What can I say about a 115-year old book that has for 75 years been a movie and long ago became a well-loved classic? I guess all I can do is tell you my experience, and try to bring Dorothy home one more time.
As corny as it may be, the film The Wizard of Oz remains one of my all-time favorites. It was the first present Jennifer ever gave to me, on VHS, in 1997. I also own it on DVD, have a companion book, and Life Magazine’s anniversary celebration booklet. 2014 was the 75th anniversary of its theatrical release, and I was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen for the first time when it played in Columbia for two nights last fall. I’ve even seen it on stage. But I had not yet read the book, and I felt I had to do that to truly call myself a fan.
Jen prepared me for a story much more sinister than the one presented in the movie, and she was right! Forget that there is no amazing singing to keep the reader in a spirited mood, or that Dorothy was away from her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry for weeks rather than what seemed to be a couple of days. The book also detailed the killing of various creatures, the enslavement of multiple races, and brutal murder attempts of the Scarecrow and Tin Man. The Lion is imprisoned and starved.
I was already prepared for the self-dismemberment the woodsman inflicted upon himself, thanks to seeing the story at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre a couple years ago. That did not make it any less puzzling to read, however. I suppose I should have read it as though I were a child, because I suspect the story would have felt very different. When Jen and I saw the film in the theater, I tried to watch as though I had never seen it before (and really, I discovered, I never had!). I should have taken the same approach to the book. I am certain that would have helped me appreciate it more, as well.
Don’t get me wrong — I still liked it, but I was frustrated at times. I became annoyed with the repetition. “Then I shall never get a heart.” “And I will never get courage.” “And I will never get back to Kansas.” I get it, already. How many times must the Scarecrow have a good idea, the Tin Man shed a tear, or the Lion confront a challenge before one of them says to the other: “You know what? You’re good. You don’t need to see the Wizard.”
I did enjoy a few moments, especially. The first was when Dorothy had first told the Scarecrow where she was from and how it was much less colorful than the land of Oz. His reply about the people there was quite funny, inadvertently suggesting that the brainless are smarter than the people of Kansas:
Of course I cannot understand it. If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places and then Kansas would have no people at all.
Another humorous line was when the guard outside the throne room of Oz is surprised to hear that the group does not intend to become slaves of the Witch, but to destroy her.
Oh, …no one has ever destroyed her before…
While the movie alters much of the story, I liked that it subtly honored the book in the exchange between Mrs. Gulch and Uncle Henry, when she claimed that Toto had bit her on the leg. In the book it is said that the dog once bit the Witch in the same place. Only a reader of the book (or this blog) would know the reference.
The Witch seems much less powerful in the book, and she doesn’t harass the group along their journey as she does in the movie. Her demise is equally anticlimactic in both, and made College Humor’s six worst movie villain deaths list. But how else is Dorothy the Small and Meek to destroy a Wicked Old Witch?
I finished the book in about a week, but decided quickly that a person really should be able to get through it in a couple of hours at the most. But then I saw a reviewer on my library website say that he wished he had read it slower, to better appreciate the beautiful settings. I think it is true that a quick read would lead a person to overlook some wonderful details.
There are plenty of theories about the deeper meanings in the story, but I continue to stick to the more obvious one: That each of us possesses inside the characteristics we believe we lack. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion all made use of the things they sought from the Wizard while on their way to see him. Even Dorothy benefited from that which she sought: While she was clearly not in Kansas anymore, without question Kansas was still in her, and her continued thoughts of it helped her return. We shall overcome.
Sadly, the book did not answer a lingering question I have that arose from the movie: Where does the red brick road go?