MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, one of the most inescapable and beloved fantasy films of all time, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. A yearly staple of broadcast television, a true landmark in cinema history, and a broadcast TV tradition of appointment viewing for families for decades, it’s easily the most well known adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book series. But there are many more.
In addition to the various stage and book adaptations Baum’s Oz has inspired — we’d be remiss not to mention Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and the subsequent beloved musical adaptation — The Wizard of Oz has been a staple of cinema (and, later, TV) history from the form’s very inception.
We’re taking some time to look back at some of the on-screen Oz incarnations that have defined the story’s legacy and the legacy of film and television. What is so timeless about this story? What do the quirks of each of these on-screen adaptations say about the respective eras they were made in?
Here are 10 of the most prominent on-screen Wizard of Oz adaptations of the last century to help us ponder these all-important cultural questions…
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)
Adaptations of The Wizard of Oz were among some of the first films ever made. In fact, two silent movies came out in 1910: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Land of Oz. Of the two, only the first remains as the earliest surviving version of a Wizard of Oz movie.
Made by the Selig Polyscope Company without Baum’s input, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was made as part of a contractual obligation from Baum’s personal bankruptcy when Baum lost the rights to the story. It’s uncle ar who the director and much of the cast in the film is given that the credits for the movie are lost. Also lost: the three sequels Selig Polyscope Company made later the same year. Yes, “Hollywood” of that era, if you can even call it that, was a different animal.
Narratively, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is partially based on the 1902 Wizard of Oz stage musical with the addition of such elements as the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather than Toto, we have Imogene the Cow as a character. Like other movies of the early film era, the elements of the story were as much about convenience and borrowed heavily from theatrical sensibilities. Still, the quest-like essence of Dorothy’s strange and wonderful tale remains intact.
The Wizard of Oz (1925)
This 1925 silent film adaptation makes some bold changes to the original story. Rather than Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz focuses more on The Scarecrow character, here depicted as a farmhand on Dorothy’s aunt and uncle’s farm.
In this version, Dorothy is the missing princess of Oz and there are a bunch of dudes vying for her affection — for amorous and/or power-related reasons. The Scarecrow character is one such character, and when Dorothy and co. are whisked away to Oz, he must face off against a villainous Tin Man (and, in one memorable moment, a cage of lions) to keep Dorothy safe.
It’s all told through a frame tale of a grandfather reading to his young granddaughter who dreams her own scarier version of events before awaking to get a happy ending from the book. So think The Princess Bride but with fewer jokes?
It’s actually kind of surprising that there aren’t more Wizard of Oz adaptations that shift the narrative focus away from female character Dorothy and give it to some dude. From where I’m sitting, this makes the story — one that has proactive female characters at its heart — into something unrecognizable.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Do I really need to tell you about this film? Probably not because, according to one researcher at Northwestern, it is the most culturally-influential film of all time. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen this film or who can’t at least belt out a few lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Starring Judy Garland as the iconic character, it is one of the most popular movies ever made.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Wizard of Oz is so enduring and popular. It is a beautifully-made film, with gorgeous MGM sets, vivid technicolor, and the deft directorial hands of Victor Fleming and George Cukor. It also was the breakout for one of the biggest stars of all-time, whose vocals are featured in several iconic songs, which, along with the image of a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, a Cowardly Lion, and a Wicked Witch, have all penetrated American culture every generation henceforth.
Beyond that, however, it is an escapist story for a post-Depression America that also reaffirms the idea that “There’s no place like home.”
Journey Back to Oz (1972)
“Remember Judy Garland and the Yellow Brick Road?” begins the original trailer for this animated sequel to the 1939 film. I think we’ve already established that everyone does, Journey Back to Oz.
Starring Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli in the role of Dorothy, Journey Back to Oz doubles down on the nostalgia of the 1939 classic while also introducing new characters like Woodenhead the Horse, Pumpkinhead, and other characters who don’t have “head” in their names (which, from where I’m sitting, is a mistake).
Journey Back to Oz is loosely based on Baum’s own Oz sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and has Dorothy and Toto returning to Oz to keepMombi the witch and her herd of magic green elephants from taking over Emerald City. The thing is, it makes for kind of a depressing, unimaginative sequel with Dorothy’s friends from her first trip to Oz largely apathetic to her plight. The Scarecrow seems to regret ever getting a brain, and the Cowardly Lion is still having trouble with that courage thing. This is too real.
Though the film secured some incredible voice talent, including a 15-year-old Minnelli (only one year younger than her mother was when she performed the same role), the new songs are nowhere near as memorable as the original’s iconic soundtrack. Much of the “meh” behind the movie probably has to do with the considerable behind-the-scenes problems. The film originally began production in 1962, but due to various financial and logistical problems, wasn’t completed and released until more than a decade later.
(Note: The Cowardly Lion character in this movie looks so much like Prince John from the animated Robin Hood film that came out the following year, it makes me ask questions.)
The Wiz (1978)
Another Wizard of Oz adaptation inspired by a stage (musical) version of the story, The Wiz reimagines the classic story as an urban fantasy adventure with a famously all-black cast, including Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and Richard Pryor as the eponymous Wiz.
