Wednesday, July 09, 2008


How many people have read Dracula or Frankenstein? How many have enjoyed The Incredible Hulk without stopping to consider the debt Stan Lee owes to Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? I find it interesting to pause and consider how popular culture picks and chooses from literature certain images and ideas, and how these parings become part of culture while the original work fades into the background and possible obscurity. An author is only a temporary guardian of his work. Once it is given to and accepted by a readership, ownership is surrendered and the work, like a living thing, continues through its life process. I'm not talking about copyright infringement. I'm talking about how perceptions of art change the art and make it into something else.

I recently read Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It occurred to me that probably most people’s knowledge of the original source is taken from the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland.

When people think about the wicked witch, they think of Magaret Hamilton’s over the top performance as a Halloween poster child, flying in the sky on her broomstick, spelling out the words: “Surrender Dorothy” (a scene that never occurred in the book) . Mention The Wizard of Oz and rather than the text, people will begin humming lines from “If I Only Had a Brain” or :”Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. And occasionally lines of dialogue from the film resurface in regular conversation or in film, or on television; lines such as “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” and “There’s no place like home.”

Time and culture continues to push us farther away from the original. The Wizard of Oz becomes urbanized in The Wiz. The witches develop more depth than Dorothy ever did in the updated book Wicked, which is pushed further from the source by the stage play.

It’s easy to imagine that by the time the audience returns to the book, their expectations have been set and the original is a let down.

As time and politics reshape culture, what once made a classic is often lost. No one reads Pilgrim’s ProgressLife On The Mississippi is a chore for the modern reader to absorb, and elements of culture which Samuel Clemens took for granted have shifted and transformed so that the modern reader will struggle with the work written in 1883 any longer.


spyscribbler said...

I loved reading the Wizard of Oz series! And when I was little, I had this kid's easier version of The Pilgrim's Progress. I can't remember who wrote, can't find it, and haven't seen it since, but it was written as an adventure story.

I read it over and over; it ranked up with Narnia as a world I wanted to go play in.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've read Dracula and Frankenstein, both great books that to me hold up well even to contemporary standards. Although Dracula is definitely an older style. I also read "The Wizard of Oz" and thought the movie was 100 times better. Baum was a terrible writer. You're very right, though, about how material gets transformed, from the book, to the original movie, to the Wiz. I suppose myths get started this way.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

THE LAND OF OZ is even more curious to read (and watch), Stewart. (Yes, I'm back from a loooong abscence). James Whale certainly gave us the visuals for FRANKENSTEIN, but I'd have to say that the Berni Wrightson illustrated book by, let me see, Dodd, Mead provide you with both Shelley's tale and the artwork to get you past the stilted, atmospheric prose.

Sphinx Ink said...

I recall sitting at my grandmother's house as a child and reading several of the original Oz books, with their wonderful artwork. L. Frank Baum may have been a bad writer, but I didn't know that. He did have a wonderful imagination. I was totally immersed in the world of Oz, and reluctant to leave it. The 1939 movie is an artwork in its own right, but yes, it is different from the Baum books. And you're right; few people now ever read the original books, so the world in general doesn't know the difference. Nevertheless, a number of the Oz books are still in print, so someone is reading them.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Wow...lot of people reading the OZ series. Scribbler, the book has it's moments. As for Pilgrim's Progress, I don't believe I've ever read it.

Charles, you're a rarity. Trust me, most people haven't read the two. Or I should say, the majority of people who have been exposed to the two icons have only been exposed through film.

Welcome back Wayne. I think you are correct. Berni Wrightson's artwork was astonishing. I loved when he did the DC work for Swamp Thing. Outstanding.

Sphinx, did you know that Baum wrote and produced a stage play of his work back in 1900. Before the 1939 version, there were I believe three other film attempts. One of them starred Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man, in a silent version. I have that coming to me from Netflix

SQT said...

I have the full OZ collection from when I was a kid. I loved those books back then, but I haven't read them in years. Truth be told, I'd probably pick up a copy of "Wicked" if I wanted and OZ fix.

I love Mary Shelley's
"Frankenstein." I read it a few years ago and I couldn't believe how easy it was to read and it's still so relevant.

I remember having to read "Pilgrim's Progress" in school, but I still couldn't tell you what it's about.

Christina said...

I feel guilty. The only book I've read so far was Dracula, and listened to the story retold on radio theater.

I heard retelling a story from another point of view is becoming very popular, like "Wicked," and there's one for the "Wolf" in the three little pigs.

When I was in college, my professor said that someone should write a story from Moby Dick's point of view.

I have to admit that when I watched, "The Incredible Hulk," I didn't realize the comparison to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Lana Gramlich said...

This reminds me of years ago, trying to point out to a younger generation that "Ice, Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice was just a cheap & bad rip-off of "Under Pressure" by Queen & David Bowie. *sigh*

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT..interesting.I never read Pilgrim's Progress. As a lover of early American history, I suppose I should be ashamed to admit this. I'm not.

Christine, interesting. Many different perspectives have been offered of literary and historical figures. Books from Judas' perspective, history from a mouse who lived in the Benjamin Franklin Household...I'd like to read a story from Fagin's perspective, maybe a sequel to "Oliver Twist"

Robyn said...

My daughter and I are Phantom of the Opera addicts, both the Lon Chaney scarefests and the Webber musical. We recently read the original book (she's 16) and we loved it. Very different from any screen or stage version.