Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Off to See the Wizard

Today is the birthday of L. Frank Baum, most famous for having written The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Would we even remember him if there hadn't been a movie?  Hard to say.  I read many books in the series, saw the movie, read Gregory Maguire's Wicked (but have yet to see the musical).  It's becoming hard for me to remember which details go with which work.

But let me just take a minute to think about the aspects of our culture that wouldn't exist had not Baum written his book that started the whole saga.  We would probably still have the idea of two siblings, one good, one bad; but we wouldn't have that wonderful phrase, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"  Maybe someone else would have memorably made us consider that we had everything we needed before we even left home.  Another movie maker likely would have used the difference between black and white and technicolor to great effect, but how gloriously that motif came together in the movie.

What would life today be like if Judy Garland had never stood at that fence and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"?  Think of the iconic images:  the ruby slippers (silver, in the book), the tornado, the yellow brick road to a distant Emerald City, the Munchkins, the flying monkeys. 

The dominant themes still seem so relevant:  the yearning for home and the longing to be anywhere but home, the nagging feeling that somewhere out there is a community that would better understand us.

I continue to be intrigued by the Scarecrow wanting a brain, the Tin Man wanting a heart, the Lion wanting courage.  The Wizard of Oz gives them a pincushion, a silk heart, and a drink (at least in the book; the movie details escape me now)--but of course, they've already demonstrated the personality traits that they desire.  Still, that talisman seems important.

There's the whole motif of the journey and what we learn.  And in the book, I remember that everyone who visits the Emerald City has to put on glasses--which, of course, makes the world green.  We see so much in this saga about how we see and how we learn and how we come into our full potential.

Sure, there are some that would make the story be a tale about the gold standard and paper money.  Maybe it is.  But that's the beauty of a well-told tale:  different readers can come away with radically different interpretations, and if they're skilled literary critics, they can likely find support in the literature they're discussing.

Many cultural critics would tell you that this story is one of the most familiar pop culture narratives ever.  That's an enormous accomplishment.

I also find myself thinking about how future generations will take the story and make it their own.  We've already seen Gregory Maguire's approach, and I suspect much more remains to be mined.

No comments: