Thursday, December 24, 2020

Podcast catchups!

 So, this year, we have no less than four new adaptations of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus to enjoy.

First off is one I had a little hand in from The OzConnection, the YouTube channel of OzCon International. The OzConnection presents videos about Oz as well as other fun videos for Oz fans, many in connection with its Zoom hangouts that have served as a temporary substitute for Oz conventions. Some OzCon presentations have even been revived on The OzConnection as videos.

In this adaptation, Raymond Wohl—who previously presented a one man show about L. Frank Baum—prepared and performed a one-man abridgement of Baum's Santa Claus novel, now told through the POV of Claus himself. In the abridgement, however, the story of the Awgwas was dropped. My involvement was helping to promote it when it was streamed live over Zoom, as well as finding scans of the color plates from the Mary Cowles Clark illustrations, which are used to illustrate the story. Raymond Wohl makes for a jolly Santa Claus. The YouTube version is presented in six parts.

Another adaptation is through Lifeline on the Air's podcast, which adapts the story with a full cast, borrowing the adaptation angle taken in the Rankin-Bass adaptation with the Immortals' deliberations to grant Claus the Mantle of Immortality becoming the framing story. It also omits the Awgwas. The

One I haven't listened to yet is from The Empty Space, which offers their adaptation for $10. Listed as an "Audioventure," it seems the Awgwas here become the "Gorpoks."


Finally, Aron Toman released his adaptation of the story as part of The Chronicles of Oz in his Crossover Adventure Productions podcast. It's a largely faithful adaptation, hitting most of the highlights of the book's story, just now tying it closer to Oz. Just as we've come to expect from the first three seasons of The Chronicles of Oz, there's a few twists and turns to keep the purist guessing! There was one point where I expected one twist to happen, and wound up getting another one.

I did get involved with this one as I actually have a cameo in it! The link says who. There's also my dear OzCon friend Erica Olivera. It's a well-produced adaptation with a cinematic-worthy sound design and even features an original song.


In other podcast happenings, Tara and Em Kay of Down the Yellow Brick Pod have concluded their first season, as they read through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one chapter a week. The two are not Oz historians, but do turn to some good sources about the work and offer their own commentary on the story and W.W. Denslow's original illustration. Their energetic nature makes the podcast a delightful listen. I'd recommend it even to seasoned Oz fans as it may inspire them to think about Oz in ways they haven't before.

In addition to their commentary about the work, they talk to other Oz fans in special episodes, as well as present the monthly "Yellow Brick Crossroads" episodes in which they talk about their interactions with their listeners. A major way to interact is on their Instagram, in which they post several different illustrations, as well as offer recaps in their stories. They have also launched a Patreon page, which will offer more ways to interact in return for some cash to keep the podcast running. They'll launch their second season soon, which will look at musical adaptations of the story, especially the MGM film.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Readdressing L. Frank Baum and racism

 Some time back, I wrote a blog titled "Was L. Frank Baum a racist?" where I admittedly engaged in racism apologetics.

So let's address the issue again:

Was L. Frank Baum a racist?

Yes.

Was his expression of racism allowed at the time because of the society he lived in?

Yes.

Did that make it okay?

No.

Many critics of Baum are aware of his editorials in which he suggested the military should exterminate the remaining members of the Sioux nation. Readers of his works outside of the Oz books are aware of many ethnic stereotypes in his works. A few of his works even use "the n-word." Baum relied on these to depict characters of color in his fiction, as did many other writers of his time. These reveal that while Baum was progressive in his views of gender and other areas, race was one where he was not so enlightened.

In the podcast Down the Yellow Brick Pod, hosts Tara and Em examined the Twinkle Tale "Bandit Jim Crow" with the lens of reading it as a cultural allegory, and it became a disturbing tale. As I listened to the episode, I noted that Baum wrote it during a period where he turned out a lot of work, including the first Aunt Jane's Nieces and Sam Steele books, but it doesn't speak well that he quickly turned out a piece that could be read as a negative allegory about African-American people in America.

Another character from Baum's works I thought of while thinking it over was Aunt Hyacinth from The Daring Twins, who is one of the "mammy" characters who turned up in pop culture for quite some time. Recently, another "mammy" was in the news: Aunt Jemima of the popular brand of pancake mixes and syrups. This led some people claim that people seeking to improve life for everyone in America had gone too far. (While the brand was criticized, when the intent to change the brand was announced, it wasn't a major outcry.) I, however, decided to read up on the stereotype the character originally represented and understand why the company might want to consider rebranding.

