I’m Just a Jester Gesturing

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return – Based on the book Dorothy of Oz by Roger Stanton Baum, that was also its working title. I can only figure they changed it in hopes of launching a franchise, but since the film isn’t doing all that well at the box office this probably won’t happen. I have to wonder if a sequel would adapt another Roger Baum book or something totally different. In general, I think Roger’s books get more attention than others simply because he’s L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson, even though there are much better authors writing unofficial Oz sequels. Melody Grandy’s Seven Blue Mountains of Oz trilogy, for instance, would likely have made a much better movie. Still, I think the creators had a much better grasp on Oz than did those for Oz the Great and Powerful, particularly when it came to the humor. It got off to a rocky start due to some weird decisions. Why, for instance, were the Kansas parts set in the modern day? And why did the people look like characters from The Sims? Once it got into more surreal landscapes, it worked better, something I’ve often thought about computer-animated films. Besides, I realize it didn’t have the budget of big studios, and I would imagine most of the money they did have was spent on the voice cast. There were songs, but none of them were at all memorable, at least to me.

As an adaptation of the book, it was pretty loose, using characters and situations in quite different ways than those in which Roger wrote them. The Candy Country with a marshmallow person as a prominent resident, Wiser the Owl, the China Princess, the talking boat Tugg, and an evil jester who had harnessed the power of the Wicked Witch of the West all appeared in Dorothy; but were altered for the film in ways, usually in ways that were at least supposed to make them more comical. Dorothy in the book does encounter Wiser outside the Candy Country with his body covered in molasses, but his being overweight was new, as was his habit of talking incessantly.

And while the original Jester was a hapless individual who had been corrupted by the Wicked Witch’s wand, the film made him the Witch’s brother and more irredeemably nasty. His over-the-top persona made him a more interesting and entertaining character than he was in the book, as well as a more believable threat.

The China Princess was pretty true to character, and while her romance with Marshall Mallow seemed a bit tacked on, it worked all right. It did seem like her size wasn’t always consistent, though.

There wasn’t much to the plot, and the defeat of the Jester essentially just came down to all the other characters in the movie distracting him while Dorothy took and broke his scepter. Still, despite its flaws, it was mostly a fun experience.

As might be expected, there were several nods to MGM. I recall seeing early descriptions of the movie that blatantly incorporated elements like the farmhands from the famous film, but the creators apparently got into legal trouble and had to tone down this kind of thing. Still, there were characters in Kansas who had counterparts in Oz, and a specific reference to the apple trees in the 1939 movie. The familiar characters were often about as close as they could get to MGM without legal issues. Glinda in Legends wore an outfit like Billie Burke, but her bright red hair was likely a nod to the books.

I’m not sure why the Tin Woodman had what appeared to be a furnace in his chest, but the film was pretty creative in its uses of the character’s body. And apparently they can’t have an Oz film without Winged Monkeys appearing in it, even though they were rather superfluous and there was no indication as to how the Jester got them to work for him. I appreciated that the Queen of the Field-Mice put in an appearance, accompanied by a makeshift version of the Sawhorse. I entertained the notion that the bearded beavers who showed up in the same scene were Fairy Beavers, but that’s probably too much of a stretch. I am interested in knowing whether anyone caught the names of the characters that the Jester had transformed into puppets. I think one of them was the Munchkin Mayor from the 1939 film, but I swear one of them was labeled as the Grand Bozzywoz of Samandra, a pretty obscure character from the books. If so, he didn’t look much like his book counterpart, but I still give them credit for the reference.

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33 Responses to I’m Just a Jester Gesturing

  1. I just really wish these film makers would go to the source and adapt the official Oz books.
    While I’ve read plenty worse than Dorothy of Oz, it still would have never been in my top list to adapt as a movie.
    I think if they had just adapted the Wizard of Oz or some of it’s sequels…like the Patchwork Girl, they might have had a series on their hands.

    • Nathan says:

      And if it were a public domain book, they wouldn’t have to pay for the rights. Dorothy is a better story than the one they came up with for Oz the Great and Powerful, but it’s nowhere near as good as the originals. It just seems like, after Return to Oz didn’t do so well, the movie studios in general decided, “Well, that’s it for adapting the Oz books!” And that was almost thirty years ago.

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  3. Nathan says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dorothy, although I do own a copy and looked back at it a bit for my Legends review. From what I remember, quite a bit of it came across as overly sappy. Not a terrible book, but I’ve read much better recent Oz material. I haven’t even bothered to read any of Roger’s other books; they just didn’t sound good to me. It does seem like they’ve pretty much given up on adapting any of the original Oz books, since Oz the Great and Powerful was an original story that was basically Generic Fantasy Movie #980 with some MGM references. Why, I don’t know, although I ponder a bit on the issue in my most recent post.

