Time for an op-ed piece!
In the past two years, we Oz fans have been treated to seeing two new Oz films in theaters: Oz the Great and Powerful and Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return. But as enjoyable as these films were, for seasoned fans of the Oz books, they left a little to be desired.
So, what would this fan like to see in a future Oz film?
Ozma has appeared on the big screen before, most notably in 1985's Return to Oz, but her character was reduced to almost a presence with only a few lines of dialogue. We never got to get into her character. While fans hoped that she'd be at least referenced in Oz the Great and Powerful, traces of her character seemed to be merged with Glinda.
Ozma's introduction in the Oz series touches on transgender themes, which is a current civil rights issue, and a well-handled adaptation might be a hit for that reason. But it might also prove divisive, so a film featuring Ozma might decide to open with her already ruling the Land of Oz or take a different approach to her introduction.
What makes Ozma so compelling is her mysterious origin: somehow she is both a fairy and daughter of the pre-Wizard King of Oz. In her reign—the classic default setting for most of the Oz books—she is a girl ruler over a land of people and animals of all types and other strange creatures. Beginning in The Emerald City of Oz, Ozma always has a friend nearby to interact with, indicating that she has a personal need for a relationship. A good writer could certainly find a beguiling angle for her character.
Audiences know the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, and we know Dorothy, the Wizard and Glinda. But what about characters like the Hungry Tiger, Scraps the Patchwork Girl or the bears of Bear Center? Baum's Oz books alone reveal a whole slew of characters and creatures, all public domain and open for interpretation. Having lesser-known characters lead the story may even help the film feel less like it's aping the popularity of the MGM classic film.
The Wicked Witch of the West is a great character, but here's the thing: L. Frank Baum knew that her story was done and never resurrected her. Nor did he have her ghost or magic equipment return. He created new antagonists and found a different recurring villain: Roquat/Ruggedo the Nome King, who appeared in four novels and one of the Little Wizard picture books. A re-imagining of the character also appeared in Return to Oz, but as with any good villain, there are other ways to reinterpret him.
Some of the Oz books take an episodic approach and have no central villain, but we do also have Mombi the wicked sorceress, the giants Mr. and Mrs. Yoop, Ugu the Shoemaker, Blinkie the Witch and King Krewl, and the Supreme Dictator of the Flatheads and Coo-ee-oh of Skeezer Lake. There's also plenty of scope for new, original villains.
Basically, don't do the Wicked Witch of the West again, unless you're doing her story.
This one might be more of a wish, but so many Oz films make the Land of Oz look like an isolated unit, when Baum alone created many lands that border it. Give viewers a sense that there's much more to Oz than the yellow brick road and the Emerald City and that there's so much more around it. Perhaps even work it into the story. Take a page from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and let your viewers know right off the bat that if your take on Oz is successful, you have so much more to tell.
Oz fans do feel a little disappointed at some recent projects not because they didn't want to see them, but because they seem to want to make Oz like another property. The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked because Peter Jackson didn't make it evocative of Titanic. Harry Potter worked because Warner Brothers didn't make it like Lord of the Rings. The Hunger Games and Twilight and Game of Thrones (not a movie, I know, but it fits) worked because they were not made to resemble past films. They all reached into the source material and brought that world to life. (It could be argued that trying to go Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter put a halt on the Chronicles of Narnia film series.)
Trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful reminded audiences of Alice in Wonderland, and Legends of Oz brought to mind Wreck-It Ralph. While Oz the Great and Powerful managed to take home a profit, neither film became a billion-dollar blockbuster. When an audience feels that they've seen this story or world before, they feel less inclined to go see it, with the exception of a sequel. (I remember waiting for The Hobbit to start, wondering how many apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movies we really needed as the trailers ran. I went to see none of them.) Name recognition of stars, directors and studios only go so far.
That said, Oz needs to feel unique so the audience feels interested in the film and be pleasantly surprised that there is so much more in the land that they believe is over the rainbow. It's a funny place, but it can also be dangerous and scary as well as beautiful and whimsical and welcoming, and if that can be depicted faithfully onscreen, it should offer audiences something they have never seen before.