Column: Adapting Oz, Part Four


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 four of an ongoing series where I’ll discuss the process of adapting a beloved book into a screenplay. 

Part Four: Lost in Translation

What is it with me titling these things after movies lately?  Movies I haven’t even seen, in fact.  So far I’ve talked a lot about the process of finding the truth in Baum’s characters so I could write them effectively, and some of the over-arching themes in the story that emerge during that process.  What I’d like to do this time is to get more nuts-and-bolts with the actual writing.  I’m going to try not to bore you to death, I promise, but I know this may be less specifically Oz-centric than usual. 

If I were writing an original story, I would brainstorm, create an outline, and then roll up my sleeves and get to work.  Though adapting somebody else’s work to a screenplay spares me the first step, it’s replaced­ with the process I’ve been telling you all about in parts one through three: analyzing, unpacking, and studying the structure.  If it was a poem the word would be “explicating.”  Most writers would probably then create an outline and put the pieces back together their own way.  I would only do that if I had no respect for the source material and felt that it needed to be vastly improved.  Never having worked in Hollywood, however, I’ve never had to write a screenplay based on anything that I thought was garbage. 

So for Oz, I decided to forego the outlining process.  It’s a pretty simple story that we all know, basically a quest-type tale where we follow a group of heroes on a journey.  Don’t really need an outline for that.  I’d sorted the characters already and knew what the overall meaning of the story was.  I wasn’t looking to reinvent or re-imagine Oz, so I wasn’t anticipating any major additions or subtractions.  This next point, no doubt, is obvious to some of you, but I’m sure there are those among you who haven’t really thought about this kind of thing in much detail: that is, the reason why books and movies are never exactly the same. 

The biggest reason has to do with telling vs. showing.  With the written word you can talk all about a character’s innermost thoughts, drop little anecdotes about their past; in other words explain everything as an omniscient narrator.  Alternatively you can write from a first-person perspective and focus on a single character’s point of view, making the reader intimately familiar with the lead character’s thoughts and perspectives, and seeing the entire story and its characters through your lead’s eyes.  With a film, you can’t explain what’s happening onscreen, you can only show it and trust your audience to get it.  That trust is important because if it isn’t there you wind up beating your audience over the head with expository dialogue and obvious clues that might as well have neon signs over them saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT.”  We all hate it when movies do that to us, right?  The challenge then with screenwriting is to remember that rule and still make sure that the characters and conflicts are clearly drawn.  In the interest of making this reasonably brief, we’ll look at two portions of the movie, one where I had to add something to the story, and one where I had to cut things out. 

Right from the beginning with Oz, I had to decide what Kansas should be like onscreen.  Actually that’s mostly the director’s job, but I didn’t know Clayton and I didn’t know who might be someday making this film, I only knew that I wanted to clearly define the way things looked and sounded so that the differences between this and the MGM film would be highlighted.  As Baum describes it, Dorothy really is the color in Henry and Em’s world.  He goes to great length describing how grey and dusty everything is: the land, the house, Em and Henry themselves.  No doubt this is the reason that the Kansas portion of MGM Oz was shot in sepia tone, but since it’s been done before I knew that such a thing was not going to be an option with this Oz.  However I began to realize that what Baum was really describing was a major drought.  The kind of thing that kills every plant and thus, eventually, every animal in sight.  With an image like that, there’s no need to be as literal as the MGM film was with the colorlessness. 

Another thing about the Kansas sequence is that in the book it has very little dialogue or action.  Baum spends plenty of time describing the place and the people, but when the action, as it were, begins, the tornado appears almost instantly and carries Dorothy and her house away.  In my mind I break this down into a few pieces.  I need an establishing shot, something that shows you Kansas and the farm and tells you what you need to know about this time and place.  Then I need to establish Henry and Em.  I can’t do this as simply.  I can’t simply have Em washing dishes, have Henry looking tired and then throw a tornado at them.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need all the extraneous stuff that the MGM movie put in there, but I do need to tell the audience who these people are and how important Dorothy is to them.

I realized what I was writing is a Western that suddenly becomes a fantasy film instead.  I’ve never seen a movie like that, and the idea appeals to me.  I began thinking about my favorite westerns, especially “Unforgiven,” and that image of Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny standing under a big old tree beside his little one-room shack, silhouetted against a red sky, chopping wood.  That’s the image I kept in my head as I began writing the Kansas sequence.  That set the tone.  So I start with Henry at work, trying against all odds to make something grow in the barren earth.  Show that his livestock is dying.  Then take the action inside the house and there’s Aunt Em washing the dishes as in the book, and Dorothy playing with Toto, establishing that Dorothy is a child whose faith, hope, and optimism have not yet been crushed by the desolation of Kansas.  Show that her unfailing joy and wonder sometimes jangle Aunt Em’s nerves.  And then bring Uncle Henry in from outside, by way of counterpoint, and let him collapse in a chair, angry and frustrated at his feeling of helplessness to provide for his family.  All of this means I have to write dialogue.  Bleak dialogue for bitter adults.  Dialogue that wasn’t in the book.

