Wicked, Oz, and reimagining public domain works
I have recently finished reading Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked Years) for the first time. I came to it as a big Oz fan, with a good knowledge of the official books in the series.
The book has been influential. When you see works created since Wicked’s release in 1995 which “reimagine” putative children’s literature for a modern, adult audience, you can often see how the spirit of this book caught on with the creative community (and with those who market entertainment). Would we have had Disney’s Once Upon a Time series without Wicked? Perhaps, but not in the same way.
I had certainly heard of Wicked: I sold it when I managed a brick and mortar bookstore. I was able to approach it without knowing much about the particulars, though.
I will reveal some fairly minor things about the book (and the original Oz books and the 1939 movie) below. I’m careful about trying not to take away the sense of discovery from those who are going to first encounter a work, and that’s why I’m giving you this warning. I don’t think I’m going to write about anything any particular plot twists, but I will mention some elements that appear in the book.
What I did anticipate was that the book was going to make the characters seem “more like real human beings”. I expected there to be sex and violence: there sometimes seems to be this idea that so-called children’s literature is limited by an ability to portray those areas of life, and that writing for adults frees the author to cover those. I don’t think L. Frank Baum wanted to put in sex scenes, and was told that was inappropriate by someone else…this isn’t an external constraint, it’s an artistic choice. There is certainly violence in the original Wizard of Oz book…the Tin Woodman alone accounts for over 100 deaths. There isn’t any explicit sex in the original series, although romantic love is an element.
That would have been okay with me. I’ve been called a prude because I don’t use obscenities in the blog, and have sometimes criticized their use by others (although I think that has not particularly been for fictional works). I alert people to possibly objectionable elements when I do reviews, but that doesn’t make me give the book a more negative review (although I do think it can limit an audience, while perhaps expanding another).
Where did make me more uncomfortable here was the negative attitude the book presents about the world.
That always tends to get to me in books. When a book presents things as people (human or not) being generally “bad”, I find that unrealistic. I’m not a fan of cruelty in books by people who aren’t the clear “villains”, but are simply in the general populace. It just clashes with my own paradigm, in that I think people are generally “good”. For that reason, it feels…exploitative, I guess.
Gregory Maguire’s Oz is a very cruel place. Adults are cruel, children are cruel. There is overwhelming societal prejudice, against strangers, against intelligent Animals (more on that capitalization later).
Does that contrast with the original series?
Well, there are some cruel people in L. Frank Baum’s Oz. They are, however, in a tiny minority.
That’s perhaps part of why Oz has been part of our culture for well over a hundred years. People who read Oz would like to go there…despite the Wicked Witches, the Nome King, the Wheelers, the Princess who wants to take your head, and the deadly Kalidahs. There is slavery (it’s quite common), and suicide. Still, most people in Oz are good, and Ozma (the main ruler of Oz after the Wizard) has an open heart.
That’s nothing like Maguire’s Oz. Maguire carefully brings in names and elements from the original series, but they are seen through the opposite of rose-colored glasses.
Mentioning color brings up a key point.
While the book is supposedly based on the public domain Oz books, and gathers characters from books beyond the first (Tik-Tok, for example, appears in a different form…the clockwork robot first appeared in the fifth book of the series), it clearly owes a great deal to the non-public domain 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Much of what happens in the book stems from the Wicked Witch of the West being green. Naturally, that’s seen as a bad omen (I don’t think there are any good omens in Wicked). As an infant and forward, Elphaba (Maguire creates new names for characters), is seen as a symbol of evil because of skin color, and that naturally impacts the future Wicked Witch’s emotional development.
The Wicked Witch of the West is not green in the L. Frank Baum books. That was apparently introduced in the 1939 movie, partially to show off the color in the movie.
Also, the Witch flying on a broomstick is important in Maguire’s Oz, and does not happen in Baum’s (although other witches do fly on broomsticks much later in the series).
After someone sings a song in Wicked, there is a mention of rainbows…a not so subtle connection to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
It’s absolutely fair to say that the 1939 movie was also different from the original books. It was not a success when first released…there were many Oz fans who didn’t like the casting of Bert Lahr, a known comedian, as the Cowardly Lion, for one thing.
However, it is different in different ways from Maguire’s Oz. It differs more in specifics than in tone.
Did I like Wicked?
Yes…I thought the writing was quite good. It was harsh, it was deliberately shocking in places, it was sometimes jarring (cigarettes, adjustable loans, and trains in Oz? For one thing, where were they growing the tobacco?)…but I really felt for the characters. I was anxious to see what happened next.
For me, it would have been a much better book if it didn’t have the Oz veneer over it…but can I honestly say I would ever have read it if it had just been a sort of Dickensian tale, without the magic and familiar characters? Probably not.
I will go on to other books in the Maguire series.
One last note about the book itself. I mentioned this capitalization thing with Animals. That was something that bothered be every time it happened: intelligent animals in Maguire’s Oz are pronounced in some way with a capital letter. That’s to distinguish a Cow (which speaks and thinks like a human) from a cow (which doesn’t). I didn’t get that: how do you pronounce it differently? I listened to part of the book with text-to-speech, and of course, Ivona didn’t pronounce it any differently. I didn’t have trouble telling what was meant by the context, though…it just seemed like a contrivance. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t happy with the treatment of the animals or Animals in the book, but people weren’t particularly more cruel to them than they were to other more human types that they encountered.
This all got me thinking about when people reimagine public domain works. That can produce some great things. For example, West Side Story and Forbidden Planet are both based (somewhat loosely) on Shakespeare plays (Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, respectively).
That can lead to some great new insights and art. Philip José Farmer’s A Barnstormer In Oz, which preceded Wicked by some thirteen years, similarly explores Oz with a different sensibility…and yes, more realistic violence and sex than the original books.
I’m not opposed, under the current legal structure, to new adventures with public domain characters…I just recommended authors do just that in Three characters walk into a plot….
I think Wicked has considerable value as a work of art, even if I don’t personally like its sensibility.
I don’t think a derivative work damages the original…even though many people may first become familiar with something through an adaptation or derivation (I would guess the vast majority of people in the world know MGM’s Oz much better than Baum’s).
I’m curious what you think, though. Do you feel like classic characters and books need to be “respected” by not being portrayed in ways other than the original? Is it okay for later authors to change their inner motivations? What do you think when a book labeled a children’s book is “updated” with sex and explicit violence? If that’s clear to the audience, is it still some sort of “violation” of the characters?
Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.