Rewatching the Wizard of Oz

In Media, On Writing, The Wider World by BronwenLeave a Comment

It seems like almost every book on writing craft makes at least one reference to The Wizard of Oz (the film, not the books), and it’s often a prominent example. I finally picked up Debra Dixon’s GOAL, MOTIVATION, CONFLICT, and she suggested a rewatch. This GMC is a concept I struggle with, I decided to take her up on it.

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I also figured I might as well live-tweet the experience, along with plenty of gifs. Below is the Storify of those tweets, and then I’ll talk about what I learned.

I haven’t watched this movie since I was a kid. Maybe ten years old at the most. I had the 50th anniversary VHS, which was quite pretty. I must have watched it quite a bit because I remembered lines, songs, imagery, lots of stuff. So a nice little bit of nostalgia there.

Culturally

As a piece of media, there’s plenty of examine. For instance, there’s Glinda’s assertion that “only bad witches are ugly.” Right off the bat we’re reinforcing awful tropes like Beauty Equals Goodness and Evil Makes You Ugly. Cuz those aren’t rooted in misogyny or anything. This is a story for children, so it relies on easy ideas, but these ones aren’t healthy.

And Glinda asks, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” which translates to, “Are you beautiful or ugly, I can’t tell?” THAT’S good for Dorothy’s self-image.

Then there’s the way Glinda handles, well, everything. I’ve decided that I do not like Glinda. She’s totally fine with everyone celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. All we know is that she’s “wicked”, not why or how. We have only Glinda’s word to go on. She’s quite happy to nod along and smile when the Munchkins are celebrating WWoE’s death. They sing lines like, ”

We thank you very sweetly
For doing it so neatly.

Yes, thanks, Dorothy, for not splattering witch guts everywhere. That’s a real downer.

So things are a little messed up in Oz. It continues in the Emerald City, when the gang is taken to a salon for buffing, washing, and curling. What does Dorothy want to know? Can they dye her eyes to match her blue dress. Let’s be clear, Judy Garland had beautiful eyes. And yet this young girl believes they’re not good enough. They have to be blue. I have blue eyes, I’ve spent my life hearing about my beautiful eyes, and even I find this disturbing. There is an eye color hierarchy and it’s messed up.

We won’t even touch the Munchkin issues, because I’m not well-versed enough to go there.

Historically

As a piece of film history, the movie stands up well. The film itself has been well-preserved and it looks pretty HD on my streaming service. I was able to see and appreciate the quality of the costumes, the make-up, the sets. A lot of care went into this film. I can only imagine what it would cost to remake it now.

But, I watched this for writing homework. So what did I learn about story, character, etc.?

Craft-wise

Foreshadowing is king

If you can foreshadow, do it. Every element of Dorothy’s mundane Kansas life is echoed in Oz. Even Aunt Em and Glinda could be seen as analogous. As a grown up and a writer I watched the sepia scenes and immediately recognized the latter elements as they were initially called up. Everything felt tight, pulled together, nothing wasted.

Framing devices are powerful

I’m not arguing for more “it was all a dream” stories. But having that construct undoubtedly helps to tell this story.

If you’re going to use the Rule of Three, use it well

The Rule of Three seems to be something baked into our subconscious. We like threes. So it makes sense for Dorothy to have three companions, each with his own problem to solve. Her initial encounters with each are great. We meet them, what they want, get to know them a little. The problem is later on, when the Witch kidnaps Dorothy and the guys have to rescue her. You see, the Scarecrow uses his brains to make a plan, and the Lion leads despite his fears, but what does the Tin Man do? He’s just kind of… there. And he certainly doesn’t do anything that would require great heart. Maybe that was cut from the script or is clearer in the books, but I found it to be a big, gaping hole. Through the whole second half the Tin Man is basically just a prop. Which is terrible, story-wise, and as a message. It’s really brains and courage that matter, heart doesn’t do much for you. Especially if it’s a man who’s supposed to embody all that emotion and whatnot.

