Column: Adapting Oz, Part Three

by Sean Gates

Adapting Oz, or Finding Frank

In 2003 I wrote the script for our film, “L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” This is part 3 of an ongoing series where I’ll discuss the process of adapting a beloved book into a screenplay. 

Part Three: The Witches of Oz

No, not Leigh Scott’s movie.  The actual titular witches.  We’ve talked a bit about how Glinda was handled in the MGM film versus the book, and our own movie.  Anyone unfamiliar with the book probably only knows about three witches of Oz, since the MGM film combined Glinda with the Good Witch of the North.  The decision is almost certainly based on a desire to give a single character more screen time than either character would net in their correct roles.  Unfortunately it also makes Glinda into sort of a mean fairy godmother, as she knows how to send Dorothy home from the beginning but makes her go through this crazy, dangerous journey before she will.  While it expands Glinda’s role, I think it diminishes her character. 

In part one I talked about Glinda’s proper character, The Good Witch of the South, a mysterious warrior queen in a remote palace, wise and powerful.  Well, there’s an old saying in screenwriting: you go to the power, the power doesn’t come to you.  Kings and Queens are approached upon the throne, and major villains pull strings from the shadows.  So Glinda, as arguably the most powerful witch in all of Oz, does not show up to solve anybody’s problems unless somebody appeals to her to do so.  She is approached on her throne, flanked by her guards.  She’s the power.  She doesn’t appear in the book until the very end.  It may make her role smaller, but the character is stronger for the mystique that this gives her. 

So let’s talk about the real Good Witch of the North, whom L. Frank Baum called Locasta (special shout out to Angelo Thomas for the comment that led me to look that up).  There’s not a lot to say about the GWN that Clayton hasn’t nicely summed up in this Journal Entry.  She’s quirky.  I think we played it up a little from the book, making her really rather offbeat.  This was another of those instances where it was important to break away from the conventions of the MGM film and really set the tone for the journey. 

There is a balance, though, as she is supposed to be a powerful witch who is the ruler of the Gillikins.  No matter how odd she might be, it can’t cross the line into silly.  That won’t work.  In the book it is not the shoes, but a kiss from the GWN that protects Dorothy.  It’s never clear if it is an actual protective spell or simply that nobody in Oz is dumb enough to cross the Good Witch of the North, but in either case she is clearly meant to be a powerful and respected witch. 

The GWN, or Locasta, believes in human freedom and would likely have liberated the Munchkins long ago if she’d had the power to do so.  So she has come to greet Dorothy, to learn who she is, and see to it that the Munchkins will not be forced to suffer any longer.  There’s no question though, when the witch meets her, whether or not Dorothy is a good witch.  She’s wearing a blue and white dress, and color has tremendous significance in Oz, as any fan of the books knows.  White is the color of a good witch, and blue is the color of the Munchkins. 

So let’s talk about the Wicked Witch of the East.  There’s not a lot written about her in “Wonderful Wizard.”  The MGM film maintained that she was the WWW’s sister, but there’s no mention of this in the book, and I attribute that to the MGM’s writers wanting to give the Witch of the West a motivation for dogging Dorothy’s steps the whole way.  She already has a perfectly fine motivation in the book, though, and we’ll get to that in a moment. 

The WWE is pretty much a blank slate in the book.  Apart from being smashed by a house, her only notable story function is her role in Nick Chopper becoming the Tin Woodman, which was covered last week in Part 2.  However, one thing I found myself thinking about, wondering about rather intently, in fact, was what life was like for the Munchkins under the rule of the Wicked Witch of the East.  Baum doesn’t go into much detail there, only giving us glimpses through the story of Nick Chopper and Nimmie Aimee, and through some other, subtler hints. 

Let’s look at Munchkin culture, such as it is.  It’s not quite the explosion in the candy factory that MGM “Munchkinland” was.  Think of a 13th century Irish peasant village.  Simple houses, mud bricks and thatched roofs, dirt roads, chickens running around.  Miles of rich, rolling farmland and wild forests.  More Robin Hood than Willy Wonka.  And as I mentioned above…they love the color blue.  Lots and lots of blue.

So what, exactly, has the Wicked Witch of the East done to them?  I doubt very seriously that she takes a “live and let live” position.  Nimmie Aimee’s boss gave the WWE two sheep and a cow to buy the favor of a curse on Nick’s axe.  So she’s into favors.  She likes taking things from her subjects.  My mind went to the Scouring of the Shire from Lord of the Rings – the book, not the movies – and what Saruman did to the Hobbits.  I imagined corn and grain confiscated from the Munchkins by way of an unfair tax, left to rot in the witch’s storehouses while the Munchkins went hungry.  It was a striking image, very un-MGM, and that such harsh realities could exist in Oz appealed to me. 

