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
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.