The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved and iconic films of all time. Thanks in part to its stunning use of color in 1939, it became an instant classic and has never left the public imagination. But Judy Garland’s version wasn’t the first adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s story, nor would it be the last.
HBO is teaming up with the director of the critically acclaimed Watchmen series, Nicole Kassell, to adapt the story for a new generation. Are we excited about this news?
An Oz for All Seasons
The 1939 film casts a long (technicolor) shadow over the story and characters created by L. Frank Baum. However, for later generations, The Wiz (1978) breathed new life into the world and is iconic in its own right.
If you were an 80s or 90s kid, then you grew up having nightmares about Return to Oz (1985), the dark and disturbing film starring Fairuza Balk. In a similar vein, the 2007 miniseries Tin Man reimagined Oz as a dark science-fantasy tale starring Zooey Deschanel.
Less successful was the big-budget movie Oz the Great and Powerful starring James Franco. The prequel was supposed to be another hit on the level of Alice in Wonderland, but it failed to perform at the box office. A TV series on NBC in 2015 was canceled after just one season, proving that Oz was a tougher sell for audiences than the studios hoped.
Nicole Kassell has a tough job ahead of her. She seems up to the challenge, however, stating in a press release that:
“While the 1939 musical is part of my DNA, I am exhilarated and humbled by the responsibility of re-imagining such a legendary tale. The opportunity to examine the original themes — the quest for courage, love, wisdom and home — feels more timely and urgent than ever. These are profoundly iconic shoes to fill, and I am eager to dance alongside these heroes of my childhood as we pave a newly minted yellow brick road.”
Is Oz in the Public Domain?
Fun fact: In the original book by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy’s slippers were silver! The Hollywood production changed them to be the iconic ruby slippers because they wanted the bright red to pop on screen. Clearly it was a smart choice since Dorothy’s shoes are one of the most famous costume pieces in movie history.
The first book in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was published in 1900 and became a Broadway musical two years later. Baum wrote thirteen more books, but it was clear that Baum’s heart wasn’t really in it. He felt pressured by both his young fans and his publishers to keep cranking out a new book every year.
Baum passed away in 1919, and his publishers hired a ghostwriter named Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue the brand. Thompson wrote another 21 books set in Oz. The original novel entered the public domain in 1956; however, the 1939 film is still protected by copyright.
That presents an interesting challenge for anyone hoping to adapt the work without getting sued by MGM studios. While the characters are not copyrighted, their appearance in the film and any dialogue written for the script is protected.
Tony DiTerlizzi used that legal loophole to write The Search for Wondla, a post-apocalyptic tale of a girl on a quest to find other humans, fueled by a fragment of a story that turns out to be (spoiler alert for a ten-year-old book) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Sadly the planned movie adaptation of Wondla never made it to the big screen.
What About Wicked?
You can’t talk about Oz adaptations without mentioning Wicked. Gregory McGuire’s Oz prequel was a modest success as a book but a wildly popular and lucrative smash as a musical. I actually got to see the original Broadway cast of Wicked, featuring Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth, and the show was truly incredible.
A big-screen adaptation has been in the works for years, but it looks like 2021 might finally see Elpheba’s story make it to theaters. John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) will direct–no word on the cast yet, but rumor has it that Idina Menzel is still hoping to reprise her starring role.
Given how popular (“you’re gonna be popular”) Wicked remains, it seems like HBO and New Line are betting that audiences will be craving even more Oz content once the film comes out.