When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published in May of 1900, Theodore Roosevelt was still more than a year from becoming the twenty-sixth president of an America which consisted of forty-five states. The Ford Model T was still eight years away, construction of the RMS Titanic wouldn’t begin for another nine, and American women wouldn’t have the right to vote for another twenty.
Hell, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is as old as the hamburger (courtesy of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, CT). So when Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz blew into theaters in 1939—simultaneously establishing itself as an iconic piece of American cinema and catapulting teenager Judy Garland to international superstardom—the film’s source material was already nearly four decades old. Now, one hundred and seventeen years after its publication, retellings and adaptations are so ubiquitous that it’d be a tall order trying to find someone unfamiliar with Dorothy’s fateful flight.
Northwestern University released a study in 2015 that reported “the best predictor of a movie’s significance is how often a movie is referenced by other movies.” The study found that, by that token, The Wizard of Oz is the most culturally significant Hollywood film of all-time.
The influence level was tallied by how often the work was cited by other works called “long-gap citations.” The result? The Wizard of Oz had 565 long-gap citations (explained a little more clearly in The Guardian), cited nearly twice as often as the second-most influential Hollywood film of all-time: Star Wars.
The popularity of Oz may not be as fervent as it was in its heyday, but it’s still bafflingly high, evidenced by the 11.5 million who tuned in to watch The Wiz Live! on NBC in December of 2015 and the ongoing dystopian young adult book series Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige, which reimagines Dorothy as a power-mad, Stalin-esque dictator.
Wicked, based on the popular Gregory Maguire novels, has recently become one of Broadway’s top-ten longest-running shows of all-time. The popularity of Baum’s Emerald City still resonates so resoundingly that even Oz the Great and Powerful, which received only lukewarm reception from critics and fans alike, still raked in almost $500 million worldwide in 2013.
With the premiere of new NBC drama Emerald City (Fridays, 9/8c) on January 6th, a gritty ten-episode take on Baum’s Oz from director Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror, Self/less), audiences will be looking at a much darker on-screen Oz than they’re used to.
True Detective alum Adria Arjona plays Dorothy, Vincent D’Onofrio is The Wizard, and Joely Richardson (The Patriot) is Glinda the Good Witch. Emerald City will be preceded by Grimm in its final season—a show that’s averaged a consistent and dedicated audience of roughly seven million over the show’s five seasons, hitting the 100-episode plateau last season despite near-constant time slot shifting. Emerald City can expect a boost from loyal Grimm fans looking for a similar atmosphere. It’s possible that a successful turn from Emerald City could spawn even more modern and inventive takes on Baum’s story.
But to look forward, first we look back. In Chicago in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please the children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches of nightmares are let out.”
So, in noting Baum’s intentions for the book, the question must be asked: How has a wildly imaginative fantasy book for children about a Kansas farm girl carried via tornado to a magical land of witches, talking lions, flying monkeys and anthropomorphic tin men—whose publication date precedes World War I by more than a decade—become one of the most classic and valued tomes in American literature?
Emerald City executive producers David Schulner and Shaun Cassidy made a note in a pre-premiere letter to screeners about the evergreen allure of Baum’s series that piqued my interest: “One hundred years later, women are still fighting for empowerment […] and the pursuit of identity – racial, gender and otherwise – remains at the forefront of our political and cultural conversation.”
As noted by J.T. Barbarese in the Barnes and Noble Classic edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
In Dorothy, Baum gave America the first truly American child protagonist. Unlike the only two competing contemporary versions of pre-teen female protagonists, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J.M. Barrie’s Wendy (both ten-year-old girls), Baum put Dorothy in a book that features none of the potential cognitive difficulties that still tend to drive children (and some adults) away from the texts of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
Baum found Alice in Wonderland to be “rambling and incoherent.” He felt that too much was happening inside Alice’s mind—her thoughts expressed interchangeably with Carroll’s prose—and the conflicts Alice was facing were much more psychological and internal than any conflicts Dorothy was facing.
I would even take it a step further. In Dorothy, Baum created one of the more powerful, poignant, and vital feminist characters in children’s literature.
As much as we like to think we’ve strived for equality across the board as a society, the presidential election of 2016 revealed that, as a country, the citizens of the United States may be as divided (ideologically, socioeconomically, monetarily, you name it) as any post-Civil War America has been. There are a plethora of heartbreaking injustices exhibited in the past year-plus, and yet one of the most disheartening is the repeated unacceptable mistreatment of women in society. (I’ll go no further, but you get the point.)
In times of egregious cultural injustice, it makes sense to turn to escapism. Ardent readers and viewers alike turn to fantasy to stave off reality.
All things considered, doesn’t the long-lasting adoration of Dorothy Gale and Oz, regardless of whether it’s 1900 or 2017, make sense? A pre-teen Kansas farm girl—armed with nothing but a gingham dress, a picnic basket, her beloved terrier and her wits—can vanquish large-looming evil and bring peace simply by remaining calm and levelheaded, placing trust in the good people she’s surrounded herself with, and being pure of heart. Dorothy, thrust into a world whosse citizens know nothing but fear, knows no fear.
When Dorothy and her companions are tasked with going to dangerous places, her companions cower in fright and shrink into the shadows; they ask “why?” while she asks “why not?” Dorothy seems to be stunningly aware that the difference between success and failure is to not fear or expect either outcome—and as a child surrounded by adults, no less.
Every character in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Wizard of Oz—from Toto, to the Munchkins, to the Wicked Witch of the West, to the Wizard, to the citizens of Oz—look to Dorothy to decide their fate. Has there been a more impactful, more powerful (albeit unwittingly, at times) female character in children’s literature than Dorothy?
I would argue that, despite Baum not getting a tremendous amount of credit for creating such a powerful early feminist character—an early feminist character for children, no less—he did just that. The world Baum created, with Dorothy as willing martyr for the Munchkins and the people of Oz, two decades before American women could even vote, says volumes.
Dorothy’s selflessness and empathy is one of the reasons she’s has been such a popular figure for more than a century now. Sure, the magic of Oz—the flying monkeys, the melting witches, the larger-than-life wizard, the somniferous poppies—are a draw, too, but if there’s a more intriguing and magnetic pre-teen feminist character (in film or literature) whose inception predates Oklahoma’s statehood, I’d love to meet her.