Culture

The Case for the Recurring and Powerful Oz

James Franco at the BFI London Film Festival © Samir Hussein/Getty Images
James Franco at the BFI London Film Festival © Samir Hussein/Getty Images

Because I'm friends with Signature on Facebook, I know that Mila Kunis is hankering to play the Wicked Witch of the West in Sam Raimi's upcoming fantasia, "Oz, The Great and Powerful." But because I always double-check my homework, I know that any hope (or dread) this news inspires is entirely premature. "I don't know yet, I don't know," Kunis insists in an MTV News interview. If she doesn't know (and frankly, she doesn't sound that excited about it), then really the part could be anyone's at this point. Since it's Raimi and the storyline seems far afield from L. Frank Baum's timeless novels -- a prequel of some kind, apparently -- then I'm really hoping for a stranger choice. Is Bai Ling free? She'd be a great foil for already-confirmed star James Franco.

It's easy to roll one's eyes at remakes and reboots, but Baum (and Garland) purists are going to have to face facts: There's no such thing as a "real" Oz story anymore ... and that's okay. The original novel and its famous film adaptation have been absorbed into something far more wondrous: an original American mythology, one of the few such mythologies to have endured over a century in the public's imagination with no sign of growing stale or irrelevant. If anything, it has gotten stranger and more surprising at every turn.

Think about the way Gregory Maguire's intensely political rewrite, Wicked, twisted things around for popular fiction, later going on to become -- of all infernal things -- a belt-o-rama Broadway musical, which itself is currently headed toward the big screen. (There's already a vocal contingent hoping to tilt the filmmakers toward animation instead of live-action, and artist Heidi Jo Gilbert has even whipped up her own animated storyboard to demonstrate the advantages of that medium.) Or that time when "Watchmen" creator Alan Moore and his wife-to-be, the artist Melinda Gebbe, reinvented Dorothy as an erotic adventuress in the graphic (as in porno) novel, Lost Girls.

Remember being terrified and confused by "Return to Oz" in 1985? (Dorothy, played by creepster Fairuza Balk, receives shock treatments in the opening scenes.) The thrill is not gone: a documentary about the flop by fledgling filmmaker Gabe Rodriguez, called "The Joy That Got Away," is being passed around online and screened at festivals.

The Oz mythology has spawned an even less likely product: a protest song. For reasons too complex to go into here, Judy Garland's 1939 performance became sacrosanct within gay culture; over the years, the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" seemed to articulate more than wistful, childish escapism -- it urged people to imagine a better world, just out of reach, where their dreams of peace and freedom finally become attainable. The lyrics might seem too silly to be taken very seriously, but see for yourself. Here's a powerful video of the song in this context, following a moment of silence at a NYC memorial for Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide last fall after being harassed by his roommate.

As you can see, there's little that newcomers like Sam Raimi or Mila Kunis (or even Bai Ling) can do to interfere with the great and terrible Oz legacy. Rearrange the ingredients, paint the Emerald City a new color, do anything you like! Even if you flop, you'll have broadened the palette from which a second century of Ozmonauts can paint from.

Why do you think Oz continues to fascinate? Check out a few ideas about this very topic here, and let us know what you think.