Why is the Movie so Different from the Book?




 [Above: The front and back covers of the first edition of L. Frank Baum’s masterwork, 1900.]


As an opening reminder, I’ll be offering an Oz news or history blog here on the first Friday of every month. Every fourth Friday, I’ll respond to a trivia question submitted to The OZ Museum Facebook page. So, please…post your queries there, and we’ll endeavor to answer the most interesting of them here! (Other Fridays each month will be “covered” by guest writers from – or selected by – the museum.)

Our first challenge comes from Jamie Lynn Highfill Thompson:

Why is the [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1939 WIZARD OF OZ] movie so different from the [original L. Frank Baum] book? I am forty-eight, and I grew up watching OZ. It is my favorite of all time! I didn't read the book until a few years ago. I was shocked at how different it was…. Both are very good stories, but it's almost as if they created a whole new story when they did the movie, and I often wondered why?!”

MGM was in a major quandary when it came to scripting OZ. At least fifteen writers and advisers were employed or asked for input between January 1938 – when the property was sought from Samuel Goldwyn, who owned movie rights to the book – and November 1938, when principal photography began under the fourth director assigned to the project. (The first two weeks of filming, a month earlier and conducted by director #2, were junked.)

Before, during, and after production, Metro worried about its cost: $1.7 million – an outrageous amount for that time – and OZ would ultimately exceed that estimate by sixty-five per cent. Walt Disney, however, had premiered SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in late 1937, and its reception convinced MGM there was a major audience for musical fantasy. OZ had been a best-seller for nearly four decades and was an obvious choice for the screen. But Metro planned a live-action film, not a cartoon, and corporately wondered: Would audiences of all ages (not just children) believe in and buy tickets to such a story, featuring actors as opposed to animations?

One early consultant wanted to eliminate fantasy from Baum’s tale and completely modernize Oz. He suggested that the Scarecrow and Tin Man be real men, dressed in tattered and metallic garb as a punishment for stupidity and heartless behavior. That idea was dismissed, but it was quickly decided to make Dorothy’s adventure a dream – rather than Baum’s actual fairy-tale excursion – with new characters created in Kansas who would appear in Oz as LOGICAL psychological manifestations of her daily associates back home. While this would (on varying levels) irritate many OZ readers, they and millions of other moviegoers were swift to acknowledge MGM’s rationale in making the story “believable.”

Preliminary OZ scripts also included such new characters as a Munchkinland Princess who sang operetta-style duets with her Grand Duke boyfriend. They were both to be captured by The Wicked Witch, who would turn him into a cowardly lion and force him to fight a dragon (or gorilla) to prove his bravery. The Witch was given a dimwit son, whom she wanted to place on the throne of the Emerald City. There was a pert and perky female assistant to the Wizard. And all of these new residents of Oz were to have Kansas counterparts as well.

Luckily (blessedly!) preproduction – casting, songwriting, design, etc., -- ran on so long that there was time to re-re-re-re-re-write all those scripts and eliminate most of those concepts. In fact, the more the script reverted to Baum’s basic story, the better it got. But it’s an Ozzy miracle that the film turned out to be as entertaining and magical as it did. (If your library carries THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY, published by Warner Books in 1989, you’ll find much detail about the discarded OZ screenplays and songs on pages 26-30 and 39-44.)

Many thanks, Jamie! As I hope you can see, MGM was – by necessity – pretty much about box office… and they revamped OZ to best meet and fulfill the general audience expectations of the day. But even Metro had no idea how timeless their production would be.


Article by John Fricke


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