Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

The Wizard of Oz
and the magic of adaptation

Many films are made for children, and if you see them at the right time in your development, they may become favorite films for life. But few films are great enough to have that effect on an entire generation, and only one, The Wizard of Oz, has had that effect on every generation since its release. It certainly had the major advantage of being the only film to play on commercial television every year from 1956 to the mid-1990s. Millions of families, including mine, looked forward to the annual broadcast and watched it religiously every year, making it the rare film that even casual movie fans would see more than five or ten times before the advent of home video and the Internet. 

The Wizard of Oz
's legacy has been uniquely cemented by the invention of television, It is quite possibly the most watched film ever, albeit mostly on small screens.  This fact that people viewed the film many times gives it a special place in film history and a special place in the hearts of millions. Unlike many of films of its day and our own, it stands up over repeated viewings. Most importantly, The Wizard of Oz was created just when cinema had grown out of its infancy and become the major art form of the 20th century. Cinema’s technology—both its strengths and its limitations at that time—played an important role in making The Wizard of Oz the classic it became.  The movie itself benefited more from breakthroughs in filmmaking techniques than any other, even its more prestigious cinema-sibling, Gone with the Wind.  No other film in history than The Wizard of Oz has more perfectly utilized every aspect of the cinematic techniques of its day. It was a time when studio contract players, writers and directors were cranking out dozens of pictures a year, and when sound, music, make-up, color-photography, matte painting, optical printing, process photography and every other major photochemical technique had been perfected. At the same time, the state of the cinematic art was still limited to what could be physically created “in-camera.” Those limitations are crucial, I think, because it is through the constraints placed upon the film medium that The Wizard of Oz’s special aspects can shine through, making it a true adaptation that creates an original piece of work.
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The Wizard of Oz
 is cinema's best example of how a film can draw strength from the classic book it’s based on, while the book’s story can be creatively immortalized and transformed by the medium of film.  It is the quintessential adaptation of a timeless book to a timeless film. A children’s fantasy that takes place in a magical land is going to age better as a movie than, for example, a historical romance set in the American South during the Civil War.  It is free of the contemporary attitudes, metaphors, political leanings, or period conventions that date most films. It is instead open to all kinds of wildly different interpretations, making it a movie one wants to return to over and over. 

The film is based on L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900.  Since the invention of movies, Hollywood has always turned to books to adapt into films, but The Wizard of Oz, like Frankenstein before it, demonstrates how a film based on another medium can surpass its original source material and enhance, not degrade it.  

In modern filmmaking, the goal of adaptation seems to be making movies that are as faithful to the source material as possible, not only in tone and spirit but down to every specific detail. Modern audiences seem to demand that movie adaptations be exactly like the book, play, or game that they love so much. This approach seems completely misguided to me, since we watch movies and read books in different ways.  In 1939, and for the entire first century of cinema, the primary goal of movie adaptation was not strict adherence to source material but to make a great movie, which meant discarding everything from a book that might not work well in a film and creating new material that took specific advantage of the audio/visual medium. A film adaptation of a great book can’t possibly be as rich or meaningful as the book itself unless the film creates its own special magic, which almost certainly requires making different choices. 

I have never understood the need or desire to see how close a film can come to one’s experience of a book. Nor can I understand why, when people hear about a film being made that’s based on a book they haven’t read, they want to rush out and read the book right before seeing the movie. This approach seems backwards. Even a four-hour movie is not going to be as detailed or as experiential as a 200-page novel. I’d much rather see a movie first and then, if I like it, read the book so I can delve deeper into the story, characters, and themes. When you go the other direction, from book to film, the cinematic experience almost always feels like watching visual CliffsNotes and leaves little space for a sense of discovery.
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Several silent films and stage productions had been based on L. Frank Baum's book by the time producer Arthur Freed lobbied MGM to bring it to the screen as a major studio picture. The most important choice in his proposed adaptation was to make The Wizard of Oz a musical.  Baum himself had written the first stage adaptation of his book, and he wisely made it a musical as well, although the songs in his play are not the ones in the MGM film.  Those MGM songs, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg, who Freed brought on, have become parts of the culture in America and beyond.  Almost everyone knows “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and especially “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which became the template for “I wish” songs in countless film and Broadway musicals.  The songs inThe Wizard of Oz are the primary reason why the film stands on its own as a major piece of art, and is not just viewed as “the movie version” of a far superior print work.  

