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Why is it so difficult to update The Wizard of Oz?

NBC’s Emerald City is just the latest Oz revival to fall flat on its face.

Emerald City
Dorothy (Adria Arjona) and the very Scarecrow-ish Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are following the Yellow Brick Road in Emerald City.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Emerald City is one of the better Wizard of Oz reimaginings in that surprisingly robust subgenre. It’s also not a very good TV show.

This disparity turns out to be not at all surprising. L. Frank Baum’s beloved novel and characters — as well as most of the novel’s sequels — are in the public domain. And while the 1939 movie musical version of the novel is still under copyright, it remains a much-loved classic, which only boosts the profile of the source material. Thus, Oz and its denizens are constant temptations for a Hollywood that never met something old it couldn’t shove into a slightly newer template.



Yet the number of genuinely good Oz reworkings is shockingly small. I’d peg that number at three: the 1985 film Return to Oz, the 1992 Geoff Ryman novel Was, and the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked (along with the musical adapted from its pages; the novel’s sequels are less impressive). Also, there was that one Scrubs episode that essentially reproduced the MGM film within the halls of the series’ hospital. But that’s it.

Emerald City, which will run for 10 episodes through early March, is bad but watchable, perhaps because the people behind it are so talented. Showrunner Shaun Cassidy has made more bad TV shows than good ones, but when he strikes gold (as he did with 1995’s American Gothic and 2005’s Invasion), he’s very good indeed. And director Tarsem Singh — excuse me, NBC’s promotional materials would like me to refer to him as Visionary Director Tarsem Singh — gives the series several moments of jaw-dropping beauty.

But as a story, Emerald City is a snooze, just another attempt to make Oz dark and edgy — a bit like Once Upon a Time, if Once Upon a Time did all its shopping at Hot Topic. As such, it’s instructive about why Oz is so resistant to being modernized. Here are five reasons Baum’s work is so hard to update.

1) L. Frank Baum was just making this shit up as he went along

Emerald City
Somehow, he didn’t think of including a Hot Scarecrow, though.

One of my favorite stories about the Oz books is that in one book, Baum declared that all animals — even animals born in non-magical lands — can talk when they get to Oz. Okay, his readers wondered, if that’s the case, then why wasn’t Toto a little chatterbox during the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its immediate sequels? Baum explained in a later novel that Toto could have talked during earlier books; he just chose not to.

This is Baum’s Oz in a nutshell: wildly inventive and incredibly inconsistent. He clearly used Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland as a guideline, but Wonderland was meant to be utter nonsense. Baum tried to give Oz a political reality and a vague sense of economics and all sorts of things.

The two didn’t really mesh, so Baum’s Oz is full of cheerful inconsistencies. He was making everything up as he went along, and he simply didn’t care if you noticed.

This approach is anathema to our modern world-building properties. Oz has to make sense, or why would we set a story there? Emerald City, in particular, huffs and puffs to set up an ultra-complicated political conflict between the Wizard, the various Witches, the nearby kingdom of Ev, and a whole host of free agents.

It’s fitfully interesting, but I don’t know that we really need to dig into why the Wizard hates the Wicked Witch of the West beyond “she’s wicked” — especially when Wicked has already skillfully flipped the script on that particular question.

2) Oz is a surprisingly political work, but mostly for the early 1900s when it was published

Emerald City
The Wizard represents the patriarchy or something. Emerald City will let you know when it decides.

The first Oz sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, features arguably one of the earliest transgender narratives in American children’s fiction. In it, a young boy named Tip (spoilers for a century-old novel) discovers that he is actually the long-lost Princess Ozma, who was spirited away and changed into a boy to hide his true identity. (I’m using male pronouns because Baum does, before switching to female pronouns after Tip is re-Ozmaed.)

But calling this a “transgender narrative” is putting way too much weight on the word “narrative.” Tip becomes Ozma, and that’s pretty much that. Everybody likes the kid just fine, because she’s an all-around pleasant human being. The story is so unusual for its time — and so thin, ultimately — that scholars have spent lots of time trying to figure out what it all means. Others have argued (somewhat unconvincingly) that the Oz books are just a long series of metaphors about the gold standard.

Baum was also something of a feminist for his day. His Oz is essentially a matriarchy, where women run the government (once Ozma is revealed), the military, and other important institutions. However, Baum was also a very 1900s dudebro feminist, in that he tended to directly connect women’s virtues to how pretty they were. (In his books, it’s regularly implied that Oz’s many wicked witches became so wicked because they’re ugly.)