The "mammy" stereotype might seem to be a positive character: depending on when her story was set, she would be a slave or a hired servant who would be a dutiful and kind personage in the home who goes above and beyond in her duties to the family she serves. However, when we look at the character further, it gets bad: she is usually depicted as overweight and unattractive, her redeeming feature is the service she can offer the family. Even more disturbing is that "mammy" will care for her white master's children at the expense of her own family. When we remember that Hyacinth actually uses her own money to help care for the Daring family, we see this stereotype re-emerge, though Baum never tells us that Hyacinth has children. Still, she's serving her family at literally her own expense.

I do believe that Baum was attempting to depict a more accurate depiction of the American people in using non-white characters, however his use of stereotypes is troubling because stereotypes depict an inaccurate picture of people that are never accurate to life that inform and influence how these people are thought of. Stereotypes have played a role in our culture in America and we continue to deal with the harm they've caused to this day.

Hyacinth is just one character who reflects a stereotype in Baum's work. I'm not interested in listing all of Baum's characters who are problematic and explaining what's wrong with them because then we'd have quite a long blog and likely forget the main point. I just decided to bring up one character and discuss the problematic aspect of them to offer an example and challenge readers to think through what stereotypes come up in the works they enjoy and what is problematic about them.

Thus, I'm going to have to say it's important to acknowledge Baum's racist and problematic writings, and yes, they reflect how he himself thought. I don't believe we should "cancel" him over these. He has been dead for over a century. His family has acknowledged some of his most troubling work (the Sioux editorials, which targeted actual living people) and apologized. We need to acknowledge and recognize these problematic aspects of his work and learn to do better.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Audible's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Audio Drama

 If you look up Oz on Audible, you'll find a lot of options for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (or just The Wizard of Oz) from abridged to unabridged readings and various audio dramas.

Some years ago, Audible released an unabridged reading by Anne Hathaway as an Audible original. However, they've branched into audio dramas as well. It says Audible Studios is the publisher, so I don't know if it's a company they've put together or one that they fund or what. So now, there's also an audio drama version as an Audible original, which recently became one of the free titles for Audible subscribers to enjoy.

The cover credits Lydia West as Dorothy and Jim Broadbent as the Wizard. West is listed on Audible's page as being part of the UK drama TV show Years and Years, while Jim Broadbent should be familiar to many Oz fans who enjoy other fantasies as he played Professor Slughorn in the Harry Potter films and Professor Digory Kirke in the 2005 feature film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (The Audible page lists him as appearing in The Iron Lady and Moulin Rouge.)

Oz has of course been adapted for audio drama several times. The BBC has adapted it twice, while there were quite a number of short adaptations on children's records, there's been multi-reader audio books that try to do a hybrid approach of audio book and drama, there was Classic Wizard of Oz, the Los Angeles Children's Museum adaptation from 2000, the Monterey Soundworks adaptation, the Big Finish adaptation, Colonial Radio Theater adapted it and the next five Oz books (with Patchwork Girl still reportedly on the way) and most recently, Crossover Adventure Productions' The Chronicles of Oz, which has adapted the first three Oz books in a free but welcome manner. So there's quite a few to compare it to as you're not wanting for choice of audio dramatizations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Probably those last two are my preferred audio adaptations that I've listened to the most.

So, there's this new version, which runs over four hours long. It pretty much captures each episode from the book with a lot of the dialogue left intact, sometimes being rewritten, sometimes embellished, but very often expanded.

And I do mean expanded. There's no narrator and the characters talk a lot. Way more than they should. The adaptation is by Paul Magrs, who's penned a number of Doctor Who audio dramas as well as his own original fiction. Characters will talk and talk and talk, dragging out scenes for far longer than they need to be.

One needs to remember with Oz that Baum loved the theater and was an actor himself, and much of the dialogue in the Oz books comes from the fact that he got how to have characters communicate. I'm not saying the dialogue in the books stand on their own, but when they're expanded outside of filling in information the narrator isn't saying, it begins to feel tedious.