The second most important act of adaptation was transforming the episodic narrative of the novel into the three-act structure of film. While the ways in which novels can unfold for a reader are essentially infinite, movies play in real time, requiring a more limited structure to completely engage an audience for the full duration. Modern filmmakers and critics often deride the three-act structure of Western cinema as a straitjacket that must be ripped apart to free creativity. For me, the excitement in experiencing stories in this form comes from the ability of filmmakers to create something fresh, original, and truthful within the confines of this narrow structural framework. This skill is essential in making a film that will stand for all time. 

The Wizard of Oz was made just as the three-strip Technicolor process had been perfected.  Its first act, set in plain, dusty, decidedly non-magical Kansas, is shot in the black-and-white film stock that was the standard of the day.  But when Dorothy literally opens the door to a new world and begins the second act, the film draws attention to its structure by blossoming into glorious Technicolor.  This should play like a simple gimmick, but instead it feels like a magical moment, even when viewed today. Incidentally, the film also switches directors at this point. The black-and-white Kansas sequences were directed by the great King Vidor (The Big Parade, The Champ, Duel in the Sun) after Victor Fleming, who directed the rest of the film, left the production to direct Gone with the Wind. This type of mid-filming change was a common practice in the studio system when directors were not considered authors but craftsmen.

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The adaptation from novel to screenplay also featured the creation of perhaps the greatest villain in all cinema: the Wicked Witch of the West, played magnificently by former librarian Margaret Hamilton. This character appears in only one chapter in the middle of the novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and she is just one of the many obstacles Dorothy faces in her journey. The movie’s principle screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf wisely turned this witch into a pervasive antagonist for Dorothy, even in the Kansas sequences. The omnipresent threat she poses holds the movie together and provides the dramatic tension so critical to a narrative feature film.

Just as songwriters must identify specific elements of their source material to create songs for musical adaptations, producers Freed and Mervyn LeRoy, director Fleming, and the screenwriters zeroed in on elements that would take advantage of the various cinematic techniques of the time: music and sound, of course, but also color.  Dorothy’s silver shoes from the novel became ruby slippers to take advantage of how striking the color red was in the three-strip Technicolor process. If the film were made today, the slippers would almost certainly stay silver – truer to the book to be sure, but perhaps not as iconic. A road made of yellow bricks appears in the novel, but its significance is enhanced greatly in the film, becoming not only a major piece of the set but also a recurring motif in the songs and a key element of the narrative structure. After each encounter or episode that takes Dorothy and her friends away from their goal of reaching the Emerald City, they return to the Yellow Brick Road, and the song that shares its name, to propel them and the story forward again and back on track to the third act.

The third act of the film is not the end of the novel, which goes on for several chapters after Dorothy and company meet the Wizard.  Huge sections of the book were removed and reordered to make the film work dramatically. In addition, many songs, gags, character bits, and elements of shtick were added to give the movie some more comedic dimensions. Indeed, besides the three credited screenwriters, over fifteen people contributed to the script, from story editors and directors working on the early stages of the adaptation to on-set gagmen coming up with lines and bits of business for the actors. This collaboration is another aspect of how the studio system worked, and the results speak for themselves. 

Thumb wizard libertyThe one aspect of The Wizard of Oz that has endured a fair amount of criticism is the “There’s no place like home” ending. Writers and commentators ranging from John Waters to Salman Rushdie have complained that the exciting and colorful world of Oz is highly preferable to the flat, grey world of Kansas to which Dorothy must return.  This complaints about a so-called “Hollywood ending” is similar to the one people make against John Ford movies like Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. These critics believe that with those movies, Ford was saying that it is better to “print the legend” than tell the truth, but of course that sentiment is ambiguous in his films. After all, if the legend were really more important than the truth, then why did Ford make films that show us the truth and expose the legends as factually inaccurate?  The same is true with “There’s no place like home.” Dorothy’s genuine happiness at being returned to her family does not discount the genuine longing she expresses in the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Human beings are complicated, and we can hold many conflicting emotions within us at once even when we are children—especially when we are children. 

