The Best-Selling Book Behind Wicked

Before the story of witches of Oz’s early years made it to the stage, it was told in Gregory Maguire’s popular 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. A prequel and parallel story to L. Frank Baum’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it follows Elphaba, the infamous Witch of the West, through her birth, education, and ultimately her rise to power in opposition to the Wizard of Oz. The phrase, “history is written by the victors,” comes to mind as Maguire explores the other side of the quintessential American fairy tale, portraying Elphaba not as a wicked witch, but as a brave, ethical leader combatting an oppressive and brutal regime.

Whilst The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its beloved film adaptation are geared towards children, Wicked is decidedly aimed at adults. This Oz is not a glossy enchanted land but a totalitarian state run by the malevolent and all-powerful Wizard of Oz. The novel contains modern political themes, as various factions in Oz compete for power. Most notably, the Animals of Oz, who can speak and act as humans do, are fighting for equal rights, and Elphaba joins their cause. Despite being enemies in the original children’s book, in Wicked, Elphaba and Galinda (later Glinda) are good friends who study magic together, before Glinda becomes a more prominent sorceress in the Emerald City. Elphaba is shown to be a proponent of civil rights, freedom, and justice, a far cry from her depiction in The Wizard of Oz.

Surprisingly, Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, is seen by many to be a political allegory as well, depicting the American political landscape at the turn of the century. Dorothy’s companions can be viewed as depictions of various political groups, who to date had failed to come together to protect their common interests, with the Scarecrow representing farmers, the Tin Man symbolising industrial workers, and the Coward Lion seen as a parody of William Jennings Bryan, a prominent politician and leader of the Populist movement. Baum was the J.K. Rowling of his day, with Oz being the best-selling children’s book for more than two years in a row. After thousands of children wrote to him demanding a sequel, he published The Marvelous Land of Oz in 1904 and wrote three additional Oz stories before declaring that 1911’s The Emerald City of Oz would be the last, as Oz had lost contact with the rest of the world. Children again refused to accept this, and he relented, publishing a new Oz book each year from 1913 until his death in 1919. Ruth Plumly Thompson then inherited the task of keeping Oz’s history alive, writing an additional 21 sequels.

The Wizard of Oz reached new heights of popularity when it was made into a film starring Judy Garland in 1939. The film was a financial and critical success, and it continues to rank in critics’ listings of the top 10 films of all-time. Maguire cleverly plays on the differences between the original book and the film. Whilst in the book, Dorothy’s shoes are silver, the film changed them to ruby slippers to take better advantage of the new Technicolor process. To avoid choosing one version of the story over the other, Maguire makes no reference to their colour, instead referring to their shine and rarity. One key detail that he takes from the film is the Wicked Witch’s green skin, a characteristic that does not appear in Baum’s original novel.

After scoring a best-selling hit with Wicked, Maguire wrote three sequels. Son of a Witch follows the adventures of Elphaba’s son, Liir, A Lion Among Men tells the story of Oz’s civil wars through the eyes of the Cowardly Lion, and Out of Oz, the last in the series, chronicles Glinda’s life under house arrest, the Cowardly Lion on the run from the law, and Dorothy’s return to Oz. After being adapted into a hit musical, Wicked is currently being developed as a film, with original Broadway stars, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith, rumoured to be reprising their roles. In addition, ABC has teamed up with Salma Hayek’s production company to produce a non-musical TV miniseries based on the books.



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