    • saintfighteraqua says:

      I so agree with you on Oz the Great and Powerful.
      I did enjoy it more on my second watch but wow, that movie just fails as an Oz movie.

      • LOL, yeah, I’m harsh on that book, harsher than I am on Oz the Great and Powerful b/c at least that film has some great moments, even if it totally misunderstands that Baum injected Oz with a feminism that was unmatched in his day. But its depiction of Oz is as a place of wonder, and pretty much everything till we meet “Glinda” (whose yet another airhead) is gold. AND, the filmmakers remembered that Oz is a pacifist realm–although technically it doesn’t become that until Ozma arrives. So, in that regard, the film is closer in spirit to Baum than Thompson was. Thompson abandons all of Baum’s progressive ideas–his feminism, pacifism, egalitarianism, and vegetarianism–to suit her conventional sensibilities. If she wasn’t such a creative writer, I’d join the Baum purists and toss out her works entirely.

        As far as casting for Glinda, my mind goes to Jillian Anderson, someone whose beauty is matched by their sagacity and presence of being. Billie Burke? NO. Michelle Williams. NO.

        But I will say that the casting of Rachel Weiss was brilliant. She’s an amazing actress, and I’d like to see them do more with her. But she looked ridiculous when they turned her into the old witch. Same with the makeup on Mila Kunis. Who’d have ever thought Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi would feature such cheesy, lame, unscary makeup for his witches?

        But this is what Disney does. Everything has to be mass marketed to the widest demographic, so the witches couldn’t be too scary.

      • Nathan says:

        Maybe it’s because I read the Thompson books not long after the Baum ones (and in some cases even before that), but they played a hand in shaping my view of Oz, even if I did recognize some of the contradictions to how Baum wrote about the place.

      • Actually, I did too (read Thompson right after Baum), but it wasn’t until my recent re-reading that it’s become so apparent. Michael O’Riley’s Oz and Beyond solidified in my mind what Baum was achieving with Oz, and it’s amazing. He was a century before his time! So, I suppose most authors were going to pale by comparison. It’s just that Thompson was SO the opposite of him, completely conventional and parochial in her views that it’s a jarring transition. Particularly, since it seems like she was purposely subverting everything he did. Oz was not her sandbox to upend. But instead of adhering to what that world’s creator established, she went out of her way to undo it. That annoys me, and in order for her Oz to be the same as Baum’s, there requires a lot of creative retconning. She as imaginative, at least (even though she repeats her ideas so much it becomes irritating). Perhaps the real shame is that Snow didn’t get to write as much as she did because I personally find that he was on the right track.

        But as there’s no time-travel in real life, I’ll move on! :)

        Return to Oz, I think, tonally is the closest to stories like Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, and The Tin Woodman of Oz, all of which have an underlying darkness to them that’s so fascinating.

        So, I’m not unhappy that this ultra-commercial, bright-and-shiny version of Oz didn’t become a huge hit; we don’t need more of that. But I have to admit that Baum’s Oz isn’t an easy thing to translate because he is a bit contrary, not just in terms of narrative-continuity, but tonally and stylistically. He’s got his little puns going on, some daft characterizations (e.g., Button Bright), and a too-great reliance on deus ex-machina, and yet, his stories are generally stellar, and filled with real wonder, mystery and genuine strangeness! And that’s what filmmakers tend to overlook when they conceptualize Oz for TV and film, but which at least Walter Murch understood: Oz is not twee!

      • Nathan says:

        I think one of the main ways Thompson affected my view of Oz was in her frequent usage of small, largely autonomous kingdoms within Oz.

        I like Snow’s books, but I think in some ways he tried too hard to copy Baum. Then again, he only got to write two books, so who knows how his work would have changed with time? It would be cool if Over the Rainbow to Oz were to turn up, but for all we know it never even existed in the first place.

  4. saintfighteraqua says:

    It’s been a while since I read Dorothy of Oz, but I remember it being not even as memorable as Ozma and the Wayward Wand and Mr. Tinker in Oz. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten the plot.
    I know it was enough to make me not want to read any more books by the author after I found out he disregards his grandfather’s legacy and ignores most everything after the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
    I haven’t seen the new film but I doubt I’ll like it. I hate to have that kind of outlook, but after nothing but constant disappointment from literally every Oz movie ever made (the latest being the Oz episodes of Once upon a Time) I just expect it won’t impress me.
    While I do love the MGM film (though I consider those characters separate entities and I get so darn frustrated with it) I’d have to say Return to Oz is still my favorite Oz film. It fell short but it really did capture the essence of several Baum characters. Jack, Billina and Tik-Tok, to be exact. (They can keep their Ozma though.)
    As bad as this new Dorothy movie may be, I wonder if it still might be more Ozzy than Oz the Great and Powerful, which while somewhat enjoyable also manages to be the greatest waste of Oz potential EVER.