Now we’ve painted a picture that captures a feeling, that will stand in stark contrast to the Land of Oz.  We have characters who feel real, broken, and sad.  Someone once said “put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  I think Henry and Em just arrived pre-treed for our convenience.  All that remains is to do the worst thing that we can possibly do to them: bring the tornado.  Destroy whatever is left of their property, and steal Dorothy away to a distant land that nobody even knew existed.  For all they know, she’s dead.  Of course all of this isn’t purely about Henry and Em.  It also establishes a very important fact about Dorothy: if that little girl can survive and remain full of life and joy in a place like that, then she’ll definitely be brave and strong on her journey in Oz. 

William Goldman, author of “The Princess Bride” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” among many others, is known for writing successful adaptations of his own novels.  He has also written books on screenwriting.  Something I picked up from him is a simple mantra, to be remembered with every scene of every screenplay:  “Enter late, leave early.” 

This is useful whether you’re writing an original script or adapting a book, but when adapting a book it’s maybe the most important thing anyone can ever tell you.  Enter late and leave early.  This means you should join each scene already in progress, and leave before it ends.  It keeps the pace up and sets a nice quick tempo for your film.  Another good rule is that if a scene doesn’t advance the story forward, drop it.  You don’t need it.  With that said, I’m willing to keep scenes sometimes whose sole purpose is to show the passage of time, but Clayton and I have created a second version of the script in case we’re unable to produce the entire film the way we’d like to.  There’s a shorter version where we did away with some of the subplots and killed any reference to the passage of time.  We like this version less, but consider it a viable alternative if we’re unable to come up with the resources to put the rest of the film together in a reasonable amount of time.

There are lots of reasons to cut things, but it’s never easy.  However, novels can be as long as they need to be, and screenplays are normally expected to come in under two hours, so there is a lot of cutting to be done if you plan to make the script work.  The good news is, I find that most of this cutting is of a smaller nature, such as the beginning and end of scenes, as Goldman suggests. 

So let’s talk about a time when restructuring becomes painfully necessary: meeting the Wizard.  In the book, Dorothy and her three friends each see the Wizard separately, and he appears to each of them in a different form.  The MGM film, as we all know, had them walk in together and the Wizard appeared as a giant green projection of a head with a lot of pyrotechnics.  The reason for this is clear: four scenes of people going to talk to a Wizard in the same room with almost the same dialogue is going to get repetitive and bring down the pace of the film. 

However, it makes more sense for the Wizard to see each person separately, as so much of his “magic” depends on fear and deception, and it’s easier to frighten or deceive a single person than to do it to a whole group at once.  It also helps to heighten the mystery of the character to show him/her/it appearing in different forms.  I really wanted to keep that in.  So I had to figure out how to keep it exciting and not repetitive.  The solution I found has to do with the dialogue being almost the same in each scene.  It plays out like this:  Dorothy goes in, meets the Wizard-as-Floating-Head.  The scene plays through pretty much as seen in the book.  We don’t show her leaving the throne room.  Next, we intercut between Scarecrow and Nick’s visits with the Wizard, the Wizard visible as a Lady for Scarecrow and a Beast for Nick.  Though the scene cuts back and forth between Scarecrow and the Lady and Nick and the Beast, the dialogue is so much the same that I don’t need to repeat things or even play out the entire scene.  It’s clear he’s telling them the same thing he told Dorothy.

In the next scene, the Famous Four are talking as the Lion prepares for his visit with the Wizard.  We come in as the Lion says, “Unreasonable demands!  I will roll him around the room until he promises to help us!” 

And then cut straightaway to the Lion confronted with a huge fireball.  “Are you hurt?” 

”I am Oz, the Great and Terrible.  Who are you and why do you seek me?” 

The Lion bows, and the scene ends.  It’s a little more complicated than the MGM solution, but I think it’s still elegant, more dramatic, and it preserves Baum’s original intent.  Ultimately that’s the balance you’re always reaching for with an adaptation: sometimes you have to add or subtract material in order to make the story function as a film, and still preserve the spirit and intent of the original work.   


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