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Noel Langley and the Original Script for “The Wizard of Oz”

posted by Nell Minow

Wicked author Gregory Maguire has a wonderful essay on the Smithsonian website about the original screenplay for what is probably the greatest family movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz.

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By coincidence, I just finished a book by the author of that screenplay, Noel Langley. The book is The Land of Green Ginger and it has a lot of the charm and whimsy Langley brought to his adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel. Maguire writes:

The differences between this version and the final shooting script? Hardly a page escapes without crossed-out speeches and handwritten substitutions. Plot points abound that are later abandoned (the Wicked Witch of the West has a son named Bulbo?). Only a couple of scenes refer to singing, and none of the famous lyrics appear. What would become “Over the Rainbow,” which I call America’s unofficial national anthem, is referred to as “the Kansas song.”

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What this draft achieves is the compression of choice elements from a best-selling, although rambling, children’s book. In the original novel, the Wicked Witch of the West dies on Page 155, but Dorothy doesn’t leave Oz until 100 pages on. If Langley stuffs in extraneous characters for ballast (a Kansas farmhand and his sweetheart among them), he also abbreviates the trajectory of the story so that the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West kick-starts Dorothy’s return to Kansas.

The American author-illustrator Maurice Sendak believed that The Wizard of Oz film was a rare example of a movie that improves on the original book. I agree with him. Langley consolidates two good witches into one. He eliminates distracting sequences involving populations Dorothy encounters after the Wizard has left in his balloon—the china people (porcelain figures) and the Hammer-Heads (a hard-noggined race).

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No one has engaged more deeply with the Oz story than Maguire, whose book about the Wicked Witch of the West inspired the Broadway smash hit. What I thought most interesting were his thoughts on Langley’s choice to make the visit to Oz a dream. Well worth a read. Here’s “Frozen’s” Idina Menzel singing “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.”

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