When leading a discussion in a Shakespeare class over the topic of the play The Merchant of Venice, I brought up a question about adaptation in respect to the movie that was released about four centuries after the play’s first publication. Since the story was told so long after its initial release using a different medium, several changes in the tone and characterization made to the play distinguished from the original. When I asked my classmates about changes, I found that many of them preferred when an adaptation stuck as close as humanly possible to its source material. This response was curious to me as I firmly believe it is important to show the flexibility or the original tale. With franchises, long-awaited sequels, companion pieces, remakes and reboots becoming more abundant than ever in film and television, I thought it was appropriate to explore what makes an adaptation work. To make this study as consistent as possible, we will only be looking at adaptations of one work: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Created by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900 with 10,000 copies out to print. The book astonishingly was in high demand as it managed to sell out within the first month of its publication. The story was similar in plot, tone, and themes to both Alice in Wonderland and several of the Grimm Fairy Tales. A relatively young and innocent girl is thrust into a magical land where she meets anthropomorphic and humanoid companions that help her defeat a malevolent matriarchal figure in possession of an army of weak but loyal goons to do her bidding so that she may return home a more mature person. Despite these large similarities, the story was lauded for appealing to people of all ages. The additions of illustrations, inked by W.W. Winslow, of the characters and settings, allowed children who were still learning to read and adults alike to visualize the colorful and bizarre creatures that inhabited the world. It quickly became a beloved classic that resonated with audiences.
While cinema was still in its infancy, the theater was the main avenue to reach a wider audience. Broadway is now one of the last great bastions for theater, but at the turn of the century, it was the Hollywood of the time. So because of the author’s love of theater, he wished to turn it into play. So Baum got away at writing the script, Winslow began conceptualizing the costumes, and a young Paul Tietjens thought of compositions for the music. Though there were several rewrites and clashing ideologies between the creators and the producers, the play first was performed in the Chicagoan Grand Opera House on June 16, 1902. It was a summer hit with the locals and became a favorite of the area. But before diving into the end of Broadway, the all of the creators went through and made great changes even going so far as to getting a new composer. On January 21, 1903, the play debuted in Majestic Theater in Columbus Circle. It became one of the most famous plays of the generation amongst all ages. The whimsical music and the huge sweeping sets made people forget about the real world. People brought their kids, they went multiple times, and audiences even bought the sheet music to follow along on stage.
As stated before, cinema was still a developing medium with a lot of risks involved for investors and companies. So the greenlight for the film wasn’t given until Walt Disney stunned the world with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The success and popularity gave confidence to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to go forward with a similar project, so they bought the movie rights weeks Disney’s debut. During the writing process, the writers went through several different rewrites and additions as fantasy at the time had yet to achieve great success in the box office. At one point, the team took a lot of inspiration from a moderately successful silent film adaptation released in 1925 accredited to Larry Semon. This version had many of the fantastical and whimsical elements toned down and even removed so the story could focus more on the characters themselves. This version concerns itself much more with the politics of Oz than the place itself, working with the restrictions of a small budget and no sound; however, this version was not nearly as restricted regarding financial backing. There was still a major concern of a lackluster turnout if the story was perceived too much as a fantasy story, so the writers made sure to make it seem as Oz was in Dorothy’s head.
When the movie released on August 25, 1939, it was equally lauded by both critics and audiences. Against all the odds, the movie made a total of 3 million dollars when it released in the US, Canada, and some European countries. Despite these substantial earnings, it wasn’t enough to offset the 2.8 million dollar budget, and that doesn’t include the costs of distribution. The studio later reported having lost a little over 1 million in total losses from the initial release. In 1949 the movie was re-released and managed to gross an extra 1.5 million. Though it took a long time for the movie to make returns on the original investment, the studio still said that the film performed better than they thought it would. It only became the cultural staple it holds now after its release to television in 1956 and home video in the late 1980s. Since media wasn’t nearly as vast and various as it is now, the movie quickly rose to become one of the most popular and beloved pieces of cinema because of its availability and family appeal.
There have since been numerous adaptations of this beloved tale. By giving unique perspectives on an already established story allows elevates the original while also making an old tale fresh once more. Whether it’s the addition of urban African American culture in The Wiz, taking the point of view of the witches in Wicked, or even revealing the origins of the wizard himself in Oz: The Great and Powerful there is certainly no end in sight for further analysis and comparisons of adaptations. But for now, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the explorations done so far.