Who could ever forget Dorothy’s ruby slippers? All Wizard of Oz fans know them. The truly diehard ones—myself included—went so far as to buy the Payless Shoes version. Yet, as any bookworm knows, in the original books by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy wore the witch’s silver slippers. (When I read the books for the first time, I was shocked—and haven’t trusted Payless since.)
It may seem like an insignificant detail—hey, they’re both metallic—but the truth is that those “silver slippers” were rather integral to Baum’s series. Many scholars speculate that the Wizard of Oz was at once a children’s fantasy and a timely political allegory, and that the silver slippers, yellow brick road, and Emerald City were intended as symbols for the gold and silver standards and paper money.
Of course, the book’s popularity ultimately comes not from its political implications but from its appeal to children. Thus, when the novelty of Technicolor coincided with the film’s production, the film adapters decided to use ruby slippers so that they would stand out more against the yellow brick road.
There are other significant changes, too—for instance, Dorothy’s aging from a small girl to, well, Judy Garland. With the introduction of the evil neighbor and Dorothy’s rebellion, the film became an unhappy teenager’s mental journey back to the family unit, not the modern fairy tale the book was.
This is not an outdated or isolated example. It’s no longer 1939, but these trends of book-to-film adaptation—removing political commentary and making the story a typical teenage narrative—are still present. This is particularly true this season, as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising was released on the big screen in October, and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass will be released Dec. 7.
The film adaptation of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first book) has recently sparked some of the most interesting conversations about children’s literature since C.S. Lewis’ heyday. This is not only because the trilogy is one of the most famous children’s fantasy series, or because the upcoming movie’s cast includes such A-list stars as Nicole Kidman. It’s because of the controversial content: anybody familiar with the trilogy knows that, as Pullman said to the Sydney Morning Herald, the “books are about killing God,” and the antagonist is the Church—presumably a sort of interpretation of, or response to, Catholicism at its worst.
However, the Golden Compass movie will be markedly different—the Church references will be toned down or removed entirely. This is probably due to anticipated backlash from the religious right, and it’s something I’ll call “Wizard of Oz Syndrome, Part 1”—the depoliticizing of an adaptation in order to fit current trends. In 1939, it may have been Technicolor, but today, it’s a country increasingly dominated by a sense of obligation to political correctness—even toward Christian rhetoric and norms. Either way, such a change detracts from the original book’s depth and intentions.
In a similar vein, consider the adaptation of The Dark is Rising. While this film made fewer waves than The Golden Compass continues to make pre-release, Cooper’s original series was an amazing contribution to the children’s fantasy canon and its adaptation to screen also has some significantly changed elements. It exhibited “Wizard of Oz Syndrome, Part 2”—turning an epic children’s fantasy into a more typical teenage saga, where the magic and legends take backseats to more contrived ghost-plots about adolescence.
The movie adaptation turned the hero, Will, from a sensitive 11 year old to a teenager who is—as Seattle Post-Intelligencer reviewer Gianni Truzzi wrote—focused more on his family troubles than on Great Britain’s mythology—a rich mythology that is, egregiously, nearly absent from the film altogether. It’s true that using an older, more relatable character might translate to the production of a more conventionally accepted film, but if the only way to do this is to remove the Celtic legend that defined Cooper’s books, it’s simply not worth it. The directors lost the depth of Arthurian lore and the investigation of the nature of innocence, and with them, they lost the heart of the books.
Although we can diagnose instances of “Wizard of Oz Syndrome,” we can’t really treat them. It seems inevitable that popular kids’ books will be made into movies—movies are supremely profitable. Movie production also demands change. Film is a very different medium than young adult literature, and if you want a box-office hit, you’re going to be looking for what sells.
The trouble is that what seems to “sell” these fantasy stories—magical creatures, awe-inspiring spells, striking landscapes—is only part of the story. As anybody who was a real bookworm as a kid could tell you, part of what’s so wonderful about classic children’s books is the way they introduce new depths of knowledge, often without the reader expecting it. This wealth of information, from little-known Celtic lore to criticism of religious institutions to populist commentary, may not be the initial motivation for children to read, but it is what makes great children’s literature so magical and, ultimately, so memorable.
It’s unfortunate, but inevitable. We might just have to accept that our favorite books from childhood may be changed almost beyond recognition and let the films stand as entirely separate entities from their literary inspirations. As a movie, The Golden Compass might be fantastic. It might even lead children back to the source of the true inspiration: the books.