I think the ending is the correct close to a fairy tale story like The Wizard of Oz.  In a classically circular narrative like this one, heroes embark on quests and return home, changed. The structure also mirrors the nature of the movie-going experience itself, in which we, the audience, enter a darkened cinema to be transported to a faraway land of fiction, but must return to our real lives at the end of the movie when the lights come back on. People who want for something else are looking in the wrong medium.

The circular structure of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s safe return home is the very reason this film can be watched over and over again at every stage of life. We come back to this film at various points in our lives, and we experience the story and its themes differently each time, but it is the viewer who changes, never the film. The “There’s no place like home” sentiment is experienced differently by a child, a teenager, a young adult, a homesick traveler, a soldier, a refugee, a new mother, an old man, and so forth.  Perhaps the most interesting spin on this ending can be found in Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits, in which a young boy wakes up from his magical adventure not to a loving family gathered around his bed, but rather to a burning London flat and materialistic parents who are more concerned with saving their toaster than they are about him.  An evil entity from his dream returns with him and takes his parents away, seemingly for good—a bold and disturbing conclusion to what is, essentially, a kid’s movie.  Although I found the ending unsettling when I first saw Time Bandits at the age of ten, I think it’s a terrific choice that helps make the film interesting and unique.  But it is one of the many qualities that prevent Time Bandits from being universal and (no pun intended) timeless.
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The Wizard of Oz and countless book-to-film adaptations like it are, in my view, so much more engaging and memorable than those made by the Hollywood studios of today.  For one thng, advances in digital technology have enabled filmmakers to recreate the events that occur in books much more accurately then during the first 100 years of cinema. Secondly, films that are based on popular novels, comics, games, and other pre-existing material are now marketed directly to the people who already know and love that material. In my estimation, these two changes have diminished the movie-going experience, which is now a far cry from where it was in 1939.

I cite 2001 as the year when the process of adapting books into films changed forever. That year saw the release of the first films in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series. Readers fanatically loved the books on which these films were based, but no more than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was in 1939.  Both The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were highly praised for the “accuracy” of their adaptations—how well the filmmakers were able to transition rather than translate the stories from print to celluloid. But if the biggest compliment you can pay a film is how faithful it is to the details of its source text, does that really make it a great film? It may be a good adaptation of something, but not something that stands entirely on its own. 

The Lord of the Rings films of course contain a lot to admire, but if you are someone who hasn’t read the books, as much as you can appreciate the scope, scale, and beauty of the movies, it’s difficult to find them compelling as narratives.  Entire characters and many sequences seem to have no reason for existing in the movies except that fans of the books would be upset if they were not included. Far too many epic battles mar the viewing experience, each one featuring an “unbeatable” digital army getting vanquished by a small band of human actors. Once I’ve seen four or five “unbeatable” armies meet defeat at the hands of the same small band of heroes, the threat of these armies (and any other threats the heroes face) loses meaning for me, and I no longer have a strong investment in the characters or the cogency of their quest. 

When reading a book, our unlimited imaginations allow us to visualize characters or events over and over and in different ways.  A movie, however, is only as credible as what we can see playing out, onscreen, in real time.  Accordingly, movies need to do more than just show us things. They must convince us that those things are real and that they matter.  Now that filmmakers can use digital technology to create spectacle and visually represent anything written in a book, no matter how fantastic, they lavish much less care and focus on writing cohesive screenplays and creating stories that work best in the medium of film.

1939 was a special, charmed year in cinema history. Movies were a firmly established part of American culture, and people from all walks of life were buying over 85 million tickets a week. Sound-recording techniques had been perfected, and the quality of movie screenplays, many of them penned by great playwrights and novelists, had become consistently good enough that the medium could no longer be completely dismissed by elites. Film craftsmen of every department had enough experience in their fields to know how to apply their trades in innovative and thrilling ways. Studio moguls cranked out over 500 films in 1939, attempting to fill the public’s insatiable desire for movies. The list of now-classic films released during this year is formidably long, and at the top of it are Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both made by Metro-Goldwin-Mayer and with director Victor Fleming. I consider these two films (along with John Ford’s Stagecoach and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game) to be the most important movies released that year, but The Wizard of Oz is the purest example of why this time in film history was so magical, and of what can be achieved when a film works on all levels.

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