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The Wizard of Oz and Innocence Lost

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This week, NBC Entertainment announced it will air Emerald City, a 10-episode miniseries based on storylines in the original Oz book series written by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919). To fans of the classic 1939 Judy Garland film, such an announcement could hold promise of an inspired piece of television programming full of fantasy and fun, and suitable for family viewing. However, Robert Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman, described the miniseries as an epic battle that will be "very dark and bloody" along the lines of Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, it seems this latest return to Oz is keeping with our culture's current taste for the amplification and perversion of nearly everything: make it louder, harder, faster. Regrettably, even The Wizard of Oz isn't immune from our culture's apparent erosion of innocence.

It should be remembered, though, that in 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's version of Oz was technically a remake. There had been a silent film that lasted a quick 13 minutes in 1910, and a slapstick romantic comedy in 1925 starring comic Larry Semon, then a hugely successful "King of the Flickers," clowning alongside the relatively unknown Oliver Hardy (just before his famous teaming with Stan Laurel). Even Baum himself ventured into the burgeoning film-making industry by translating some of his plot lines into film fantasies like The Patchwork Girl of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in 1914. To devotees of the Oz books, M-G-M's vision of Oz must've been something of a culture shock, particularly Bert Lahr's slang-slinging Cowardly Lion whose accent can be traced to the Bronx.

But in the new book, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion, the need to update The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is addressed in a quote from a recently uncovered interview with Oz screenwriter Noel Langley. Langley indicated that the changes made to the new movie story were necessary in order to appeal to modern audiences. At the time, roughly half of all moviegoers were familiar with the plot of The Wizard of Oz, so M-G-M took artistic liberties with its update in order to reach those customers simply looking to take in a rousing entertainment. In L. Frank Baum's original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's Oz adventures are all true; making the movie storyline a dream was a significant alteration. But Langley defended making the Oz adventures Dorothy's dream because he said it was consistent with Baum's original book: during the cyclone, Dorothy falls asleep thereby providing a window for speculation that the events were a product of her unconscious state.

But what may have been true in 1939 is no longer so today. No longer does only half the American population know The Wizard of Oz. It has been estimated that more than 90 percent of us know of Dorothy and her friends (and Toto, too). This familiarity has paved the way for Oz to be reinterpreted in any number of dramatizations. Disney's Return to Oz (1985) was so painstakingly literal to the Baum stories that it was nearly devoid of levity (though it does have a fervent cult following). But Disney got it right with Oz the Great and Powerful, its hugely successful 2013 reboot (with a sequel reportedly in the works). Wicked, the popular musical "prequel" about Oz's good and wicked witches, is currently Broadway's 11th longest-running hit of all time, playing to audiences for over a decade. Andrew Lloyd Weber's stage version of M-G-M's The Wizard of Oz is in the midst of its North American tour. And ABC's hit Once Upon a Time has plans to introduce the Wicked Witch of the West as its newest villain.

With all the positive momentum of Oz in our popular culture, why is there a need to "darken" it unnecessarily? There's room for everyone to explore Oz's unchartered territory in whatever manner deemed by each creative force. But is this latest announcement of the "very dark and bloody" miniseries as reflective of our current culture's social mores and conventions as much as was the M-G-M version in its day?

As written at the conclusion of The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion, all future re-imaginings of the Oz story cannot help but to pay homage to the 1939 classic. The new purveyors of Oz's magic would be wise to avail themselves of a simple truth: The Wizard of Oz has endured for 75 years for good reason. It is wholesome entertainment that can be enjoyed by any one of any age. Sure, Oz has its frightening moments (legions of adults still shudder at the thought of the Wicked Witch's winged monkeys) but so does the best of Walt Disney's animated features. One 1939 reviewer rectified any complaints about Oz's Wicked Witch by stating that her presence is part and parcel of fairyland and her eventual comeuppance is part of the joy. The Wizard of Oz endures because it has Judy Garland (on the precipice of superstardom), great music, extraordinary performances, and represents Hollywood at the height of its artifice. And, above all, it has heart -- and that is something about which even the Tin Man wouldn't quibble.