Tonight was the two-hour premiere of Emerald City, NBC’s grim-and-gritty adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. All ten episodes of the season are directed by Tarsem Singh (director of the masterpiece The Fall and other films that...aren’t so well regarded), so they certainly look visually interesting, but io9 has already called the show “so shallow it almost appears deep” and it hasn’t been getting any better reviews than that.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900. It was written by Lyman Frank Baum (who hated his first name so much that he just went by “Frank” most of the time) and had illustrations by W. W. Denslow. It was Baum’s attempt to create a specific American-style fairy tale, hence the main character being a farm girl from Kansas.
When I was a child, perhaps nine or ten, I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and became amazed by it. I had already watched the film, but the book seemed so much more — it included tons more details about Oz and about its inhabitants, including gory bits and scary bits. And, after I had finished the book, I was amazed to learn that Baum had written sequels. In fact, he had written fourteen Oz books in total (not including Little Wizard Stories of Oz, a book of six short stories). And then, after Baum had died, several other authors wrote 26 more (all of which were out of print when I started reading the books).
Looking at all of these books, I can’t exactly call them a “canon,” since most of the books are contradictory with previous books. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City only seems to be made of emeralds because everyone wears green glasses all the time, but later books make it so the city is actually made of emeralds. Pennies are mentioned in the first book, but later books mention that money doesn’t exist in Oz. Later books also mention that death itself doesn’t exist in Oz — nobody dies — which comes as quite a shock after Dorothy inadvertently kills both the Wicked Witch of the East and the West in the first book. You might be able to chalk these changes up to the fact that they all happen after Ozma begins her reign, but the books themselves don’t try to make any coherent sense, not as a series nor as a world. Baum wasn’t interesting in world-building — he was much more interested in writing fairy tales and fairy tales often don’t make any sense at all.
“There were only four witches in all the Land of Oz, and two of them, those who live in the North and the South, are good witches. I know this is true, for I am one of them myself, and cannot be mistaken. Those who dwelt in the East and the West were, indeed, wicked witches; but now that you have killed one of them, there is but one Wicked Witch in all the Land of Oz — the one who lives in the West.”
One thing in which Emerald City gets wrong and which a lot of adaptations get wrong is that Glinda is not the Good Witch of the North in the books. The first witch Dorothy encounters, the Good Witch of the North, is a completely different character. The Witch of the North is described as an old woman, “her face was covered with wrinkles, her hair was nearly white, and she walked rather stiffly.” The Witch of the North is the one who gives Dorothy the Wicked Witch of the East’s silver slippers, a magical kiss on the forehead for protection, and then sends her on the yellow brick road to the City of Emeralds. It’s only at the end of the book that Dorothy encounters Glinda, who is the Good Witch of the South.
In the show, after Dorothy kills the Witch of the East, she is called a witch herself because “only a witch can kill a witch.” This wasn’t the case in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — in fact, Dorothy was mistaken for a witch because of her gingham dress. Since her dress had the color white in it and only witches wear white, Dorothy was thus mistaken for one.
The Munchkin who accompanies Dorothy in the show is named Ojo, while in the book he is named Boq. “Ojo,” in fact, is a completely different character, a Munchkin boy who is nicknamed “Ojo the Lucky” in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. The Scarecrow (in the show an amnesiac named “Lucas”), meanwhile, is found crucified, while in the book, he was a literal scarecrow. At first, there is no explanation for why he is alive (again: fairy tale), but later books actually do explain this as he was put together on a magic pole that gave him life.
The Marvelous Land of Oz was Baum’s second Oz book published in 1904. It actually didn’t feature Dorothy, but rather a young boy named Tip was the protagonist. The show’s second episode thus introduces Tip as a prisoner of the witch Mombi, exactly how he is in the book.
However, in the book it turns out that Tip is actually Ozma, the sole female heir to the throne of King Pastoria, former ruler of Oz. Mombi had turned Ozma into a boy in order to hide her away. From the ending of the second episode, it looks like Tip’s transformation into Ozma has taken place a lot sooner and without as much explanation. Tip’s best friend is named Jack, so he might be the show’s adaptation of Jack Pumpkinhead, who was Tip’s friend in the book, but was a living pumpkin on a wooden body (similar to the Scarecrow) brought to life with the Powder of Life.
Looking at the IMDb page for the show, actually, gives us some clue of what’s going to happen and who is going to show up. “Lady Ev” and “King Ev” are both going to show up, while in the books, the Land of Ev is one of the neighboring countries to Oz (it lies beyond the Deadly Desert) and the royal family of Ev were all taken captive by the Nome King (all of which is detailed in Ozma of Oz, which was made into a terrific and terrifying movie called Return to Oz).
IMDb also gives the name “Jinjur,” who was the name of the female general who lead an uprising of all female soldiers in The Marvelous Land of Oz.
“Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”
The show presents the Wizard of Oz as much more evil than his book version. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as soon as the Wizard’s deception is revealed, he’s treated as a kindly old man, even though he did try to get Dorothy to kill his closest rival. The reason he was crowned ruler of Oz, in fact, was because he came over in a balloon that had the letters “O.Z.” written on it, because his name was “Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs” or, as his initials put it, “O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D.” He dropped everything except his first two names and so the locals thought it was a sign, declaring him their ruler.
There was a darker side to him in the books, however: in The Marvelous Land of Oz, it was revealed that he had taken the infant Ozma and given her to Mombi to hide.
It’s clear that Emerald City the show isn’t shying away from some of the darker parts of the Oz books, even changing around characters to accomplish it. This isn’t the first time this has been done — Wicked the book made everything pretty dark — but adaptations like this never seem to go for the same matter-of-fact darkness that Baum’s books had.
For example, in second episode of Emerald City, tigers are mentioned, which do exist in Oz. But The Wonderful Wizard of Oz actually features “Kalidahs,” which are creatures that have bodies of bears and heads of lions. Dorothy and company are forced to run from Kalidahs when trying to reach the Emerald City.
In fact, in the book, the origin of the Tin Woodsman is one of the goriest things I’ve ever read in a children’s book: the Woodsman fell in love with a Munchkin girl who lived with an old woman who turned out to be a witch. The witch didn’t want her to marry anyone, so she enchanted the Woodsman’s axe to slip and cut off his leg. He had it replaced with a tin leg, but the axe kept slipping and cutting off various body parts until he was made almost entirely of tin. (Yes, this does imply that he cut off his own head.) And then...well, let me just quote the passage for you:
“I thought I had beaten the Wicked Witch then, and I worked harder than ever; but I little knew how cruel my enemy could be. She thought of a new way to kill my love for the beautiful Munchkin maiden, and made my axe slip again, so that it cut right through my body, splitting me into two halves. Once more the tinsmith came to my help and made me a body of tin, fastening my tin arms and legs and head to it, by means of joints, so that I could move around as well as ever. But, alas! I had now no heart, so that I lost all my love for the Munchkin girl, and did not care whether I married her or not. I suppose she is still living with the old woman, waiting for me to come after her.
That’s why the Tin Woodsman is looking for a heart: because he cut his old one in two.
And that’s why I read Baum’s entire series of Oz books. Emerald City might not be as good as I was hoping for, but it seems like it’s something interesting to watch for an Oz fan. I can’t wait to see if they introduce the Glass Cat or Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, or even the Shaggy Man.