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Discussion Link: “Oz The Great and Powerful” vs. Baum’s Legacy

When the general populace’s memory is so strongly tied to the Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz, why do we keep letting ourselves forget about the sixteen other Oz-centric books written by L. Frank Baum? The recent film Oz the Great and Powerful appears to stray even farther from those original stories, presenting a product that, while pretty to look at, is major step backwards from Baum’s feminist principles.

Poster for Oz The Great and Powerful
(source)

Over at Film.com, Elisabeth Rappe explores the film versus Baum’s legacy with “Why Oz the Great and Powerful Is A Major Step Back For Witches and Women.” She finds the whole wizard-as-savior motif rather strange, especially when considering the original books. “There are male characters in Oz, of course, but they’re rarely also lead characters,” she says. “Occasionally one breaks out as a hero, like Ojo the Munchkin boy in The Patchwork Girl of Oz or Cap’n Bill and Trot, but they’re one-offs, never to return. […]

The reason for this is simple: Baum was a feminist. He was an avid supporter of women’s suffrage, and was happily married to the outspoken, intelligent, and energetic  Maud Gage Baum, who had gone to Cornell, and sacrificed dreams of degrees to marry him. Their marriage was an unusual one for the time, as Frank happily let her wear the pants, assert her authority, and rule the house.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of the Oz books, and I’ve probably only read around eight or so of the seventeen, so I cannot comment with any authority on the specifics of the female characters. However, Rappe makes me want to investigate, and she better articulates my heretofore mysterious unease with the new film.

I’m curious how many of you have read the books, especially those of you who have also seen the film. My kids are interested in seeing it, but now I feel like I’m better armed to remind them that, “Well, this is someone’s re-imagining of the story, but if you want to know what really happened, let’s get you the books.”

Besides, any opportunity to get kids to read more is a good one, I say.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

12 replies on “Discussion Link: “Oz The Great and Powerful” vs. Baum’s Legacy”

I read a lot of Oz books as a kid, and I can definitely see now that Baum was a feminist. I really appreciate that romance was nonexistent–with the glaring exception of the Tin Man’s back story–and that girls featured prominently. It was nice to read about girls who weren’t sexualized and who were the heroes of their own stories. They are great books! It’s disheartening to see this new take on the classic stories.

I’ve never read any of Baum’s books, but I’ve been kind of side-eying this movie since the first preview. Visually it looks gorgeous, but making the Wizard some big savior annoyed me. OF COURSE there’s this whole magical kingdom that’s desperately in need of being saved by a White American Male. Knowing now what a feminist Baum was, it pisses me off even more.

The big thing that they make very clear in the Oz books (which you need to read!) is that the Wizard was more or less an invader, an outside force who took advantage of conditions in Oz and seized power and turned Oz into what he wanted it to be. Of course, once the Wizard leaves, things change, but he does eventually return and makes amends. Colonialism, imperialism, and encountering other cultures are big themes throughout the books, as well as the question of whether or not to intervene in another country’s crisis (as is addressed in Ozma of Oz).

I never read the Oz books, nor even knew there that were so many! I love that Baum was a feminist and now really want to go out and read all 17. Or if not all, then at least most.

You know, that actually makes me appreciate Gregory McGuire’s adaptation (with Wicked and that others) that much more. Sure, the stories are awesomely strange takes on all of it, but at least it carries on the strong female protagonist thread throughout.

I want to say that all the Oz books are public domain now because my husband read a couple of them recently through a download. I’ll have to poke around.

However, I just could never get into Wicked. I appreciate what he was trying to do with the story, and I suspect I would enjoy the musical, but I gave the book until about a third of the way through and decided to move on. Just wasn’t for me.

This came across my tumblr dash today, it might be relevant to the discussion. Or might not, what ever :-D

“And the second reason was — during the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios — I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You’ve got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by. But with the origin story of the Wizard of Oz, here was a fairy tale story with a natural male protagonist. Which is why I knew that this was an idea for a movie that was genuinely worth pursuing.”

—Joe Roth, producer of Oz the Great and Powerful

So yeah, he was offended by there not being any strong male characters in fairy tales. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash the dudebro off me.

Wow. I’ll give him Alice, I guess, but other fairy tale protagonists aren’t exactly taking on the kinds of strong roles that male protagonists get in other genres. Cinderella is pretty passive. Sleeping Beauty is literally asleep for half the story. Dorothy was kind of an anomaly in that she was so active and the male characters turned to her for help. The point, you’re missing it Mr. Roth.

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