When the Movie is Better than the Book

As a novel writer, I always feel a bit guilty when I like the film version of something better than the book. I feel like a traitor to my craft, almost, for daring to like a reimagining better than the sacred literary original.

But then I remember that movies are a valid storytelling medium – just like short stories, poetry, stage plays, and comic books. Even though my main focus right now is novel writing, I am first and foremost a lover of stories. And sometimes, the movie version really tells a better story than the book.

Take for example The Wizard of Oz. I grew up watching the movie every time it came on network TV (as did everyone in my generation and older, probably). I was overjoyed when VCRs became commonplace (remember those?) and The Wizard of Oz was released on video tape.

I can quote basically the whole movie, I know all the songs, I’ve tried dancing like the Scarecrow (not as easy as it looks), and I’d still like to have a pet flying monkey or maybe a Horse of a Different Color. I’m also a big fan of some of the “prequel” stories – the Disney movie Oz the Great and Powerful, and the musical Wicked. But up until now, I’d never read the original book that started it all.

When I started reading Baum’s first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I knew that my perceptions of the story would be colored by the 1939 movie and everything that came from that (see the aforementioned Oz and Wicked). But I set my expectations aside and purposefully selected an ebook version of the original 1899 edition that had all of the original illustrations, so that I wouldn’t be seeing Judy Garland on every other page.

Sticklers for the “original book version” of a story likely disapprove of The Wizard of Oz movie, because it was nothing like the book. A few glaring differences (besides the obvious lack of song and dance routines in the book) would be:

  • The gentle Tin Man is devoted to Dorothy and his friends, but lacking a heart, he is thoughtlessly violent and slaughters great numbers of creatures of all sorts if they even appear to be hindering Dorothy’s quest. (Rather ghastly for a children’s book, in my mind).
  • The Wicked Witch of the West is a feeble old crone who is terrified of both Dorothy and the Lion. She is also not green (reducing Margaret Hamilton’s character back to only Elmira Gulch, and negating about half of the songs in Wicked).
  • On that note, Miss Gulch is not in the book, nor are the loveable farmhands or Professor Marvel. Dorothy does not dream of going to Oz – she really does get sucked up in a cyclone, along with the house. Poor Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – childless and homeless all in one day!
  • The shoes are silver, not ruby. The Good Witch of the North sends Dorothy on her way, while Glinda (the Good Witch of the South) doesn’t appear until the very end.

Before I continue, please note that I am not complaining or giving a negative review of the book. My intention here is to illustrate the dramatic differences between this book and the movie sensation it spawned, and why I think the movie told a better story.

From a storytelling perspective, the script writers for the film told a more cohesive, believable story. Here are a few writing techniques that I think the film achieved better than the book:

  • Cutting or combining minor characters – such as using the single character of Glinda to perform the acts done by both of the Good Witches in the book.
  • Dorothy’s desire to return home was very believable in the film, due to the amount of time spent on developing the world of the Kansas farm and the people in her life. In the book, Dorothy dislikes Kansas and seems to show little fondness for her aunt and uncle. While it’s understandable that she would want to return to the familiar, her intense desire to leave Oz just as soon as she arrives seems forced.
  • A clear antagonist. In the film, Dorothy’s enemy Elmira Gulch becomes her enemy in Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West makes repeated appearances and actively tries to interfere with their quest. Her main goal as an antagonist is to get the shoes that Glinda gave to Dorothy. In the book, the Wicked Witch doesn’t appear until near the end; and while she does capture Dorothy and tries to get her to take off the shoes, the entire Dorothy-is-captured-and-her-friends-rescue-her sequence is very anti-climactic in the book.
  • The use of plot devices. The shoes belonging to the late Wicked Witch of the East are a much bigger deal in the film than in the book, and to a much better effect, I feel. Glinda gives them to Dorothy with the instructions to never let the Witch of the West have them, because the shoes are talismans of great magic. The shoes become one of the major features of the plot. In the book, the Witch of the North (that extra character who is not Glinda) basically tosses the shoes Dorothy’s way with a remark to the effect of “well, she’s dead so you can have them if you want.” (Paraphrasing here. This is not verbatim what Baum wrote).
  • Also, the Wicked Witch of the West’s iconic broom is not in the book. (This would mean no dramatic “Surrender, Dorothy” skywriting in the movie, and no “Defying Gravity” song in the Wicked musical.) But that aside, the broom becomes a plot point much like the shoes. It not only represents evil magic (as the shoes represent good magic), but it serves as the token by which Dorothy and company prove their worth to the Wizard. After the melting of the Wicked Witch in the book, they return to the Emerald City with a “by the way, she’s dead, and you’ll just have to take our word for it.” (Paraphrasing here again.) In the film, the broomstick is a tangible indicator that the protagonists are worthy of not only being the main characters, but actually being the heroes, too.

Again, I am not trying to say anything bad about the original. Baum wrote a book that at the time was unlike anything seen before, and he created a rich fantasy world. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant success, and Baum wrote many other Oz books because of it (which I am currently working my way through). This strange little story – grisly, anti-climactic, and full of modern storytelling no-no’s – grew into an important part of our culture, and the world of Oz has endured for over 100 years.

I have nothing but respect and appreciation for what Baum wrote. But I am also grateful to everyone at MGM in the 1930s for pulling the best elements out of this book and turning it into not only a visual and musical spectacle, but a stronger and more memorable story. So in this case, I am not ashamed to say that the movie was better than the book. May we all aspire to have our stories get better with the re-telling.

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5 thoughts on “When the Movie is Better than the Book

  1. Excelent post. I think that most readers didn’t like to think that a movie can be better than the original book. But I think that it can be either way. I am a bookworm in the same way that I am a film freak, so I tend to deal in both worlds with people whose if they watched the film, they don’t see any reason to read the book then, or viceversa. I think that as with anything, one’s personal taste is a key factor to decide if the film or the book was the best format to tell the story. Even both formats can have their own charms to stand as two great option to enjoy a story.

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  2. Great post Grace. I have been looking around your blog and I am liking it lots. So good that you are not afraid to admit that the movie can sometimes be better than the book — which happens so infrequently. I quite agree that in the case of The Wizard of Oz, the movie is much better. Especially for the time in which it was released. Truly a spectacular film in 1939 and even today. And yes “I grew up watching the movie every time it came on network TV” too. I had one sister who was terrified of those monkeys (and hid under her bed every time) and a son whom I once found sleep walking and screaming about those flying Macaca Fascicularises. I love that you consider them pet worthy. Thanks for the great read.

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    • Thanks for checking out my blog! I’m glad you like it. 🙂 I think I’m in the minority in that I was never scared of the flying monkeys. When I was little, it was the apple trees that get mad at Dorothy for picking apples that always terrified me. 😛 And then after reading the book, I realized I was justified in that feeling: in the book, the Forest of Angry Trees gives Dorothy and company almost as much grief as the monkeys do; and the monkeys, while dangerous, are actually quite nice and are unwilling slaves of the Witch. And then of course “Wicked” gives a whole different background for the flying monkeys, but that’s another story. 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting, Pamela!

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  3. Pingback: Stories that Make Me Happy | StorytellerGirl

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