It’s crazy to think that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is 80 years old this year. For eight decades, audiences have enjoyed the story of a young girl from Kansas who is swept away via cyclone to the magical world of Oz where she meets three unique friends and must team with them to reach her goal of returning home. Adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel, this timeless and classic film went through quite a journey to become the film we know and love today.
The adaptation process that was used to write the screenplay for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz can be summed up in two words: disjointed collaboration. Ten (yes, ten) writers had a hand in bringing the world of Oz to life. Unlike today, these writers were assigned by MGM to work on the project, then removed at the whim of the studio and quickly replaced. These ten writers included: Herman Mankiewicz, Ogden Nash, Noel Langley, Herbert Fields, Samuel Hoffenstein, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, Jack Mintz, Sid Silvers, and John Lee Mahin.
I recently read, and highly recommend, a great book – aptly titled The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz – that breaks down how the iconic film was made. One of the chapters discusses the writing process and the many drafts, changes, and edits that were made over a tumultuous year in the life of Oz’s screenplay. For this post, I wanted to focus on a few aspects of some of the drafts that would have made the film entirely different from the classic film we know today.
Screenwriter Noel Langley is credited with creating the “forty-three page treatment [that] included much of what would be the framework of the finished film,” but that doesn’t mean all that he wrote was used (33-34). While he added the concept of the two farmhands – Hickory and Hunk – becoming the Tin Man and Scarecrow in the Oz sequence, the third farmhand, Zeke, was not in the treatment. According to Harmetz:
“In Langley’s treatment, the Cowardly Lion was strictly an Oz character – handsome Florizel, fiancé of Sylvia, a beautiful girl held prisoner by the Wicked Witch of the West. Florizel had been transformed into a lion by the Witch in order to force the girl to marry her son, Bulbo. It was Florizel, released from his enchantment, who killed the Witch by cutting her broomstick to pieces with his sword in a mid-air duel” (35).
Whew! There’s a lot to unpack in that passage, but the main question I have when reading it is: Where’s Dorothy? This seems like a totally different film in the same Oz universe, but has nothing to do with Dorothy’s journey through Oz and her objective to return to Kansas. And who names their son Bulbo?
So, unlike Baum’s book where Oz is a real place, Langley’s treatment made it clear that Oz was a dream Dorothy had after being hit in the head during the cyclone. Langley also follows Baum’s plot points – which are also in the completed film – up to a point in his treatment, then (like the paragraph above) he goes a completely different direction:
“The traveler’s [Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, the Wizard, and Lizzie Smithers] disguise themselves as a traveling circus. They try to start a revolution against the Witch. True love triumphs in the end” (36). In case you’re wondering, Lizzie Smithers worked at the soda fountain in Kansas and told Hickory he was heartless. Somehow, she pops up in Oz and falls in love with Hickory/Tin Man after he gets his heart. At least Dorothy is a part of the story here, but still not the main driving force of the narrative.
Another interesting aspect of Langley’s script is the famous Ruby Slippers, which were initially silver as they are in Baum’s novel:
“They appeared in Langley’s March adaptation, but served no magical purpose. They were not used – as they are in Baum’s book and the final movie – to enable Dorothy to return to Kansas. He wrote them out of the script. They were back in his second script as some vague magical object desired by the Wicked Witch” (40).
Remember, Langley’s initial treatment became the blueprint for what would eventually become the film, so it’s crazy to think that the Ruby Slippers were at one point an afterthought. The fact that they were even written out of a draft is even more bizarre given their importance to Dorothy in the final film.
Again, based on what was mentioned above, Dorothy “was peripheral to much of the action” in Langley’s treatment and scripts, and “[t]he Witch seem[ed] much more interested in conquering the Emerald City than in doing anything to Dorothy” (43). Here’s where the story takes a turn from just a fantasy to full-on epic:
“[The Witch] send ‘ten thousand men, four thousand wolves, and two hundred winged monkeys.’ The men are ‘dressed in Japanese ceremonial armour, the ugly wasp-like death’s-head type, which half suggests skeletons.’ The Witch is attacking the Wizard because she wishes to place her half-witted son, Bulbo, on the throne” (43-44).
So, now this simple story of a young girl who goes on a quest to return home had become a Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Endgame-level epic film with a monstrously huge final battle. But again, what’s missing is Dorothy being part of the any of it. She’s merely a participant in the action, not the driving force of the action. Throughout the treatment and drafts she is passive and has no real significance to the story other than her being there and witnessing the drama and the battles taking place between the Witch and the Emerald City.
Plus, I can’t even imagine what the budget would have been to pull off this final battle in a film made in 1939!
As writers we can learn a lot from Langley’s treatment and script drafts. He went there with his ideas. He thought above and beyond what could technically be achieved by the filmmaking tech of the late 1930s, and yet we have proof that it was part of the drafting process for The Wizard of Oz. Despite the huge ideas, the grandiose set pieces, and the giant battle sequence, the heart and soul of what became the classic film was buried in Langley’s initial treatment.
And that’s an important thing to take away from this: the heart of your story, the life force that gives it meaning and substance is in there somewhere. Even if you have action sequences or fantastical battles, dig deeper into your material and find the heart of the story.
Langley also shows the importance of not sidelining your protagonist. There seems to be no need for Dorothy throughout most of what is shown, and the deletion of the Ruby Slippers lessens her importance even more. As you write, whether it’s a screenplay or novel, keep track of your main character.
It can be easy to go off on a tangent with another character, but ask yourself if that character’s story has significance to the overall plot and has any effect on the main character. If not, you may want to create a new story for that character. Or, if this character is far more interesting than your protagonist, switch out who the main character is.
Langley was one of ten writers who crafted The Wizard of Oz into the film audiences have loved for eight decades. Through a disjointed collaborative process and the creative talents of everyone involved, the film has become a timeless classic.
As you write, remember that even if your draft seems crazy, illogical, or isn’t working, you have the power and ability to rewrite, edit, and fix it until it’s at its best level of quality and entertainment value.
You can order a copy of The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz here, or grab a copy of the newest Oz book, The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman (can’t wait to read this one!) here.
What’s your favorite scene, song, or line from The Wizard of Oz? Leave a comment and let me know!
Citation: Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Chicago Review Press, 2013.