The story starts right off with Dorothy telling Uncle Henry about the cyclone. Lydia West sounds like a grown woman trying to emulate Judy Garland a bit. (The actress is very private about her life, but believed to be in her mid to late 20s.) The actress is a woman of color, and Uncle Henry sounds like an African-American man, so perhaps this production attempts to make Dorothy and her family people of color, but when you're working in audio only, it can easily get lost. Dorothy's age is also hard to determine. The first slight mention has a Munchkin exaggerate and call her a woman, but she and other characters say that she is a little girl. She doesn't sound like one.

Many of the people of Oz speak with accents derived from the UK. I'm generally fine with this as Oz is another country. The Scarecrow sounds like he's either from north England or Scottish, while the Tin Woodman sounds like a London guy, while the Lion has a bit of Bert Lahr along with his British accent. Broadbent does well as the Wizard, while the Winged Monkeys sound like they're from Brooklyn.

This brings me back to the writing. Clearly, this is a UK-based production. However, Dorothy, our lead character, is supposed to be American. Generally, this is okay, but eventually, Dorothy refers to her friends as "you lot" and even says "sounds a treat" when she hears about having to take the trip to Glinda's. These are not phrases a Kansas girl would be saying.

In Oz, in a concession to the MGM film, it's described that Dorothy's house lands in a Munchkin City, and Dorothy is given Oz lore 101 not from the Good Witch of the North, but by the Munchkin Mayor, who gets a name: Harold. He mentions Lurline enchanting Oz and also Oz maps, with a joke making a deep cut about how Professor Woggle-Bug put the Munchkin Country on the wrong side of the map of Oz he created, but to make up for it, the Munchkins look at their maps upside down. This moment also leads to Dorothy wondering why Toto can't talk, and it's just assumed that he hasn't been in Oz long enough for the magic to catch up to him. (He winds up talking just before Dorothy returns home.) The Deadly Desert gets a lore change in that it makes you lose your memories before finally claiming your life.

I wondered if Harold was replacing Boq, but no, when Dorothy and Toto head down the Yellow Brick Road, they stop at Boq's house, meaning we have two very similar sounding scenes back to back. And both of these Munchkins just talk way too much. Get on with the story already!

When the Tin Woodman tells his story, moments from it are dramatized. Again, there's no need for this except to make this adaptation take even longer. There's no similar treatment for the Scarecrow or Winged Monkeys' story, so it's an uneven presentation.

An odd addition comes after the farmhouse where the travelers stay before reaching the Emerald City. Dorothy reveals the man's injured leg has actually been transformed into an octopus tentacle after he delivered a letter revealing bad news to the Wicked Witch of the West. This doesn't really add anything to the story, and there's no resolution of the man's transformed leg after she's destroyed.

Dorothy is immediately skeptical of the green glasses, with her almost rejecting them when she re-enters the city after defeating the Wicked Witch. Later, the Scarecrow says he'll outlaw them. Despite adding other characters, the green girl who works in the palace/Jellia Jamb is dropped entirely.

The Winged Monkeys basically tell Dorothy how the Golden Cap works when they capture her, and when they drop her off with the Wicked Witch, they ask the Witch to "leave a review." If this type of humor had been used throughout, it might've made the entire production better.

Later, the giant spider actually speaks. That's really all I have to say about the story adaptation without getting into minutia.

The music is nothing great, with some old style moments of violin music to indicate changing scenes or passage of time. Colonial Radio Theater's Jeffrey Gage and The Chronicles of Oz's Tony Diana wrote some really good music for those productions, so in comparison, this is quite lacking. The sound effects weren't bad, but nothing remarkable, either.

Overall, I wasn't a fan. I've heard worse, but I've heard much better.

If you need a way to kill four and a half hours and have a subscription to Audible, you can listen to it for free. Otherwise, they sell it for under $5 if you want to listen to it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Farewell to Podbean

After hosting the Royal Podcast of Oz on Podbean for over a decade, I've migrated the podcast over to Anchor. While Podbean was all right, Anchor offered me more for less. Now instead of paying to host the podcast, I can actually monetize it. (So far, I haven't monetized any episodes.)


The Podbean plan we had allowed us to upload only 100MB of data a month. This limited some of our podcasts, sometimes forcing me to make cuts to certain episodes so they'd fit in the limit. Anchor allows me to make episodes as long as I want.

As of this writing, I have cancelled the Podbean account, so many of the old podcast links and embeds will not work anymore. However, the episodes are all still online. If you were subscribed to the podcast, your feed should automatically update. If you want to link to the podcast, here is the new link.