    • Nathan says:

      I remember reading a synopsis of Roger’s Lion of Oz and the Badge of Courage that said the book had the Cowardly Lion come to Oz with the Wizard. That doesn’t even make sense with the plot of the FIRST Oz book (why wouldn’t they have recognized each other?), let alone any of the others. Mister Tinker was pretty good, even if I don’t remember a whole lot of it. Then again, that one WAS written by a professional children’s author.

      Comparing and contrasting MGM and Return, I think the former did a better job at adapting the plot, despite the whole dream thing. Return, however, got those characters you mentioned exactly right, which in some ways is more important; the Oz series in general tends to emphasize character over plot.

    • I read all of Baum before Thompson so my Oz mood was pretty set. I think my first non-Baum Oz book (besides Who’s Who) was Silver Princess, and besides a few things, it didn’t really disrupt anything major for me.
      Then I read Kabumpo in Oz…and wow, Thompson was all over the place! It started off on the wrong foot with me because of the Nome King’s height…had he been shrunk? Did I miss something? Then I realized that she was making him small because he was a (g)nome.
      After that things were pretty hit or miss with Thompson. I really liked some of her characters, but I just hated the recurring themes we all know about…child meets freak, breaks enchantment someone becomes royalty. Way too formulaic.
      Her original stories were an absolute delight, but I don’t think she ever came close to being as strong as Baum.
      She might not have been as progressive as Baum, but then who else really was?
      She did have Dicksy Land though…but whether that was progressive or something else altogether, I’m not sure. ;)

      • LOL, it’s true. She hints at things that seem almost risque to us now. Then there are her far-and-few-between stabs at social commentary, like Benny and Scarecrow’s conversation about people trying to make others like them–which, unfortunately, Trot interrupts because Thompson clearly doesn’t think kids are interested in anything intelligent or philosophical.

        It’s just sad that Frank O’Donnell was such an apathetic and unimaginative pencil-pusher who had no business working at Reilly & Lee, let alone running it! With a real editor, one who actually cared about this series, Thompson could have been forged into a stronger, less lazy writer who didn’t repeat herself or dismantle what Baum established. The raw materials were all there. Her publisher just didn’t care.

        There’s an article in the recent Bugle about how Baum’s Queen Zixi was the masterpiece it is in large part because of the publisher of St. Nicholas magazine (where the story was first serialized), who was a stickler for good quality stories, and knew how to draw them out of her writers.

        As a writer myself, I know that we need to be prodded and challenged. It’s the only way we grow and expand and refine our skills.

      • Nathan says:

        The inhabitants of the small communities trying to make visitors just like them is something Thompson did all the time that I can’t recall happening in Baum. He did have residents of these communities being surprised and confused that other people weren’t like them, but that’s not exactly the same.

        I’ve heard that Thompson didn’t want her work to be edited, but that could be because she knew R&L’s editors weren’t very good.

      • Her little communities that try to make visitors just like them is–in essence–her sole bit of social commentary (something that Baum regularly peppered his stories with), and it’s a significant one given that the U.S. was fast on its way to becoming the most conformist nation on the planet by the mid-50s. But it’s hard to justify all those nasty communities with Baum’s statement in the definitive The Emerald City of Oz that most of the residents were happy, good citizens (to the point where even the Kalidahs were said to have become sociable). As a way to explain that, I’d like to see a book that shows these residents moving into Oz prior to Glinda’s spell of invisibility.

      • Nathan says:

        Most of these communities were SO small that, no matter how many of them showed up, I’m sure they didn’t represent a majority of the residents of Oz. Besides, I’ve come to disregard most of the generalizations in the Oz books. Along these lines, though, I do recall a review of Melody Grandy’s Disenchanted Princess pointing out that her Oz fell somewhere between Baum’s sometimes overdone utopianism and Thompson’s land of constant booby traps.

      • Ha! I like that description. Overdone Utopianism and Land of Constant Booby-Traps! I think Melody was on to something. In order to navigate two very different Oz’s, one has to straddle that line. And in fairness to Thompson, Baum created a situation where it would hard to tell future stories in Oz. If Oz is too paradisaic, then every villain, threat and challenge has to be external, and that severely limits story possibilities. However, if Oz is too dangerous, then it nullifies everything that Baum established, and is no longer his Oz.

