Monday, 31 May 2010

Wizard of Oz

Here is a piece I wrote for the Guardian on the Wizard of Oz, before it was cut for space (22 May 2010).

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As Britain prepares breathlessly for Sunday’s finale of Over the Rainbow, Drew Barrymore announced plans to direct Surrender Dorothy, the story of Dorothy’s great-great-granddaughter, who apparently uses the ruby slippers to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (the reports are unclear about whether she’s been resurrected, or it’s her great-great-granddaughter, too) in her attempts to conquer Oz and Earth. The Wicked Witch used to just enslave Munchkins and monkeys; now she’s a rather more ambitious imperialist.

Meanwhile, Robert Downey, Jr. is rumored to be making a Disney prequel explaining how the wizard ended up in Oz, at least two CGI productions have been proposed, and something called The Witches of Oz, which will star Christopher Lloyd as the wizard.

Oz is clearly enjoying a renaissance. In part, as some have already noted, these are predictable efforts to capitalize on the recent success of new versions of old classic fantasies, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings. But there is something particularly appropriate to The Wizard of Oz returning to our screens, both large and small, and to the West End, right now.

L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, as America emerged from a recession in the 1890s. Its most famous film version appeared in 1939, as America tried to decide whether it was emerging from the Great Depression, and whether to enter the war in Europe, or continue to avoid it. It has become a truism that the films of the Great Depression offered escapism, but this facile observation doesn’t begin to explain the power these films still possess to comfort even modern audiences. Like all the greatest Hollywood films of the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz offers a master class in consoling philosophies, the art of running away from your troubles—and what will happen when you return.

Dorothy seeks a life over the rainbow, her own fantasy of avoidance, of running away from the grey life of agrarian survival in the Kansas dustbowl. But when she dreams of crash-landing among beings with magical powers (including a great deal of symbolic flight), she drags her home along with her and drops it on a witch. Home was never so comforting: it doesn’t just save Dorothy, it liberates all the enslaved munchkins. For the rest of the film, Dorothy tries to get home, but Dorothy is exactly like her friends, who already have the brains, heart, and nerve they seek—she never left home at all: she brought it with her. So when she “learns” that there’s no place like home, the implication is not that she’s lowering her standards and resigning herself to her lot in life, but that you can, in fact, go home again. As the “Optimistic Voices” (so-named by the screenplay) sing: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night”…

Films like The Wizard of Oz (and Gone with the Wind, which came out in the same year) were immense hits with an American audience that had been grappling for the best part of a decade with rampant homelessness and despair because they offered myths of survival and return. By contrast, many of our most popular contemporary stories focus on leaving home: fantasy sagas like Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars cycle, or Pirates of the Caribbean are initiation stories about young men learning to be heroes, stories of journey, adventure, quests, and king-making. Such imperial fantasies are quite at odds with the very domestic stories of the Depression. In times of comfort, stories of leaving home are signs of independence and power; in seasons of want, stories of leaving home are signs of desperation.

No surprise, then, that our own grandiose age of peddling endless ambition should shift the focus either to fantasies of saving the world, or to the wizard, the man behind the curtain—who’s now the man perched on a golden throne every Sunday night deciding the fate of Dorothy. The pragmatic opportunism of Professor Marvell, who grabs his power where he can, was part of the problem in the original story. The wizard is just a humbug; how typical that we should turn him into a hero, or pop him onto a throne. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.


  1. Excellent piece I have always loved the wizard of oz and feel very much like Dorothy, in moving here, I have found my own little Kansas and I am bringing my boys up in it. Desperately worried about their futures in this very uncertain world, trying to keep them focused on education so that they have more choices available to them. I indulge myself listening to what they have learned and their opinions on history.
    I must tell you that the wizard behind the curtain made me think of Simon Cowell surely he is today's equivalent x

  2. Hi Sarah

    I’ve enjoyed reading your piece. Undoubtedly, FDR’s America (and the culture it produced) is very far removed to that of today. No one would associate America with anti-imperialism today, for example. It would be interesting to see what versions of Oz current ideologies will produce, although there is an example of this, which you didn’t include in your piece, Wicked. To my mind, this musical is very much the product of the George W. Bush years; a reaction against the curtailing of civil rights and the politics of fear which dominated then (and still do now).

    Not only has there been an ideological shift in the US and the rest of the so-called West in the last few decades. Also Hollywood has changed not just in the way it makes its products (movies there and now are commodities) but in the way it see its audience; movies initially were made largely for women, now they mostly address straight male teenagers. I think you are right, whatever we get now will be very different to the 1939 movie (‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore’).

  3. You know, I haven't seen Wicked? (I know, I know, shame on me.) But thanks to JPR for pointing it out, you're quite right, it was a silly oversight to leave it out. Thanks for your thoughts, which I quite agree with.