Thank you!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Royal Podcast of Oz: The Chronicles of Oz with Aron Toman

Jay talks with Aron Toman, the writer, director and producer of The Chronicles of Oz (and voice of the Scarecrow). Find out behind the scenes information, some spoiler talk and the secrets behind this podcast adaptation of the Oz series.

You can find The Royal Podcast of Oz in most podcast services, or you can visit the site or use the player and links below.



Download the episode.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Chronicles of Oz Season Three: Ozma of Oz review

Aron Toman and company have done it again with the third season of The Chronicles of Oz, a series in the Crossover Adventure Productions podcast that adapts the Oz series with each book turning into six episodes.

I might as well address that the series debuted later than writer/director Toman had intended, but I'm certainly not one to judge. The series is still just as well-produced as ever and still doesn't carry advertising or fundraising pleas, although if they had to turn to that, I would understand. The production took longer, Toman still has a job and other commitments, a podcast that doesn't directly produce revenue (outside of merchandise available through their website).

A change in this season was that episodes were released weekly instead of biweekly as the first two seasons were. For us in the US, that meant we got the episodes late on Saturday afternoon or early evening. Trailers for the next episode were released midweek. This was a nice pace of release, but still.

If this is your first exposure to The Chronicles of Oz, Toman voices the Scarecrow while various performers voice other characters: Kirsten Page as Ozma, Kara Dennison as Dorothy, Jennifer Alyx as Billina, Rob Lloyd as Tik-Tok, Scobie Parker as the Tin Woodman, Tom Denham as the Lion, Elise D'Amico as the Wicked Witch of the West and David Coonan as the Nome King.

If you're wondering why the Wicked Witch is around, hang in there.

I recently commented to Toman that if the Oz books were like Marvel Comics, then his series is like the Ultimate universe: a new incarnation revised for modern audiences that can be enjoyed alongside the original and other versions. "Just I don't hate all the characters except one or two," I added.

There will be some spoilers from here on, so if you want the joy of experiencing it for yourself the first time, look up "Crossover Adventure Productions" in your podcast service of choice or go to ChroniclesOfOz.com.

Each episode starts with Ozma telling of the history of Oz. It's here that we can be sure that while Toman is giving an interpretation of Baum's work, it is not meant to be actually Baum's world as some will notice bits that don't quite gel with Baum lore. Many of these contain Easter eggs to other adaptations of Oz: queens named Tryxie (after Tryxie Trifle in the original Wizard of Oz musical extravaganza) and Azkadellia (from the Wicked Witch incarnation in SyFy's Tin Man). The last episode actually skews away from this format, but I won't spoil it.

The story proper begins not with Dorothy and Uncle Henry, but in the Emerald City as Ozma prepares to hang the Magic Picture that she tries to enchant with her fairy magic. As the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Lion arrive, Ozma prepares to go on a mission to answer a call for help from the Land of Ev from beyond the desert. The army and Hungry Tiger are not included as Toman decided that it created too many characters who didn't contribute to the story much. That said, he has said that the Hungry Tiger might pop up later. The first episode ends with Ozma and her company arriving at Langwidere's castle where an angry mob is outside and the vain princess seems oblivious but is angered when the Lion discovers that Dorothy is in the tower room and forces Langwidere to free her.

Part of this change to the story's format was to not feel like a retread of Disney's Return to Oz, but also to make Ozma the central character. The story is named after her, but in Baum's original, she's very much upstaged by Dorothy and Billina. It's a smart storytelling decision. allowing Ozma to step up as a ruler and prove herself, not just to Dorothy and her famous friends, but also to herself.

Ozma agrees to help quell a rebellion in Ev by freeing the Royal Family (reduced to just the Queen and her two children here) and restoring them, with Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion, along with Tik-Tok and Billina.

Oh, and one other character who only Dorothy knows is around: the Wicked Witch of the West, who is now haunting Dorothy as a voice in her head.

Toman has been planning this adaptation for some time and an expanded role for the Wicked Witch is a part of it, and was teased at the start of Season 2 when she vows to find Ozma after the Wizard takes over. Where this plot will go already has me interested in future seasons.

The Nome King doesn't really pop up until the end of Episode 4 with that episode and the previous one featuring the characters having many new adventures on the way. There's the Giant with the Hammer, but also none other than Dr. Nikidik, who wants to study some of the more curious members of the party. While looking for water, Ozma runs across none other than the Phanfasms! There's quite a bit of "Season 6" foreshadowing.