Deus Ex Machina is frustrating

The TV Tropes page for the film points out that the Witch suddenly being vulnerable to water after absolutely not prelude as an example of this, but that didn’t bother me so much. Maybe because it’s just a Fact after all these years.

What does bother me? Glinda (farking Glinda again) appearing at the last moment to tell Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas. … She had to learn it for herself.” So basically, meddling “Good Witch” decided Dorothy needed to be taught a lesson and sent her on an arduous, dangerous journey ‘for her own good.’ Glind is a shitty guardian. (I can’t believe I can’t find a ‘bad guardian’ Trope. Dumbledore, people!) And Dorothy doesn’t solve her own problem anymore–she did as asked and killed the Witch for her broomstick but the Wizard abandoned her. So this is… a consolation prize?

Glinda plays DexM again earlier in the film, when she uses snow to neutralize the poppies. (How does snow stop opium again??) This robs Dorothy and crew of a chance to prove their mettle.

Consistency in characters is a big deal

We know a few things about the titular Wizard.

  1. He’s based off Professor Marvolo, who Dorothy meets in Kansas. Marvolo proves himself to be cheat, not a real fortune-teller.
  2. He’s originally from Omaha, thanks to his balloon which says “State Fair of Omaha.”
  3. He doesn’t know how to work the balloon. Hence how he wound up going over the rainbow and into Oz.
  4. He can’t give big gifts like brains, a heart, or courage, only crappy substitutes, like a degree, a watch, and a medal.
  5. In Oz, he has built a massive machine that projects a hologram and shoots fire and is genuinely very scary.
  6. He has doppelgangers all over the Emerald City.
  7. Everyone in Oz, and especially the Emerald City, adores him and believes him to be all-powerful.

So, even though he is, at heart, a charlatan and useless, he’s good at a few things: making people feel good and trust him, and massive acts of science in a fantasy world.

Pictured: That which should not be

I don’t know whether or not to be impressed. He’s basically a fraud except that he can put massive amounts of energy and work into making you believe he’s not. This feels really inconsistent to me. He can’t worth a balloon ride but he can built a hologram?

If he’s so freaking good at making things like this, why is he stuck in Oz? (Or is he just sticking around because he likes being worshipped?)

What about the shoes?

We don’t know very much about the ruby slippers except that they’re powerful and the Witch of the West wants them. Glinda denies her them purely out of what appears to be spite (since we have no examples of how the Witch is undeserving). No one ever says what these shoes can do until the very end when Glinda reveals that they’re a ticket home. They’re stuck on Dorothy’s feet until she dies. …but then she goes back to Kansas and they go… where? What happens to them? I don’t care that it’s just a dream, these shoes are one giant mystery! They’re a plot device with very little detail. That’s annoying.

Don’t forget to solve your bridge conflict!

Donald Maass uses the term ‘bridge conflict’ to refer to that initial conflict that gets the ball rolling but isn’t the main thrust of the story. In this case, it’s Mrs. Gulch wanting to put down Toto for harassing her cat. Toto escapes Gulch’s initial attempt to take him away, and then Dorothy comes up with her stunningly brilliant plan to run away, which winds up sending her to Oz. But when she wakes up surrounded by friends and Toto she’s so glad to be back home that she totally forgets that her neighbor Mrs. Gulch still wants to destroy her dog.

So what happens next? After the twister does Mrs. Gulch come back over to take Toto away again? Or is the implication that she really is the Witch and she died in the twister? We never find out, because no one gives enough of a crap to inquire after the neighbor lady (who is, admittedly, not nice).

Verdict: Worth rewatching

I’m glad I took the time to watch this again. Parts of it were fun, and I had forgotten some things that watching the film brought right back. (I totally forgot that Dorothy slaps the Lion at one point, and that made me LOL. I’m a bad adult.) It was nice to think critically about something that I watched as a kid but am not still so nostalgic for that picking it apart is painful. (That would be The Little Mermaid for me.) Now I can get back to reading craft books and have a better sense of what exactly they’re talking about!

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