Inspired by Oz

Today, the kids and I watched The Wizard of Oz at the local historic movie palace. It’s amazing the details you can see on the big screen, things that go unnoticed when the film is viewed on television. It used to be broadcast on TV every year when I was growing up, and my family always watched it. Today it dawned on me that I was ten years old before I realized that the scenes in Oz are in color, because we didn’t have a color TV until I was ten.

As a child, the tornado that sends Dorothy to Oz was unspeakably terrifying because tornadoes regularly cut swaths of death and destruction through my community. I spent an obscene number of hours huddled under a table in the southwest corner of our basement, waiting for the storm to rip our house from its foundations. For most of my childhood and into early adulthood, tornadoes were powerful and recurring images in my dreams, and they always looked like that horrible, snaky cyclone in the Wizard of Oz. I have to admit that seeing it on the big screen today was a bit unnerving, even now.

I never actually read the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until a few years ago, when I read it to my own children. (We have now read all but three of the 14 Oz novels L. Frank Baum penned.) When I was in fourth grade, my teacher went on maternity leave in the middle of the year and was replaced by a sub who read Tik-Tok of Oz aloud to us after lunch every day. The following year, I received Ozma of Oz as a Christmas present. It remains to this day my very favorite Oz book.

I never realized how progressive Baum’s vision was until I began reading the books to my children. He wrote empowered female characters who stand up for what is right, lead armies and expeditions, and rule nations. He imagined a world in which animals and non-biological entities are people, too. He created a place in which common sense and quick wit hold their own with magic, sometimes even trumping it. And he envisioned a land in which good and evil aren’t entirely rigid concepts – good people can make poor decisions or do things that harm others, and evil people can have a change of heart.

I believe it is this latter quality, this fundamental belief that things are not always what they appear to be and that change is always possible and nearly always happens, that has inspired others to retell the stories of Oz. From The Wiz to Wicked to Tin Man, Baum’s Oz has been reenvisioned in unexpected ways that remain surprisingly true to the original source material. Oz has become a kind of dreamscape, in which familiar images reveal new layers of meaning to successive generations of readers and writers. I think Mr. Baum would be pleased.

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