This might be one of the best adaptations of Ozma of Oz out there, possibly even better than Disney's Return to Oz by giving both Dorothy and Ozma character arcs, creating an exciting storyline as well as building into a over arcing series. Quite worth checking out!

I'm very much looking forward to whenever Toman and company are ready to send us on a new adventure with Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Hit The Bricks episodes 1 and 2 review

As of now, the first two episodes of Hit the Bricks are available on podcast platforms. We've talked about the podcast before, even talked to the writer/director on the Royal Podcast of Oz, but now we can actually review the first two episodes.

Hit the Bricks is a new audio drama podcast featuring a new story set in modern times. Young Jessi Hugson has recently moved to Kansas from San Francisco. She becomes fast friends with her cousin Wallace Williams. During a storm, the two cousins are blown to Oz.

However, it's an Oz that has changed. Dorothy and Ozma are missing and Jack Pumpkinhead now runs the Emerald City. Something very bad has happened to Oz and it seems that Jessi and Wallace will be drawn into the mystery before they can get back home.

There's not much else to say about the plot without getting into spoiler territory. As it's a free to access story, if this is interesting to you, by all means, check it out.

Jessi and Wallace are a nice pair of characters. Jessi has a bit of an edge but is generally kind and helpful. Wallace is a very sweet guy and quite thoughtful. The Oz characters are so far pretty in line with their characterizations from the book. There's a "busker" in the second episode who's listed as "The Musicker," but jury's out as to if this is Allegro De Capo as the song he sings is actually fairly well performed. Maybe he's improved.

Speaking of songs, there are songs. Some of these are songs the characters listen to, many are songs they sing. They're good, and fairly easy to listen to. If they wanted to maybe release an album of them on Bandcamp, go for it.

This has a good sound design that helps tell the original story. The performances clearly get across the dialogue and help you buy the characters. So, it's a good time.

That said, if listening to it isn't quite your thing, you can find the scripts of each episode on the website.

There is also an episode 0 serving as a pilot that is technically a prequel to the series, and on commenting on that, I gave a quote for them to use: "Hit The Bricks displays a rich knowledge of L. Frank Baum's world along with a readiness to create new stories relevant to modern audiences." After listening to the first two proper episodes, I stand by that.

There's a lot of Easter Eggs for people who know their Oz lore and history. One kicks in right with the first moments of the first episode. Jessi is listening to a song she says is by "Aunt Jane's Nieces," her favorite band. Those knowledgeable about Baum's works outside of the Oz series know that this is the name of a series (and the first book of it) that he wrote under a pseudonym. That's only just the start.

So, I've listened to the episodes multiple times already. Guess I was craving a new, good Oz story.

So, go hit iTunes or whatever service you use to listen to podcasts and Hit the Bricks!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Judy - Movie Review

I don't often talk about Judy Garland here. As much as I respect her talent and legacy and even own a couple of her films outside of The Wizard of Oz, I don't consider myself a fan. Yet, when I heard about this film, I knew I wanted to see it and checked listings to see if any theaters nearby would be screening it. None of them listed it, so I decided I should check back and keep an eye open for the Blu-Ray preorder.

Well, I happened to be walking home after seeing a different film and passed by The Moxie Cinema, a local non-profit theater that specializes in the smaller movies that your multiplex typically doesn't carry. There, in the window, was a poster for Judy, so I checked their website and picked a time to go see it.

Biopics have become a popular type of cinema, often following a rise and fall and rise again story arc. Factual accuracy is often secondary to storytelling, with many biopics playing fast and loose with facts. More often, they try to paint a picture of the person in a favorable light, using drama based on the person to help you connect with their story. So, while a biopic might spark someone's interest in a bit of history, don't look to it as a definitive document.

Most of the movie focuses on late in Judy Garland's life when she took on a five week engagement in London, hoping to earn enough money to stabilize her life with her two children, Lorna and Joey Luft. However, the film also flashes back to Judy's time at MGM with a few scenes of her being sternly talked to by Louis B. Mayer on the set of Oz, dealing with her assistant and her relationship with Mickey Rooney.

The movie breaks away from the typical flow of biopics. Rather than depicting Judy's rise to stardom and trying to document much of her life, it only goes for some scenes from her past and dramatizing an engagement that concluded some six months before her death. We see how Judy became addicted to barbiturates to curb her appetite to keep her weight down. Going forward thirty years sees the Judy at the end of the line: she's tired but wants to give so much but gets so little in return. The film shows a wide range of emotions for Judy, from being determined to putting on her best face to getting angry when she deals with a tough crowd.

