And Alice in Wonderland, now that I think about it. And fairy tales. We’ve seen enough versions of these stories, so maybe everyone should take a break for a bit.
Image: Emerald City, looking distinctly not emerald at all. (David Lukacs/NBC)
While I was watching Emerald City, trying to get enough of a handle on the Escher-like contortions of the plot, it occurred to me that I could live the rest of my life without seeing another Oz-based thing and be pretty happy about it. At some point, the madness needs to end.
L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books and a healthy smattering of other Oz material. And when he died, people just kept on writing Oz books. But here’s the thing: They wrote new stories. That isn’t really what we’ve been seeing for the last couple of decades.
Thanks to the 1939 movie, most people know the plot of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and not much about the the other books. And thanks to that movie, there are phrases, songs and visuals stamped hard into the collective consciousness of Western pop culture. And, at some point, it became a trend to take all that and riff on it.
The Wizard of Oz is like a Rorschach test. Everyone sees in it what they want and then, if they’re writers, they go ahead and write the story. Which is how we’ve got Wicked, a dark and gritty reexamination of the Wicked Witch’s origin story. And Oz the Great and Powerful, a dark and gritty reexamination of the Wicked Witch’s origin story. And Once Upon a Time, a television show which had a plot where they did a dark and gritty reimagining of the Wicked Witch’s origin story.
There was also 2007’s Tin Man, which was a science fiction take on The Wizard of Oz that really was all about just renaming things. Oz became the O.Z. — the outer zone. Dorothy Gale became D.G.; Toto became Tutor, a shapeshifting magic teacher; a “tin man” became the name for police officers. And so on.
Image: Tin Man, Sci Fi
And now we’re stuck with Emerald City which, to its credit, is at least doing more with the rest of Oz lore than most of these adaptations. But like Tin Man, it has created a plot that is extremely hard to keep track of.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in the public domain. That means that there’s no copyright and everyone is free to do with it what they wish. The movie isn’t. The things added for the movie can’t be used when people adapt the book. That means things like the witch’s particular shade of green, Dorothy’s dress and braids and so on.
But there are a lot of things in the public domain, so why does Dorothy end up in more adaptations than the rest of them?
I think Oz, Alice in Wonderland and fairy tales are more subject to this than most is because of their connection to childhood. First of all, they’re first encountered in childhood. Second, they star children. So remaking these stories becomes a literal “innocence lost” tale for the people making the new versions. They think, “The stories I loved as a kid had happy endings and simple depictions of good and evil, but now I am an adult and I know the real world is more complicated than that. Therefore, the things I loved as a kid must age with me and develop layers.” By “layers”, they mean “pseudo-intellectual crap that proves how smart I am”.
Oz and Alice in Wonderland in particular have the element of a child visiting a strange land. And that gives people a canvas to paint whatever they want, without having to adhere to historical accuracy or logic or physics. You can shove any allegory into Wonderland and Oz. Plus, once you age Dorothy and Alice up, you can make their return its own allegory about the child within us all.
And it’s good to be inspired by other works. It’s the reason copyright is supposed to expire in the first place, so that other artists can build on what’s come before. If a bunch of creative work was being done by people inspired by Oz, that would be one thing.
But that’s not what’s happening here. People just want to make you see Oz their way. Or they want to come back for another bite at an apple MGM pretty thoroughly ate already. Or they’re lazy. Or it’s a studio mandate that’s banking on nostalgia plus the shock factor of changing a beloved story.
There is a glut of reimaginings that show no actual imagination at all. You’re just supposed to enjoy the novelty of seeing a story you know redone. (This is especially true with Disney’s live action remakes.) Unfortunately, the sheer number of them means that there isn’t actually any novelty left. So studios should just… stop. There’s no place like something new.