04/24/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Hit and Myth

Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful is one of the biggest blockbusters of the year to date. I can't claim to be an Oz expert, although as a child I did read ten L. Frank Baum novels in his Oz series, and have been to the Oz Museum in Wamego, Ks. As I watched Oz the Great and Powerful recently, I was fascinated by key images in it related to the concept of Fate.

In this prequel, we follow the adventures of a self-professed trickster extraordinaire: stage magician Oscar Diggs, nicknamed "Oz" (James Franco). He's on an eventful journey that mirrors the escapades of the young female protagonist Dorothy in previous film incarnations, based on Baum's 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oscar follows the Yellow Brick Road in reverse, and acquires his own allies along the way: the winged monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and the tiny China Girl (Joey King).

In the first act of the film, involving Oscar's magic act in a traveling circus, a music box is established as a signature gift to his paramours. When the music box opens, there's a twirling dancer -- a mini-foreshadowing of a dancing scene later in the film. In another scene in his trailer with former girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams, in a dual role), Oscar displays a spinning magic lantern that projects dancing elephants around the room. Not only does this turning lantern foreshadow an important final act plot point related to a projector, it signals a forthcoming trope of "spinning," enacted visually and conceptually.

Soon, Oz runs away from an angry Strong Man, a Hercules type, who's livid about his wife and her involvement with the randy magician; the Strong Man crushes the incriminating music box. Panicked, Oscar flies away in a balloon, veering directly into a twister. The windy rotation begins; this sequence is a direct visual "homage" to the tornado segment in the 1939 Wizard of Oz film starring Judy Garland. In the small basket below the balloon, Oscar twists and turns in the blustery vortex. The first thing that comes at him in the violent air: a loose, rotating wheel, a symbol of Fate.

Lady Fortuna, who turns the Wheel of Fortune, is an archetype of Fate. The goddess determines the future by how she spins the wheel. Sometimes it lands on good luck; in other times, misfortune. A famous image of the Wheel of Fortune is included in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fate of Men) by Giovanni Boccaccio, circa 1467. Shakespeare alludes to Lady Fortuna's wheel in King Lear. Another possibly related concept, from Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is the Bhavacakra, the Wheel of Life.

In Oz the Great and Powerful, next we experience the eerie eye of the tornado, continuing the spinning trope; an organ flies by, playing music, with a rotating component in its lower parts. Twirling wooden boards, like spears, lunge at the showman-conjurer, trapping him in his balloon basket, as if it's a gyrating cage. Oscar makes a vow to the heavens that if saved, he'll prove he can change. Suddenly the barriers fly away; he leaves the "ordinary" airspace of Kansas, and sails into the celestial skies of the country of Oz. Act Two begins a new chapter in Oscar's life. As Fate would have it, the charmer's balloon lands in "Oz," just like his own nickname.

There's more spinning ahead in the film, involving three powerful witches: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams).

In Greek mythology, the three Fates or The Moirai are the three goddesses of destiny: Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (allotter), and Atropos (the 'inevitable,' who cuts the thread of life). In Roman mythology, a similar trio is known as The Parcae. In Norse mythology, the three powerful Norns are known to mete out fate at a birth. The name "Norn" may be related to "twine." The meaning of "Fate" is somewhat different in these traditions, but three female deities are involved in all. Spinning is associated with two of them; twine and magic are part of the other. A well-known fairy tale associated with fate, three women, and spinning is "The Three Spinners," collected by the Brothers Grimm. Francisco Vaz da Silva, in his book Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tales, links "spinning sisters" to the older Fates and to magical faeries or fatae to the idea of fatum (page 198).

In this movie, the spinning sisters are witches Theodora and Evanora, who not only twist Oz's fate as they try to test his relationship to a prophecy he might fulfill, but physically spin -- in the air, levitating, flying, and eventually, in battle. Oz and Theodora have a romantic dancing scene, as foreshadowed by the music box figurine, in which they spin. And "good witch" Glinda flies, too, in giant iridescent bubbles, and in Act Three, on her own magical powers. Although they do not sit at a wheel to spin his Fate, these three enact a physical spinning, a metaphoric visual echo of the earlier tornado.

Fate is often "spun" in myth and fairy tales; in Oz the Great and Powerful, a major spinning trope is introduced by a wheel and a twister in Act One, and then enacted by three powerful witches in the rest of the film. Oz himself discovers who he truly is through his fateful encounters: he may not be a great wizard like Thomas Edison, whom he mentions twice in the film. But as Oz tells Glinda before the impending final battle, he "might just be the wizard that you need." Through his encounters with Fate, Oz faces the truth about his own powers, and ends the film as traditional tricksters do: as a culture-hero-transformer comfortable in the realm of "shadow." Of course, the trickster lives for the next adventure.