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.