I'm sure a good amount of the film is fabricated for the sake of dramatic storytelling, such as Judy meeting a gay couple who try to take her to dinner late at night and instead she goes home with them. And when we see the set of The Wizard of Oz, it looks nothing like any scene from the film, even with a woman riding down the yellow brick road on a bicycle. (She looks nothing like Margaret Hamilton, who would certainly not be in costume as Miss Gulch on set as the Kansas scenes were filmed near the end of the production schedule.) I'm fairly certain this was done to allude to the film without violating any trademarks of Warner Brothers.

Renee Zellweger deserves an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the older Judy as she skillfully all but disappears into the role. Similarly, Darci Shaw was excellent as the younger Judy and just about looks exactly like her. The film certainly isn't a particularly happy one, but it does well in evoking emotion. Even yours truly teared up during the finale, which—of course—depicted Judy singing "Over the Rainbow."

It was fairly good timing to release this film during the 80th anniversary of MGM's The Wizard of Oz and fifty years since Judy's death. If you've yet to see it and it's playing near you still, I'd recommend checking it out. If that's not the case, check it out after the home media version releases. There's not a lot of Oz, though Judy's role as Dorothy is mentioned several times, but if you enjoy a good drama, here's one with a connection to Oz.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A Tale of Two Wizards

This is a feature article I wrote for the Winter 2014 issue of The Baum Bugle discussing the differences between L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and MGM's famous film adaptation The Wizard of Oz. Rather than simply point out what the film did differently than the book, this article's intent was to explore these differences and why they were made, asking audiences to enjoy both versions of the story. I must thank then Bugle editor Craig Noble in helping to make this piece quite accessible to readers, though I've made some new edits in this posting.
“Hey, Jared,” my mother said one night. “There's a movie coming on TV, and I think you'll like it.”

“What's it called?” my seven-year-old self asked, walking into the living room.

“The Wizard of Oz.”

For the next two hours, I was rooted to the living room floor, watching the incredible story of how a girl from Kansas was taken to a fantasy world and met some amazing friends and faced a scary witch. I was fascinated.

Shortly after, my grandfather was moving to a smaller house and asked my father to pick up some of his childhood books. I wound up tagging along and discovered a familiar-looking book: the Grosset and Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library edition of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by Evelyn Copelman. Later, I fished it out of the garage, and after a disastrous attempt at borrowing the MGM film on VHS from the library (resulting in a broken VCR), I decided to read the book for myself.

I read the book over several days and was quite enchanted by it. More Oz! More characters! More adventures! Of course this version was better, right?

That was twenty years ago, and by now I've read all of the Famous Forty Oz books and then some, as well as seen most of the film and television adaptations of the Oz stories. I've also seen some of my other favorite stories become movies and even taken a shot at a writing a few screenplays. Consequently, I often think about the adaptation process from book to film.

One rule that modern screenwriters seem to cite is, “Don't change the story, change the storytelling.” While this rule has been commonly cited only in recent years, when we look back at MGM's classic film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, we can see that it has been in place for a very long time.

I've come to realize that saying one version of the story is better than another—no matter what well-worded reason you may cite—is failing to appreciate both versions for what they are. Books and films are very different mediums, and what works in one often will not work in the other. A book requires one to use imagination: what do the characters look like? How do they sound? What about buildings and landscape? A typical film adaptation offers a single interpretation of these missing elements, which may not match what the reader imagined.

A bigger difference between books and film—particularly evident in the case of The Wizard of Oz—is the pacing. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a chapter book with children in mind as the target audience. Children would not be expected to finish the entire book in a single sitting, whether they were reading it themselves or having it read to them.

Baum promises in the introduction to to present stories “in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” This does not mean that the book is free from any violence or death, far from it! However, each chapter—with a couple of exceptions—ends with Dorothy and her friends being relatively safe. Scary situations are routinely dealt with by the end of each chapter, resulting in an episodic narrative style.

Unlike books, films are designed to be taken in during a single sitting, presenting as a continuous story. This often calls for a more linear narrative style, and it may require the dropping of certain plot elements. In the case of the MGM Wizard of Oz, a rather large overhaul was required.