The one apparent weak spot in my reasoning was Boq, the Munchkin Governor.  Dorothy spends her first night in Oz in the guest bedroom of Boq’s house.  It’s a lush mansion with expansive grounds, and there’s a Munchkin hoedown going on in the yard.  Long table piled high with food and drink, guys sawing on fiddles, the whole nine.  How’s a guy get such a big house and so much…STUFF…when he’s being subjugated by a Wicked Witch?  Perhaps because he’s a governor in the Imperial Roman sense.  He’s Peter Cushing on his Death Star.  A Shire-Reeve.  The Sheriff of Nottingham.

Whether because her sudden demise leaves his fate in the balance, or because he no longer has anything to fear from her, Boq at least has the goodness of character to feel guilty about what he has done, and that’s the reason for the party.  He’s sharing the wealth with the brothers he had previously robbed.  It is also Boq and his wife who provision Dorothy for her journey to the City of Emeralds, and send her off with a reminder that the Land of Oz is not all so colorful and carefree as it seems.  And we all know who she ends up running afoul of: the iconic one, the Wicked Witch of the West. 

Margaret Hamilton made this role a legend in the MGM film.  Her performance is so memorable and so beloved that her version of the character is now the subject of a major Broadway play.  I’ve said from the beginning that this process quickly became, in part, about the things that MGM got wrong and how I could use those to really set this script apart from previous adaptations, and that if I didn’t think I could do better, there’d be no point doing it at all. 

What might surprise you is that the trouble I had finding Dorothy did not show its face with the Wicked Witch of the West.  I knew early on what I wanted to do with her.  It may have helped that Maggie Hamilton’s WWW is so completely different from what Baum wrote and Denslow drew, but it wasn’t Denslow’s witch that I drew my inspiration from.  I’ve mentioned it before, but I grew up with that abridged version of the book with illustrations by Anton Loeb.  And Loeb’s Witch scared the hell out of me as a child.  She’s a bit mild for me now, but there’s a lot of good stuff to be mined from that design, and it’s a more extreme version of that witch that we’ve put in our movie. 

Toto Bites!
The Wicked Witch of the West as drawn by Anton Loeb

Hamilton’s Wicked Witch may be iconic, but she’s also a walking cliché.  She’s green, hook-nosed, wears a pointy black hat and rides a broom.  Baum wrote exactly none of that.  Denslow drew her with a pointy hat, but Baum never mentioned her headgear at all that I can recall.  He did say that she had one eye, and that she usually carried an umbrella.  Makes sense, given her little water allergy and all.  And on that note I began to think about how she must smell, since she can’t take a bath, and how one represents that visually in a film.  Okay, I know.  You’re right.  A character design isn’t the same thing as an actual character.  But they inform each other.  Having a clear mental image of a very non-MGM witch helped me to imagine a different type of performance as well. 

As I said earlier, this is not a Witch who is motivated by revenge.  If anything she’s motivated by fear.  She’s afraid of this new “witch,” Dorothy, who has killed the Wicked Witch of the East, has met with the Wizard, and is now marching into the Western lands with her friends.  Wearing a white and green dress, no less.  A Good Witch invading the Western country on behalf of the City of Emeralds.  If anything the Witch of the West is fighting to defend herself from what she sees as a frontal assault.  And you better believe the Wizard did that on purpose.  He has a bit of a history with the WWW. 

The Wizard, it turns out, once tried to overthrow the Wicked Witch of the West.  She’s the most powerful of the wicked witches, and the Wizard knew that made her the biggest threat to him.  But the Royal Army was repelled by the Winged Monkeys, and Oz never tried to overthrow the WWW again.  At least until he met Dorothy and her friends.  So the Witch herself has no personal vendetta against Dorothy.  She’s just afraid that our little Kansas farm girl is going to kill her. 

Hell, she doesn’t even really plan to get the Silver Shoes, until she sees them on Dorothy’s feet and realizes that they’re a magic item.  That’s just pure greed.  Any power-hungry sorceress would go after a magic item that might add to her arsenal.  Blink and you’ll miss it, but the MGM movie had the Cap of Quelala – never explained or shown in use.  The owner of the cap can command the Winged Monkeys three times, and the WWW is furious that she had to use her final command to have the monkeys defeat Dorothy’s friends.  The Silver Shoes are her consolation prize, if she can get them off the girl’s feet.  That leaves her with the matter of that mark of protection.

The WWW spends a lot of time being afraid of things.  Like the Cowardly Lion, she makes a lot of threats and beats up on weak people to prove how tough she is.  She’s not prone to screaming fits and throwing fireballs, though.  Our WWW projects an air of quiet menace.  I know the line I’m about to say is cribbed from another producer on another film entirely, but it’s less about her laugh and more about her eyes.  That is to say, her EYE.  Stole that one, too.  But the point stands.

She’s not as constant a threat as the MGM film would have you believe; like Baum’s, our WWW is spoken of in hushed tones by some of the characters but only appears late in the middle of the film as a challenge for Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion to face.  Don’t expect her to be the central villain in the traditional sense.  But she IS the biggest, baddest villain.  And our approach is to make her as memorable, and as frightening, as we can in the time she has.  I think we’ve created something truly special.  I hope you’ll all think so, too.

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