      • Nathan says:

        I find it interesting that, in Magic, Baum writes, “Indeed, I’m sure it will not be long until all parts of the fairyland of Oz are explored and their peoples made acquainted with their Ruler.” Of course, the way the series went after his death, Oz continued to be full of unexplored lands. The thing is, since so much of Baum’s stories involved discovering new parts of the land, it would pretty much be impossible for later authors not to continue this trend.

      • I wonder if many of these communities were like Fludderbudget Center and Rigmarole Town? Places made to keep the rest of Oz from going insane? I also wonder how many were natural settings and how many were from experimentation gone wrong (Glinda basically made the Cuttenclips and Bunnybury, so it stands to reason Bunbury and Utensia might have been her doing as well, and in Thompson’s books we see similar peoples.)

      • Nathan says:

        I have my own theories about some of the strange locations, and I’m inclined to believe magical experimentation gone wrong (or in some cases gone right) is often the best explanation. As far as Defensive Settlements go, I think Thompson’s Skyle of Un might be along the same lines.

      • That’s a good point. Too bad we didn’t have an Eric Shanower or David Maxine back in those days to help with the editing, we might have had a decent Scalawagons and Wonder City with the editing they are capable of. (I’m referring to Runaway of course.) They could have no doubt worked wonders with Thompson’s books since she always had good stories and ideas, she just never seemed satisfying with the way they came across.

      • Nathan says:

        Kabumpo is one of my favorites, but I never understood the smaller-sized Ruggedo either. In Pirates, he’s four feet tall, so I guess Thompson herself realized she was in error in the earlier book, although I don’t know that she ever directly admitted to it.

  5. It seems like this article really was a conversation starter! :)
    Since I don’t know of anywhere else where Oz conversations are going, that makes me happy and I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s opinions, even though on the whole it’s been a rather negative discussion. (Should I feel guilty? Ah…well.)
    Someone I haven’t heard from on this matter is the author himself, I wonder what he thought of the adaptation and how much input he had. (He recently added me on Facebook but I’ve never really spent enough time on there to chat.)

    I’m conflicted because on the one hand I really didn’t like Dorothy of Oz, though I may have to reread it soon, before I see the film, if I even do, and on the other hand I don’t want to offend him or hurt his feelings IF he is an overall nice person.

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, I’m subscribed to the Regalia mailing list and Jared Davis’ Oz forums, but they’ve both been really slow recently. It’s nice to actually be able to have some Oz-related discussion.

      I agree about not wanting to hurt authors’ feelings when I don’t like their work, which can make things challenging sometimes, because I don’t automatically like everything with “Oz” in the title. I guess that’s one of the problems with being in a relatively small fandom; I doubt that would be an issue with, like, J.K. Rowling or somebody.

      • True. I think it’s best to be constructive and critique without totally ripping it apart.
        But if they cannot take criticism from their fan base when the majority agrees something is bad they are only hurting themselves and probably dooming future sales.
        Back on the old Oz club forums I read a long post that was pretty much that, someone defending their work although their target fan base was almost all against it.

      • Nathan says:

        I’ve come across several Oz writers who were totally adverse to any kind of criticism, and it wasn’t like this criticism was usually even all that harsh.

      • Marcus has dealt with that so much he could probably write a dissertation on the subject. I feel very grateful that all of my writers (present company included) have been amazing!

        What those who can’t take constructive criticism don’t realize is that they’re denying themselves opportunities to grow, and harming their works. 99% of writers are too close to their work to see the flaws that outside perspectives more readily discern. I’ve had things brought to my attention that I couldn’t believe I overlooked. My work has been at times, too dense, too threadbare, overdeveloped, underdeveloped, missing elements, short on characterizations, etc. I think if these too sensitive writers would just recognize that THAT’s part of the process, they might let go of their insecurities and welcome the rare and valuable input of others.

      • I agree, Joe! I really hope that when I get more of my writing out there I can take criticism with grace, I can understand how some people see it as an attack, but as you said, to be blind to flaws ultimately hurts oneself.
        That’s not to say someone should take obvious bashing, I’ve dealt that on deviantArt.
        I think getting input on work is both exciting and frightening. It’s part of what makes being an artist or writer fun!

      • That’s the right attitude to have! My ill-spoken comments on DOO aside, I’m not generally a basher/hater, but sometimes things get my goat. ;)

      • Nathan says:

        I know Marcus has sometimes mentioned authors he’s offered to help who refuse the assistance and then wonder why he criticizes their finished product. But then, maybe they’re just trying to keep the spirit of the books published by Reilly & Britton/Lee, which had very little editing.

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