By modern standards, it is perfectly all right for a film to dip into fantasy, even setting the bulk or the entirety of the plot in an unreal world. In 1939, however, such movies were scarce. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was set in a magical version of Europe in the past. Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland presented a fantasy based around familiar nursery characters paired with the comedy duo’s typical shtick. Since the bulk of The Wizard of Oz takes place in a world with good and wicked witches, flying monkeys, unreal landscapes, and some very non-human characters, it was decided to ground the film in the realm of reality from the start. In order for audiences to accept this fantasy world, MGM needed to open the film in a world that was believable and possibly even familiar.

MGM also was inspired by Paramount's disastrous 1933 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. While the movie was a charming adaptation of Lewis Carroll's book, the film studio made a huge mistake in casting big stars and making them unrecognizable under bulky masks. The film was a flop and spelled near ruin for Paramount. If famous movie stars were going to play the Oz characters, then the audience needed to be able to see and recognize them.

Thus, we have the opening set in sepia-toned Kansas, where Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have ordinary worries, such as possibly losing chicks due to a broken incubator, and most of the key Oz characters are suggested by familiar personality types—farmhands, a nasty neighbor, and a tricky showman. We are presented with a reality that audiences in 1939 could easily relate to, and faces that they could recognize. When these faces reappear in Oz under character makeup, we can still see who they are and connect them to the characters from Kansas.

Furthermore, the Kansas scenes foreshadow the new linear plot adaptation of the Oz story: Dorothy and Toto are threatened by a cruel female character, are helped by some friends, and travel to see a man who sends Dorothy back on the road home.

In Baum's book, Dorothy meets two powerful women in Oz who appear at the beginning and end of her journey: the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Good. One could make many arguments for the significance of keeping these characters separate, but for the purposes of MGM's film adaptation, the two are combined, the former receiving the latter's name. Glinda was a popular character in the Oz books, and leaving her entirely out of the movie would have been nearly unthinkable. Yet introducing her in the film's final moments would have proven problematic to the linear adaptation, so the characters were combined. A downside to this change in the story is it begs the question of why Glinda quite willingly withholds critical information from Dorothy and sends her on a dangerous journey.

In contrast to her one-chapter appearance in Baum's book, the Wicked Witch of the West is redeveloped into a recurring threat to Dorothy in the film. The Wicked Witch of the East’s magic footwear is transformed from the book's silver shoes to the movie’s iconic Ruby Slippers. After Glinda gives them to Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West targets the girl and threatens her throughout her journey.

Perhaps the most altered character is Dorothy. In the book she is of an indeterminate—but likely prepubescent—age. The character played by the sixteen-year-old Judy Garland is supposed to be twelve, but she clearly looks older. In another change, Dorothy is a rather reserved child in the book, whereas in the film, she runs away from home and even scolds the Wizard when he scares the Cowardly Lion. This is not to say that Judy's Dorothy is consistently bolder than Baum's. She has her weak moments in the film, such as when she's trapped in the Wicked Witch's castle with nothing to do but wait for rescue or death, and her defeat of the Witch is only by accident. In contrast, Dorothy defies the Wicked Witch in the book by feeding the Cowardly Lion and later throws the fateful water at the Witch because she's had enough of her.

Dorothy is given a character arc in the film, whereas the book simply tells her adventures in an episodic fashion. Baum didn't set out to moralize with his story, but the film clearly has a moral as evidenced by the Tin Man asking, “What have you learned, Dorothy?” By the end the film, Dorothy has found a new appreciation for her home and family, but it’s near the beginning of the book (shortly after meeting the Scarecrow) that Dorothy states, “There is no place like home.” Her desire to return home is always inspired by her love for her guardians.

MGM based its approach to The Wizard of Oz on previous adaptations of Baum's story. It borrowed freely from the most famous adaptation of the story at that time: the original stage musical from 1903. For example, rather than attempting to depict the rescue from the poppy field by the field mice, MGM borrowed from the musical's grand Act One finale and had Glinda send snow to kill the poppies.

The encounter with the poppy field is the only one of Dorothy's adventures along the Yellow Brick Road that is included in the film. This is partly because it would have been too difficult to film most of these scenes in a visually interesting manner. (Does anyone really want to see Kalidahs that are just men in costumes?) Another reason is the linear plot adaptation removed the need for these episodes by placing the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion's needs to prove that they always had the qualities that they were looking for themselves into the expanded mission of defeating the Wicked Witch.

