention the usual bullies, skinned knees, pets dying, and so forth.
We can’t hide these things from our children. What we can do, Lewis points out, is show them the other side of the coin: "Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage… By confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable."
Far from allaying their fears, overzealous efforts to shelter children from unpleasantness create the alarming impression that they can’t handle difficult realities — that badness is too overwhelming for them. By contrast, allowing them to confront evil and adversity in an imaginative context makes it far more manageable than attempts to brush it under the carpet.
It can also be a form of catharsis, helping children exorcise
the pain and confusion of such adversities as they have already
had to face. (For that matter, adults too can benefit from the
cathartic effects of movies that are suspenseful or frightening
Obviously there’s a limit to what a child ought to have to deal with at any particular age. Yet one need only observe children at play in any backyard or playground to realize that children demand imaginary adversity. Shelter them from witches and guns and dinosaurs, and they’ll invent edgy scenarios for themselves as best they can — often to the consternation of well-meaning parents or teachers who don’t understand the essential value of such play.
The Wizard of Oz is a textbook case in point. Dorothy, though not one of Lewis’s "brave knights," is a child-hero akin to Jack the Giant-Killer. Like Jack, she faces difficulty and adversity with admirable pluck and resiliency. She sticks up for her friends in the face of danger, swatting the lion who tries to bite her dog (before she learns of his timidity) and standing up to the Wizard and even the Witch when they bully her companions.
Dorothy rescues the Scarecrow and the Tin Man from literal
immobility, and the Lion from a kind of figurative, emotional
paralysis. With American
Just as Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee made the heroes of
Arthur’s court look like simpletons, these three fairy-land
Dorothy’s three companions, like Dorothy herself, each have a single, simple motivation drawing them to the Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz. All of them want something, and believe that what they seek can be found only there.
The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are each identified with a longing for a particular human quality — namely, intelligence, feeling, and courage. Each of the three friends is convinced that he lacks utterly the quality that he deems most essential. Yet, in the end, though the Wizard is unable to make any actual difference in them, they all seem absurdly pleased with the results.
That Dorothy actually had the means of returning home all the time, had she but known it, is explicitly stated in the film. What isn’t so obvious is that her three friends also each possess what they are looking for.
The Scarecrow, who believes himself to be brainless, is in fact the cleverest of the companions, and is the default problem-solver in both the film and the book. The Lion proves capable of truly valiant deeds, though he believes himself a coward (apparently because he thinks of courage as feelings of fearlessness, rather than the ability to do what is necessary whether one feels afraid or not). As for the Tin Man, so far from being heartless, he may be the most sensitive character in the history of film.
The journey of the three companions thus turns out to be another case in point of the wholesome humanism of The Little Engine that Could: Believe in yourself, and make the most of your gifts and resources, rather than sitting around wishing "if I only had" this or that (better looks, lucky breaks, more money, etc.).
At the same time, this humanistic moral isn’t taken to an individualist or materialist extreme. The Scarecrow and the Tin Man could never have freed themselves without Dorothy’s intervention, which was in turn contingent on the cyclone — an act of God, as it were. This same act of God also providentially dropped the house foursquare on the Wicked Witch of the East, not only freeing the Munchkins, but also providing Dorothy with the magical slippers. And the slippers themselves aren’t something Dorothy possesses in her own right, but are a kind of supernatural gift, almost a sort of grace.
As important as Dorothy’s three friends are to the narrative, with respect to the central conflict they are not pivotal or cardinal characters. Dorothy is the story’s lone protagonist, the Witch is her antagonist, and Glinda, though she has comparatively little screen time, nevertheless has a cardinal role as Dorothy’s advocate and advisor.
These three strong female characters — Dorothy, the Witch, and Glinda — drive the story. The male characters, including Dorothy’s companions, have less pivotal roles. Even in Dorothy’s Kansas home, Uncle Henry only plays passive-aggressive games with Miss Gulch, but it’s Aunt Em who tells Miss Gulch to her face that she can’t tell her what she really thinks of her ("being a Christian woman").
One important effect of this all-female dynamic at the center of the plot is that it avoids the complications of a male-female dynamic in the central conflict. A fairy tale in which a female protagonist is beset by a male antagonist or defended by a male advocate — as, for example, Little Red Riding Hood is pursued by the male Wolf and defended by the male Hunter — can hardly avoid being viewed in terms of sexual symbolism (e.g., Wolf = man as predator, Hunter = civilized suitor).
The Wizard of Oz avoids such overtones, for the simple reason that the active players are all the same sex. Because they are all female, the story takes on a positive feminine character, without the drawbacks of self-conscious feminism found in many modern stories dominated by female characters. There’s nothing here, for example, of male-bashing, or even any negative male characters at all. Even Oz, the great humbug, isn’t meant to be disliked, as are the Witch and Miss Gulch.
In this story, the primary male role is neither man-as-predator nor man-as-suitor, but man as friend. Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke in Kansas, and the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion in Oz, are Dorothy’s friends and nothing else. And this befits a fairy tale that isn’t quite, as are so many others, a coming-of-age fable. The Wizard of Oz is not a tale about growing up, but only a tale about growing older; a tale that ends not, "And they lived happily ever after," but, "There’s no place like home."
"Home" here is not the heroine’s own home — a home of a new adult life with some male hero — but Dorothy’s childhood home. Dorothy begins by running away and longing romantically for a better life "somewhere over the rainbow"; by the end she has learned that her place is at home, with her aunt and uncle and friends… for now.
Digitally remastered from the original negatives, painstakingly restored, The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 75th anniversary in style. Here’s my “Reel Faith” 60-second tribute to this beloved classic.
So many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? What was Kermit talking about? There’s only one song like that … and one movie that embodies the childhood magic Jim Henson wanted to evoke.
Oz the Great and Powerful is brightly colorful, sincere and meant for children. That doesn’t make it good, exactly, but at least it’s basically the right kind of movie, which is saying something these days, alas.
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I often refer to your movie reviews and have a great deal of respect for your opinion. I recently read an article called “The Occultic Wizard of Oz” and was wondering what your thoughts were on The Wizard of Oz in light of this perspective. Could you please read the article and give me your opinion?
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