Seventy-five years ago this past weekend, The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. One hundred and fourteen years ago this fall, L. Frank Baum published its source material, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Very little has been done in either industry to improve upon things ever since.
The Wizard of Oz was my first movie love, and you never forget your first love, but it has also been a major influence throughout my life. According to my mother, I was so terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West as a child that I would hide behind the couch whenever she appeared on screen – but that didn’t stop me from demanding my family watch the film any and every time it aired on TV. My love for the rest was just too strong. Thus, the first thing The Wizard of Oz gave me was my courage.
That new-found bravery came in handy when I learned that the community children’s theatre in my town had chosen Baum’s story for their next production. At age nine, the idea of being on stage was mortifying, but the opportunity to play Toto was one I could not resist. Yes, Toto; he was my dream role. Sure, others are more glamorous, but Toto is the real star – he’s in the most scenes – and the true hero of the story. Plus, I wouldn’t have to say any lines and in the movie he was basically the 4th-highest-paid actor. No contest.
For weeks, I wore out my storybook cassette tape, playing the narration on our living room stereo and acting out the entire story on the rug, from Toto’s perspective. I got the part. It was my first taste of success, my first bite of the acting bug, and my first experience with improv and collaborative storytelling. That play is also how I met the woman who to this day is still my best friend (she played a citizen of the Emerald City). Thus, The Wizard of Oz led me, in multiple ways, to my heart.
Time and again I have fallen back on Toto and the gang as I have chased down my heart’s desire far from my own backyard. After I completed my first screenplay – on a whim, really, just to see if I could – and the thing wound up being read at several major studios and almost getting made, I was faced with a frightening challenge. Suddenly, people in power knew my writing, and wanted to see what else I could do; I needed another screenplay to prove I wasn’t a fluke, but I had not thought that far ahead.
So I turned to what I loved. I wrote an adaptation of Dorothy’s story as a coming-of-age romantic comedy, with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion representing archetypes of imperfect boyfriends. (All brains / no chemistry, gay, and commitment-phobic, if you’re curious.) I also started to develop a sitcom about a girl living in an apartment above a bar called The Rainbow. Both were way too weird for anyone to want to make them, but they kept my career going. Thus, The Wizard of Oz has helped me engage and exercise my brain.
To celebrate this weekend’s milestone, I decided to re-read Baum’s original book, which I so enjoyed as a child. Now, as an adult writing movies of my own, the adaptation choices of the screenwriters are of great interest to me. Most people know that the witch’s slippers were changed from silver to ruby for the glory of Technicolor, but did you also know that Glinda is an amalgam of two characters in the book – the North and South witches merged into one? Baum’s good witch of the North, Gaylette, is described as one “everyone loved…but her greatest sorrow was that she could find no one to love in return, since all the men were much too stupid and ugly to mate with one so beautiful and wise.” These days – these still single days – that is my favorite line in the story.
Other changes are more significant. In the books, Oz is multi-colored (blue in the East, yellow in the West, red in the South and green in the middle), but Dorothy does not fly “over the rainbow” to get there – it just sits trapped in a vast desert. There is a lot more danger in Baum’s Oz, and in turn a lot more killing by the Tin Man and Lion to ward off said danger (a fairly disturbing number of chopped off animal heads), and in the book Dorothy is stuck in Oz so long that Uncle Henry has the time to single-handedly rebuild their one-room farm house.
That last one is my favorite difference; in the book, Dorothy’s adventure is real, while in the film they chose to make it a dream. The reason I love this change is because, by doing so, The Wizard of Oz (the film) managed to both introduce the single most memorable line in movie history and completely subvert its message at the same time. Dorothy’s mantra is “There’s no place like home,” but by populating Kansas with the same actors portraying the denizens of Oz, the film shows that everywhere – even over the rainbow – is just like home. It is a physical manifestation of the old proverb: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Real change happens within.
Think you need intelligence, or compassion, or nerve? All you really need is to recognize those things in yourself. What is Dorothy’s lesson before she can click her heels? That she need not search for her heart’s desire anywhere but where she is; if the answer isn’t within her already, it isn’t anywhere. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion all learn that your problems are your problems wherever you go. Where you are is irrelevant, because who you are is what matters.
Los Angeles is a very difficult place to live – doubly so if you have a soul – and the film industry is downright hostile. Between dating and working here since college, I have had the urge to run away roughly once every week for a dozen years. The Wizard of Oz has stopped me every time, because I know getting out of here won’t really change anything that matters. Los Angeles isn’t my home, but neither is any physical place.
What Baum meant when he wrote “there is no place like home” is that nothing compares to the feeling that you belong. In that sense, home is an energy, not a place. It is family, yes, but not just traditional family (Dorothy is an adopted orphan, after all). Home is the people who love us, and the people we love in return – with any luck, including ourselves. I never feel more myself than when I am experiencing this story, revisiting all of the memories and people I associate with our history. Thus, The Wizard of Oz brings me home.
Happy Birthday, Toto. And thanks.