A number of elements from the book are moved to other points in the film’s chronology. In the book, Toto bites the Wicked Witch, while in the film, it is the Witch’s Kansas counterpart, Miss Gulch, who reports that this has happened to her. The Fighting Trees encountered during the final journey to Glinda’s palace in the book become the Apple Trees that lead Dorothy to find the Tin Man in the movie. The bee swarm that originally attacked Dorothy’s friends is referenced by the Wicked Witch in a threat to the Tin Man in the film.

Some elements from the book appear in the film briefly, though their importance is not mentioned in dialogue. For example, we see the Wicked Witch with the Golden Cap in one scene in the movie, but its importance is never brought up. In a similar vein, Glinda kisses Dorothy's forehead, but we are never told whether it has a magical purpose. (Given that the Witch attempts to kill Dorothy with a spell, we might presume that it does not.) The Winkies have spears as weapons, and the Witch sends them to attack Dorothy and her friends much like she did in the book.

Other changes were made for stylistic reasons. Scarcely any dialogue from Baum's book is carried over into the movie. The movie uses the precedents established by the 1903 stage production as a license to tell the story as a musical, in which songs are used as a vehicle to establish characters or move the plot forward. The story must keep moving, and even when Dorothy and her friends take time to sing about their desires, the lively songs are accompanied by choreography and cinematography so the audience doesn't feel like they're just listening to a song.

Although the MGM production took many design cues from W.W. Denslow’s illustrations, few of the character costumes resemble their book counterparts. Given that the movie Munchkins have doll-like figures, it has been suggested that perhaps they were supposed to bring to mind the Dainty China Country. Further cosmetic changes are made as well: the Munchkins and Winkies do not have cultures based around colors and the Wicked Witch does not have an eye patch or a far-seeing eye, but instead green skin and a crystal ball.

So, while both the book and film tell of how a Kansas girl goes to an amazing fantasy world and meets new friends and defeats a Wicked Witch on her quest to return home, they tell it very differently. It is the opinion of this writer that each should be appreciated for its own approach, rather than being pitted against the other. After all, they have delighted readers and audiences for one hundred nineteen and eighty years respectively.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Seawolf Press Reprints L. Frank Baum's Oz Books

Print on demand opened up a wide world of publishing opportunities, although it has its limitations. Yet for public domain texts it means a wide number of editions featuring just the text sometimes with just barely passable layout.

Meet the folks at Seawolf Press, who invited me to peruse some of their new reprints of L. Frank Baum's books. I was given a pick of titles and selected three books that used a lot of graphic elements: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Ozma of Oz and The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Many of the other Oz books simply used line art and color plates. These three used color printing on the pages. Thus, these three would be the most difficult to reproduce.

Rather than simply doing a photo facsimile of the books (you can get nearly that with Dover and Books of Wonder editions) these have new layouts while reworking the illustrations to fit in them. All of these are black and white, so color plates and color inks are re-rendered as grayscale.

The most daunting of these was definitely The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's mostly a handsome new edition with the original design adapted for a new layout, with now grayscale images under and around the text as well as line art. Sometimes this means a two page spread from the original edition is now two sides of the same page. However, most of the time it works. Some of the art could've looked better, though.

Ozma of Oz fares even better, with just about no complaints with the treatment of the art, which all looks fine.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz, looking at the cover, it became clear why this one would look fine in black and white: the images for it were sourced from a White Edition with Dick Martin's redraw of the cover clearly visible, the Road to Oz endpapers replacing the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman riding the Cowardly Lion and Hungry Tiger images. To be fair, reprinting the White Edition version isn't a bad choice as Dick Martin did a great job reworking the art to look good without color, and his take on the front cover—adapted from the original's dustjacket—is rather more pleasing. That means those endpapers and the original cover design (Scraps hanging out with her title solo) are the main casualty here.

There are a wide variety of editions of the Oz books on the market, from collectible editions to antiques to scores of paperbacks and other editions, but the Seawolf Press editions attempt to put the books in a uniform format. At present, they only offer the fourteen Baum titles in terms of Oz and directly related literature.

Without perusing all of the titles (I'm wondering how the color plates of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz fared now), I'd say that these editions are a good option for picking up the books as uniform paperbacks. While Dover reprinted the books in a uniform size as well, these also have a uniform cover design and a full set would look nice on a shelf.