Lessons from Oz

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful with my family. I enjoyed the movie and thought it was a respectable prequel to L. Frank Baum’s wonderful series of fantasy novels. It was by no means a perfect movie. I felt many of the characters lacked depth and many of the performances could have been stronger. Still, I liked how it told the story of a flawed man could find a way to live his ambition and be a good man at the same time. In many ways it seems true to the story of L. Frank Baum himself and many of us who want to entertain others through our stories.

Marvelous Land of Oz

I almost dread it when a new Oz film comes out. Invariably people who talk about it will compare it to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. Before I proceed, let me say that I absolutely love the film and think it’s a fun adaptation of the first book in the series. However, because it’s only an adaptation of the first book in the series, it only scratches the surface of the whole wonderful world that L. Frank Baum created. People who only know the 1939 movie have never met Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Hungry Tiger, or the mechanical man TikTok. They have never traveled to the countries surrounding Oz such as Ev and Ix or known villains such as the Nome King or the witch Mombi.

What’s more, the 1939 movie popularized one of the clichés that’s almost guaranteed to set my teeth on edge when I read it in a submission to Tales of the Talisman. That’s the ending where “it was all a dream.” The 1939 Wizard of Oz did that ending well, and partly it was done well because there are subtle hints that it really wasn’t a dream after all. I don’t recall seeing the ending done well in any submission to the magazine and it’s almost grounds for an automatic rejection. I won’t tell you not to do it, because you might be the person who convinces me they can do it well—but go there at your peril! Just to note, that is not the book’s ending. In the Oz books, there’s never a doubt that Oz is a real place.

One of the things I find especially fascinating about the greater world of Oz and L. Frank Baum as a writer is that he not only wrote stories and books, but he experimented in other media as well. He wrote one of the first ever newspaper comic strips, Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz which appeared in 1903. He also had a film studio and made at least three Oz films in 1914. It’s not entirely clear to me whether Baum viewed these ventures as primarily promotional or as artistic explorations in their own right. In either case, I applaud him and think writers can take a lesson from this. Writers should be encouraged to step away from their comfort zones and try telling stories in different media from time to time. These days, there are many possibilities open from audio to computer animation and beyond. Trying something new can only further your growth as a writer and take you to a wonderful new place in this journey called life.

Open your eyes to grand visions, experiment with other media and other forms of writing, avoid clichés (but if you don’t want to, just make sure you’re going in with your eyes open!). These are just some of the lessons we can take away from L. Frank Baum’s marvelous world of Oz. Learning some of these lessons might just help you achieve a few of your ambitions in ways you never expected.

2 comments on “Lessons from Oz

  1. The “It was a dream” has bothered people for decades. The studio put that in there because they just could not ultimately deal with fantasy material in the sense we do today. People like my parents would never accept such a story unless it was just a dream. It was a different time. That said, the first thing out of one woman’s mouth the day I saw it was (on a cell phone) “It was really for kids.” Have times changed that much?

    The new movie was hamstrung by the Judy Garland film in many ways. They had to end with a world ready for Dorothy’s arrival–with both sisters still intact. In a way, that’s a shame because we never really get much Wizard stuff out of the wizard.

    • It really bothers me with people dismiss a simple story or poor characterization as being for kids. Kids need and want the same good storytelling as adults.

      I think you’re right about how the new movie was hamstrung by the Judy Garland film. I remember when Disney’s “Return to Oz” came out, many people were upset by all the “new” characters they introduced — Jack Pumpkinhead, TikTok, the Nome King, the Gump — not realizing those were characters from the books. Disney is not a place to repeat “mistakes.”

      It’s a shame, though, because I think the books offer a much more interesting conflict. In the books, Glinda wasn’t actually part of the royal family, but had been working to restore the royal family. In the books, the true heir to the throne was Ozma, who had been transformed into a boy named Tip by Mombi (yet another witch…) in allegiance with the Wizard. Imagine a story where the Wizard had been duped into helping destroy the royal family, then had the mission of restoring it when he realized the truth of what he had done. Now that would have been an interesting tale!

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