And that, ultimately, is what stymies modern-day Oz adaptations: It’s clear that Baum is talking about political issues of some importance to him, but since he was writing in the early 20th century, few of us are terribly worked up about the gold standard these days — or, at least, not enough of us are to make it a solid basis for a political fiction.

This leaves modern-day Oz interpretations flailing about for something, anything to hit that sweet spot of being entertaining but also offering political commentary. Emerald City, for its part, sometimes feels as if it were written by someone who’s read a couple of blog posts on the patriarchy and trans issues (yes, the Tip/Ozma story is here), then called it a day. Baum’s stories are terrific fun, but they’re also so flimsy that adding modern political context often requires complete reinvention of the world of the tales — as Maguire did in Wicked. Emerald City doesn’t go nearly far enough.

3) The most prominent example of “Oz” in people’s minds has little to do with the books

Emerald City
If only they had involved writhing around in giant mud pits!

The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz is terrific, but it’s also under copyright, which means it’s difficult to create further adaptations that skew too closely to what it does.

And because that film is actually a rather loose adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — it keeps the characters and the basic plot skeleton, but little else — most people think of Oz as a bright, glittering, happy place where everybody sings all the time, even though Baum’s books are decidedly more daft.

So most modern Oz stories attempt to go in the opposite direction, embracing the darker, edgier aspects of Baum’s stories. The witches become all-powerful sorceresses, and the Wizard becomes a symbol of the rule of unjust men, and on and on. This is fine. Indeed, it’s worked well in the past — Return to Oz, for example, is a brilliant subversion of what we expect from an Oz movie.

But it also misses that much of the reason Oz is so beloved has to do with both its characters’ and Baum’s fundamental kindness. Oz is a place for the unusual and eccentric, a place that welcomes just about anyone who is willing to live within it peacefully.

So when Emerald City builds much of its narrative around how weird and edgy the place is, it just feels tired. You’ve seen this take on Oz before — and done better.

4) Ultimately, the Oz books lack conflict

Emerald City
Because because because because BECAUSSSSSEEEEE...

Everybody knows Dorothy versus the Witch, but the true lesson of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that even a figure as prominent as Oz the Great and Terrible might be lying to you. The Witch is just the obstacle that Dorothy and her traveling companions have to get past to become better friends.

Taking on the Witch is an excuse to give readers more time with Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. (Also, Toto, holding his tongue.) Notably, after the gang defeats the Witch and unmasks the Wizard, the book still has roughly a quarter of its pages left, spent on a series of entirely unrelated adventures (which were cut from the movie).

All of the Oz books are like this: Whatever conflict exists is usually easily resolved, often out of nowhere. The real fun is in navigating whatever off-the-wall ideas Baum tosses at you, or in losing yourself in the ever-expanding, ever-weirdening land at the story’s center.

Thus, if you’re going to create a modern-day Oz — and especially if you need to fill 10 episodes of TV with Ozian adventures — you’ll need to introduce all sorts of conflicts and forced battles. But turning the Oz books into a broadcast network version of Game of Thrones (while wrapping all the biggest fight scenes in fog, to cut down on the effects budget) will only do a disservice to everyone. Also, there are lengthy subplots about guns and science versus magic and all sorts of pointless conflicts.

Oz, at its heart, is about friends having low-stakes adventures. Emerald City misses this point so badly that by the end of season one, the show’s versions of the story’s central four characters are scattered all over the map — and have indeed barely met.

5) Oz is about wild, all over the place imagination

Emerald City
This doesn’t seem like a very practical outfit for going on walkabout.

In one sense, Tarsem Singh is a great fit for a modern-day Oz adaptation. He loves big, bold imagery and isn’t shy about that fact, as seen in an early Emerald City encounter between Dorothy and a witch. The witch is a jewel-encrusted woman wearing a billowing red dress, crouching on some rocks in a desert. Why is she dressed like this? Why not!

If there’s one thing about Emerald City that inspired me to keep watching, it was visuals like that one. There are at least a few in every episode, and some of them have a real weight and majesty to them, which suggests an ancient history for this version of Oz, one that is never quite expressed.

But the visuals aren’t quite enough. The story of Emerald City is much too busy, without any characters nearly as memorable as those in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on the Wizard — which is truly, gloriously off the wall — wears thin after a while, and many of the other actors seem to be coping by competing to see who can pout the most ripely.

There are many, many worse takes on Oz out there, but Emerald City only underlines why the seemingly natural impulse to make a dark, gritty Oz reboot only undercuts what allowed the story to endure in the first place.

Emerald City airs Fridays on NBC at 9 pm Eastern.

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