Why is it so hard to make a decent movie about Oz? An Oscar winner couldn’t do it. The Muppets couldn’t do it. Diana Ross and Michael Jackson—together!—couldn’t do it. And now, the hundreds of millions of dollars Disney threw at Oz the Great and Powerful couldn’t do it. The Wizard of Oz is nearly 75 years old, and somehow, it stands alone as the only critical hit in a long history of miserable adaptations.
This is much more peculiar than it seems. The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy-adventure movie, based on a single book in a large collection of stories, that’s set in a largely unexplored world. The temptation to revisit Oz is awfully strong—it’s what you could anachronistically call a “franchise starter”—which explains why studios keep trying. And yet, none of those attempts even approach the success of the 1939 film. The Wizard of Oz is (according to the Library of Congress) the most-watched movie in history, and it’s surrounded by failures.
The legacy of botched Oz movies is much older than most people realize, too. A silent film also titled The Wizard of Oz bombed in 1925. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz did the same in 1910. The list of duds goes on: The New Wizard of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz, and The Patchwork Girl of Oz. By the time Judy Garland was skipping down the yellow brick road in 1939, nearly a half dozen films adapted from L. Frank Baum’s fairytale had already premiered on screen and fizzled away.
So, what made Garland’s version different? And why has it been so difficult for filmmakers to replicate that success? To find out, I called John Fricke, an Oz historian and member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (I’ll repeat that: The International Wizard of Oz Club. It actually exists, and Ray Bradbury was allegedly a member.) “MGM had the best of the best and put them all to work,” Fricke told me. “Baum knew how to entertain, MGM was about entertainment, and Garland was one of the supreme entertainers of the time.”
In other words, The Wizard of Oz was a perfect collision of talent and opportunity. MGM producer Mervyn LeRoy famously assigned more than a dozen screenwriters to put together the film’s script, Fricke explained, which meant the most far-fetched ideas—such as a misguided romantic subplot between Dorothy and the Scarecrow—didn’t make the cut. “The script was so very, very loyal to Baum’s basic philosophy and basic plot,” he added. The crew spent an “unprecedented” six months shooting the film—in no small part thanks to the demands of three-strip Technicolor production—while MGM spent nearly $3 million on the project. Even before it was released, it was a big deal.
The Wizard of Oz didn’t become an American touchstone simply because of it was well made, though. It doesn’t still resonate simply because it’s entertaining. There’s something viscerally satisfying about this movie—something Fricke attributes to the “emotional truth” of Baum’s original story—that grounds its peculiar fantasy in a surprisingly familiar world. Dorothy Gale is a lonely teenager who realizes that, maybe, she’s not so alone after all. She grows up right before our eyes, in vivid Technicolor. Who can’t relate to that? The quotes and costumes stick in our minds—even if we don’t realize it—but only because the story that lies beneath has such universal appeal.
The Wizard of Oz didn’t become a touchstone simply because of it was well made, though. Rather, Dorothy is a lonely teenager who grows up right before our eyes, in vivid Technicolor. Who can’t relate to that?
This is where the other Oz movies fail. In Return to Oz, a bizarre sequel Disney made in 1985, Dorothy is committed to a sanitarium for electroshock treatment. The Wiz, a 1978 musical adapted from a Broadway show, is more upsetting to watch than it is endearing. In 2007, a television miniseries called Tin Man set Dorothy in bleak, dystopian sci-fi. All of these projects lacked that unique blend of poignant familiarity and broad cultural appeal that anchored The Wizard of Oz. Without it, they’re just creepy stories about a girl and her weird friends.
And now, there’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Director Sam Raimi’s affection for the story stands out, but otherwise, the latest attempt to rekindle his magic is a mediocre, bloated exercise in big-budget boredom. It’s no exaggeration to say that best part of Oz the Great and Powerful is its inventive title sequence. James Franco strikes an interesting balance between charm and sleaze as Oscar Diggs, the traveling magician who becomes the man behind the curtain, but as some critics have pointed out, his character represents a stark departure from Baum’s feminist leanings. The witches (played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams) may be great and powerful, but they’re forced into ill-fitting roles for the sake of Diggs’s romantic redemption. Is this relatable? Not really—unless you look like and act like a two-bit playboy. Almost by default, though, Oz the Great and Powerful is still one of the least-terrible Oz movies ever made. (No disturbing medical treatments? Check. No “gritty” characters? Check. No Liza Minnelli? Check.) It’s not good, but it’s not nearly as bad as what’s come before it.
But there’s a small glimmer of hope. A film adaptation of the musical Wicked—”the untold story of the witches of Oz”—has been kicked around for years, and last month, the box-office success of Les Miserables led a Universal executive to suggest it will happen “sooner rather than later.” It’d be an appropriate book-end to a century’s worth of failed adaptations, given that The Wizard of Oz debuted on stage before it was made into a movie—and, ironically, it could tap into the appeal of Dorothy’s story by turning the Wicked Witch of the West into another lonely girl on the verge of adulthood. Until that happens, though, we’re stuck with the unexceptional likes of Oz the Great and Powerful. If that’s the best that Hollywood has to offer, the future of Oz in film looks as grim as its past.