The Wiz follows the story of Dorothy, a 24-year-old schoolteacher from Harlem who is magically transported to the Land of Oz, an alternate fantasy version of New York City. From there, the story follows the basic plot points — Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion on her mission to find the Wiz, who she hopes will send her home.
The Wiz was a commercial and critical failure, but has since become a cult hit, in part due to the fact that the film marks Michal Jackson’s only starring theatrical role and, in part, because this film is weirdly awesome. Yeah, that’s a personal opinion, but I’ve never seen NYC rendered in quite this way on screen. When The Wiz is a mess, it is an ambitious, large-scale mess. And, when it works, it is imaginative, weird, and funny.
Return to Oz (1985)
Return to Oz is often remembered for its nightmare-inducing elements — especially the Wheelers, a cackling band of baddies who have wheels instead of hands and feet, and the opening that sees Dorothy about to be subjected to electro-shock therapy.
Yes, Return to Oz is plenty disturbing (we wrote more about that here), but the Oz sequel starring a young Fairuza Balk is also imaginative, unexpected, well-acted, well-scored, and includes some great special effects for the time, including the claymation Gnome King.
Return to Oz has been arguably unfairly maligned for its darker take on the Oz tale when its story both makes sense as an Oz sequel (Dorothy probably would have some psychological fallout from her initial trip to Oz) and follows many of the elements laid out in Baum’s later Oz books, including The Marvellous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.
I think many people forget how scary the 1939 The Wizard of Oz was to some kids (including this one), and underestimate kids’ ability to bounce back from scary movies.
The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005)
“Oz was never like this,” promises the trailer for The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, and it’s right. Basically every other adaptation on this list takes the world of Oz very seriously. The Muppets, as they are wont to do, take the opposite tactic, infusing jokes into nearly every frame of this loose adaptation.
Starring R&B artist Ashanti as Dorothy, an aspiring singer who lives in a Kansas trailer park, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz takes a much more modern approach to Oz’s chief motivation. Rather than trying to get to the Wizard to find a way home, Dorothy is looking for the Wizard to grant her wish of becoming a famous singer.
Queen Latifah, Quentin Tarantino, and Jeffrey Tambor all make appearances in this television movie musical, which garnered mostly negative reviews from critics who felt it was slightly too mature for kid audiences, but I think it’s a lot of fun. Then again, I’m a sucker for the meta-satirical style of the Muppets.
Tin Man (2007)
Before she was a New Girl on Fox, Zooey Deschanel was the new girl in Oz in this 2007 Sci-Fi miniseries adaptation which would go on to be the highest-rated miniseries of the year and to win an actual Emmy (for make-up, though it was nominated for eight more).
Tin Man is a steampunk sequel of sorts to the original Wizard of Oz story, recasting Dorothy as DG, a small town waitress who doesn’t remember her time in Oz — or, as it’s kind of annoyingly known in this version, the O.Z. Once pulled into the magical land, DG must go on a quest to recover her memories, find her true parents, and stop evil sorceress Azkadellia from trapping the O.Z. in eternal darkness. #AchievableGoals
Neal McDonough plays the eponymous Tin Man, cast here as a Clint Eastwood-type cowboy loner. The western trope is one of many modern and post-modern movie allusions stuffed into this four-and-a-half hour journey. Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of this one, which feels like it borrows too much from other cinematic visions without creating a clear vision of its own, but with a cast that includes Deschanel, McDonough, Alan Cumming, and Richard Dreyfuss, it’s hard to discount it entirely.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
For me, it’s hard to get past James Franco being miscast in the central role of this film, which is a shame because this 3D prequel to The Wizard of Oz actually has a lot of good things going for it. Yes, it is a result of the post-Batman Begins origin story fever that overtook Hollywood in the naughts (and, you know, now), but the story of how the Wizard (in this case, Franco’s Oscar) got to Oz and got his reputation is an interesting question to ask.
Directed by Sam Raimi with a cast that includes Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and an also miscast Mila Kunis, Great and Powerful boasts some truly terrific visuals. It also did well at the box office. However, too good to be a bad movie cult classic and too mediocre to stand out amongst the big-budgeted, visually-savvy films of the last 15 years, it is seemingly already forgotten in the history of Oz adaptations and cinema as a whole.
Emerald City (2017)
This modern reimagining of The Wizard of Oz story was in development for years before it finally made it to NBC in 2017 for one, bonkers yet memorable season before it was canceled. Emerald City tells the story of Dorothy, a 20-year-old nurse who is pulled into the land of Oz the traditional way via tornado. There, she meets many of the characters we know and love, but with a twist — i.e. the Tin Man is a hot amnesiac Dorothy finds strung up on a cross.
With a cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio as the Wizard and Joely Richardson as Glinda, as well as director Tarsem Singh behind all 10 episoides, Emerald Cityhad a lot of potential, but never really managed to pull together a cohesive story with an articulate thematic vision. Still, it committed to its weirdness, and I respect it for that.