The Dark Side of Oz

I think there’s a definite temptation for people, when faced with something child-friendly and innocent, to want to find something dark and disturbing beneath the surface. That could be part of why it seems popular to want to make dark Oz stories. There was even a comic series actually CALLED “Dark Oz.” Wicked and its sequels were also pretty gritty when compared to the original books. I mean, Gregory Maguire essentially made the Wizard of Oz into Hitler. On the other hand, is L. Frank Baum’s Oz really as light as it’s sometimes thought? There was apparently a tagline in use back when Baum was writing that said none of his books ever sent a child to bed with troubled dreams, but I’ve occasionally explained something from an Oz book that other people unfamiliar with the stories found disturbing. I think it has a lot to do with context, with the way Baum wrote making it hard to take even the messed-up stuff too seriously. But what about a movie adaptation, which of course would leave out most of Baum’s words? I think Return to Oz is a good example here, as it’s a film that’s been touted as quite faithful to Baum, and also that scared a lot of people. Now, part of this was totally within the control of the filmmakers, and due to conscious choices on their part. Baum never had Dorothy faced with electroshock therapy; in fact, she was on vacation when she made her second trip to Oz. There was no occasion in the books when the Emerald City was turned to stone and the Yellow Brick Road destroyed.

Even some elements that did come from the books had their more disturbing aspects played up.

The Wheelers come across as more deranged in the movie than in Ozma of Oz, and the book never said that the heads belonging to Princess Langwidere (combined with Mombi in the movie) had come from people she beheaded. Still, is there any way to show a woman changing her head and NOT have it look kind of scary?

It’s hard to say, and there are plenty of other weird characters and incidents in later books that could be terrifying if portrayed realistically on screen. How about the cannibalistic, head-throwing Scoodlers, who might be more frightening than funny on film?

I don’t know. What scares people is very much relative; I’ve been really disturbed by some things that weren’t meant to be scary, and not at all bothered by things that were. I think my main point here, however, is that the heartaches and nightmares weren’t necessarily left out of Baum’s books, but rather simply presented in a way that made them much less nightmarish. When interpreted in another medium, they might be more likely to send a child to be with troubled dreams.

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4 Responses to The Dark Side of Oz

  1. I think the big thing that makes something dark is the idea that the bad guys are winning. In Return to Oz, Dorothy finds Oz already conquered by Mombi and the Nome King. Wicked depicts Oz in the grip of an evil Wizard. The Dark Oz comics (which I have read some of) also begin with the Nome King and Mombi in charge of Oz.

    Any individual element is then judged on how it relates to that scenario. Removable heads = body horror in a villain, but it can easily become a comedic trait on a comedy character, or heroic on a hero.

  2. Darrell says:

    Great article!
    I think Return to Oz turned the horror up so much since the humor was downplayed, possibly as you said due to the lack of Baum’s narration.
    But Baum was wrong about his stories being devoid of nightmares.
    The first thing that popped into my head was Scoodlers when I saw this article, so I smiled when you mentioned them.
    The witch’s minions, the Wooden Gargoyles, Gwig’s death, the Scoodlers, the wrestler in the Nome Caverns in Rinkitink in Oz, the emotionless Jinjin, the Phanfasms and Growleywogs and the Patchwork Girl’s appearance in her title book all disturbed me as a child…but I thoroughly enjoyed it! We all need a bit of fear and suspense and I think Oz gave me just the right amount as a kid.
    One scene that always creeped me out for some reason was when Ojo finds the house that night where Scraps is thrown outside. What was going on there? Nothing was ever explained and as child it stuck with me…was it a haunted house in Oz?

    • Nathan says:

      There needs to be a certain amount of danger to make the stories exciting. It is perhaps a little less so when you know things will work out all right in the end, but I’m sure that makes it easier to readers to handle.

      That house scene is pretty disturbing, and I have to wonder what Baum was thinking of when he wrote it. In the film version of Patchwork Girl, that scene is simply used as a showcase for special effects.

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