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 1900 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. 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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Fantasy Characters as Role Models

Finding role models in fiction is not a new concept (or even a new idea for a blog post, probably). But I’ve been thinking and reading lately about characters, how to write them, and what they can mean to readers. So here’s a short list of some of my favorite characters from fantasy and science fiction, and what they can teach us about how to live and how to behave.

Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings Loyalty

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite Hobbit sidekick. Except he’s more than just a sidekick. He’s more than a gardener, a bodyguard, or even a good friend. He’s a man so loyal to his friend and to his own word that he faces off against orcs, a giant spider, and a raging volcano just because he told Gandalf that he’d protect Frodo. His word is his bond, no matter what.

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series – Courage 

Hermione can be described in many ways: smart, clever, nerdy, loyal. But really, none of these traits would enable her to accomplish half of what she does if she weren’t exceptionally courageous. Courage isn’t the absence of fear – it’s feeling the fear and doing what you need to do anyway. From the first book on, Hermione bravely steps out to help save the day, never letting fear of Voldemort – or worse, expulsion from Hogwarts – stop her from doing what she knows is right.

John Sheridan from Babylon 5 – Justice

Captain Sheridan is the perfect leader for the Babylon 5 space station – he’s brave, smart, and a true warrior. All of this stems from his fierce sense of justice. When faced with the tough decisions of life, the ones with no clear-cut right or wrong, he uses his sense of justice and fairness to temper his decisions. He lives by the understanding that every decision – good or bad – comes with consequences. Whether others label him as a hero or a villain, he stays true to his principles of justice and personal responsibility.

Fezzik from The Princess Bride – Honesty

Fezzik the gentle giant is kind, patient, and maybe a little slow, but he’s the most honest character in the story. While he never directly rebels against Vizzini, his honesty prevents him from carrying out his malicious orders to kill Westley. He’s intensely loyal to his friend Inigo, and once he determines that Buttercup and Westley are the good guys, he never stops supporting them because he believes in rightness and honesty.

Princess Anna from Frozen – Compassion

Anna is brave, eternally optimistic, and loves her sister dearly. But really, her greatest role model-worthy trait is compassion. Her love for Elsa is more than just a sister bond. Despite her shock and confusion when Elsa reveals her powers, Anna immediately understands how Elsa must be feeling. Her ability to empathize with Elsa’s fear and loneliness is what drives her to literally freeze to death for her sister’s sake.

The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz – Wisdom

The Scarecrow is the smart one without any brains, but he’s also very wise, which is a different sort of intelligence. Wisdom such as knowing when to take charge – which he does for most of the story – and when to let someone else lead (by telling the Lion that he’s the one to lead them into the Wicked Witch’s castle, or by submitting to Glinda’s authority at the end of the movie). Wisdom tells him to trust this strange girl and her little dog. The intelligence of knowing the Pythagorean theorem is less important in life than making wise decisions.

The Addams Family – Love

From the movies to the classic TV show to the original cartoons by Charles Addams, Gomez and Morticia Addams have represented the ultimate in passion and romance. But there’s more to love than romance. Love means sticking together no matter what storm is raging, or standing up for a loved one who might be acting very unlovable. This family may have dead flowers as the centerpiece and a loose hand that runs around the house, but they have love. No outside force or inner turmoil pits Gomez and Morticia against each other, or draws their children away. Even Uncle Fester’s poor decisions can’t make the others turn their backs on him. Any family that wants to stay strong should put as much of an emphasis on love as the Addams do.

Yes, I know that this is a really short list. I could have listed several hundred characters, and made this post longer than the epic fantasy trilogy I’m working on, so I had to pare it down somehow. If you have a favorite fantasy character that has positive role model traits, feel free to share in the comments!

What The Wizard of Oz can teach us about Social Media

We have been singing along with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” for a lot longer than social media has been around. The Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch, and the ruby slippers were cultural icons long before Mark Zuckerberg went to college and launched Facebook. And L. Frank Baum first penned those memorable stories even longer ago. So what is it about this magical children’s tale that relates to our modern Internet-driven lives?

Social media takes brains

Not a lot, mind you. You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to manage a Facebook page or send out some tweets. But there is a learning curve – new technologies, new ways of doing things, learning the value of keywords and hashtags. But mostly, effective social media requires that you be intentional, consistent, and (relatively) polite. These are the sort of smarts that everyone has. If the Scarecrow could figure out how to get Dorothy to the Wizard, then you can manage a basic blog or Facebook page.

Social media takes heart

The most effective people – in life, not only in social media – are the ones who are passionate about what they’re doing. If you’re excited about a cause, a career pursuit, or any other subject matter, then let that excitement come through in your online posts. Genuine enthusiasm goes a long way. Keep your dreams and passions always in mind. And so if, like the Tin Man, you get slowed down by a little rust, your heart – and the hearts of your dedicated followers – will pull you through.

Social media takes courage

It can be intimidating to post things about yourself and your life online for the world to see (let’s not go overboard the other way, though, with posting too many details). If you’re sharing your photos, your product, or your words with the world, you open yourself up to the good, the bad, and the ugly of feedback and interaction. Managing all your profiles and maintaining a thick skin might make you want to turn around and jump through an Emerald City window like the Cowardly Lion. But just keep pushing through and you can do it!

Social media is about friendship

Those who are most effective with building a following (and/or selling their books, products, or service) are friendly. Support, teamwork, give-and-take, and love are the building blocks of good relationships – both on and off line.

Now go start in your own backyard!

If you’re just starting out with using social media for the purpose of building a platform or making a name for yourself, it’s okay to start small. Start networking with the people you already know, the professionals in your industry who you already follow, or local organizations who can help you.

See? Basic social media competency doesn’t have to be that hard – everyone has it in them! Just put on your ruby slippers and go start your adventure!

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Good versus Well

This is a word usage post that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but have hesitated doing so because I felt like a hypocrite. I am very aware that I constantly misuse these words and swap them around, mostly out of sheer laziness. However, in my defense, I attempt to be correct when I’m writing. When I’m talking, laziness prevails.

So what is the difference between these words, you ask?

Good: an adjective or a noun. It means to be proper, right, of high quality, morally excellent, full of worth.

Well: an adjective or adverb. It can also mean right, full of worth, etc; or healthy, thorough, or with positive intentions.

Let’s look at some examples. You meet a friend on the street, and he says: “Hey, Joe, how are you?” You reply with “I’m good.”

To be completely correct, you should say “I’m well.” What you are describing is your state of being, and well is an adverb that modifies the verb of the sentence (which is “am,” the first person form of our “to be” verb). Good is usually an adjective, and in this case would be modifying you as a person, not what you are doing.

“I’m good” in this case actually means that you are proper and right (as opposed to immoral or wrong). Of course, if that’s your intent – to communicate how morally superior you are at that moment – then saying you’re good would be fine.

For another example I’ll use Glinda the Good Witch. (Side note: I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful close to 5,324,658 times. Which has nothing to do with anything, but I’ve been wanting an excuse to say that).

Anyway, Glinda’s title, “The Good,” doesn’t mean that she’s feeling fine that day, or that things are going great in her life. In this case, good describes her as a right and proper person – the opposite of wicked.

If she were Glinda the Well, not only would this sound strange, but it would totally change the meaning. Well in this case could mean the opposite of inept or the opposite of ill. While Glinda is neither ill nor inept, she wants to emphasize her opposition to the Wicked Witches; therefore, she is Good.

So, in daily life – or at least in your daily writing – remember to differentiate between good and well.

Well = not sick, functioning poorly, or otherwise behaving negatively.

Good = not the Wicked Witch of the West.

And that’s good.