Gaps in the Story
I like stories. I especially like long stories, the kind where you can get caught up in the characters’ lives and where you watch as they face thousands of new and different challenges, both large and small. After one’s been through enough with them, the characters from those long, impactful stories often feel like friends.
My favorite stories of all, like King Arthur, Star Trek, the Avengers, and the land of Oz, are tales that have passed through the minds of more than one story-teller. Each time a new voice claims the story, new facets are added and the complexity builds. I like complexity. Life is a very complex thing, with so many factors and storylines, and I appreciate it when a story acknowledges that many things take longer than thirty minutes to resolve.
Speaking of Oz, that’s a fascinating story to me, because it’s one of the really few high-profile movies written for women specifically, and isn’t about a romance or troubles with men. The original story focused primarily on a young girl, her female mentor, and her female antagonist. While there were men, and important men, with their own plotlines in the movie, Dorothy wasn’t an add-on, she was the main event. It’s her wanderlust and desire for home that need to be brought into balance.
In the beginning of the movie, Dorothy is almost invisible to her family, the farm hands, and the bicycle lady. They don’t stop their work to help her, or take the time to understand what she needs, they just do what it takes to keep her alive. When she runs away from home, she meets the carnival man who reminds her that Auntie Em and the others do care, they just don’t show it. And the end of the movie has everyone gathered around Dorothy, listening as she tells them about something no more important than a dream. There’s a lot of women, and no doubt men as well, who relate to that feeling of invisibility and delight in the thought that maybe people really do care.
Oz the Great and Powerful came out a few years ago and I thought it was a highly forgettable movie. The point of view shifted from a woman’s perspective on Oz, as a place of wonder, terror, and adventure, to a man’s view of Oz, as a place of mystery and intrigue. The “wizard,” a carnival con-artist who got blown into the land by mistake, initially sees both the land and its inhabitants as beautiful and exploitable, but eventually decides to protect it (and some of them) instead.
As he travels through, meeting and deceiving the people around him, he comes to realize that he’s walked into a world as deceitful as himself. The three women, who come to be revealed as the good witch of the north and the wicked witches of the East and West, are filled with schemes and all of them want something from him. He went from being a forgettable nobody to being the most important player in a game that the women can’t end without him.
For obvious reasons, I wasn’t impressed. It might be a man’s paradise to get dropped in a world where all the women are drop-dead gorgeous and hot for him, but I didn’t see what the fuss was about. He wasn’t that appealing, and the women were all flat. One was beautiful and good, one was beautiful and bad, and the third was beautiful and simple-minded. All stereotype characters, swirling around a semi-sympathetic charlatan. Maybe that’s why the movie had its day and then virtually disappeared.
In contrast to Oz, there’s another spin-off that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Wicked, the Broadway musical that changes so much of the original tale, is a name that people know and a show that fans are willing to go back and watch and remember.
Even though Wicked paints a very different understanding of the events of The Wizard of Oz, it is only meant to supplement what we already know. It’s not an actual replacement or revision. The musical takes as its central premise that story-telling is the most effective form of political propaganda. Reality is complex and people are complicated, but a story has to pack a punch. To do that, the writer narrows down the facts, focusing the thoughts down to a laser beam and wielding morals like a Jedi knight in a pitched combat of ideas. A character can be fully known in a way that a person never will be. Stories are, in a way, stripped down, field-packaged chunks of reality made understandable. But to do that, pieces get left out.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s a newcomer in a strange world, where she doesn’t know anyone or their histories. She’s also a young girl, trying to make sense of life without a whole lot of personal experience to draw from, but she tries hard anyway. Everything in the new world is made to fit the patterns she saw in the old world.
But since politics isn’t something one would expect a Dorothy-character to understand, so it’s easy to write into the gap. The original story didn’t explain how it was that Dorothy’s house just happened to land on someone important. Accident or malice? The Wizard of Oz assumes accident, but what if it wasn’t? In that case, someone conjured up a girl to use as a very sympathetic main character in a kind of public play.
We immediately know that Elphaba, the Witch of the West, didn’t do that, since the conflict of Wizard is that Dorothy’s house killed Elphaba’s beloved sister. That makes the most likely suspect to be the wizard himself, since the point of the theater would then be making Elphaba look terrible, by first causing her great grief, then giving her someone cute and innocent to focus on in her grief and anger, and finally by staging a climatic, final battle in which… water melts her? Does that actually make sense?
Also, if she’s such a horrible witch person that everyone fears and hates, why doesn’t she just kill Dorothy instead of spending so much time trying to scare her into taking off the shoes?
The Wizard of Oz is Dorothy’s story. We see the world, the plot, and the characters all through her eyes. Wicked is, for the most part, Glinda’s story. The musical opens with Glinda in her bubble, taking in the world of the jubilant peasants beneath her feet, as she contemplates a story none of them are willing to understand. They’re half-mad with self-righteous glee, and their somber, humbled leader pretends to participate, even as she tries to open their eyes to a greater wisdom.
“Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”
It’s an odd line. Why would Glinda think Elphaba had wickedness “thrust upon” her? It’s not as if people are forced to act against their nature, right?
And yet, as the story unfolds, as we watch Elphaba through Glinda’s unspoken reflections, we see that Elphaba is unfailingly kind, generous, and loyal, even to her manipulative, two-faced, power-hungry friend. That stupid, pointy hat Elphaba always wore? It was a gift from Glinda herself that was meant to embarrass her unpopular roommate. How did Elphaba respond? By pulling strings with her mentor at college to get Glinda a position in an elite major.
The witches’ big rivalry, the boy they both fought over until their war killed him? He’d never truly loved Glinda. He had been as popular and shallow as Glinda herself, but ultimately made the choice Glinda couldn’t; to turn his back on the world of power to join Elphaba’s world of compassion.
The tension between Elphaba and Dorothy? Orchestrated by the wizard, using Glinda’s own knowledge as a weapon against her friend. Glinda acknowledges that Elphaba’s actions toward Dorothy were terrible, but she glosses over them for the most part, pointing out instead how much loss and evil Elphaba had already endured. But even after her sister’s death, Elphaba still forgave the repentant Glinda, and they had a tender moment of reconciliation before Elphaba’s untimely death.
Then, to make it symmetrical, we return to the party, able to sympathize with the regretful, but wiser, girl-turned-ruler. Glinda has everything she set out to achieve, and thereby lost everything she really wanted. It’s a story with an emotional punch.
But it still leaves gaps. Did Elphaba know the extent of Glinda’s unfaithfulness? Did the Tin Man ever recover? Dorothy saw that he had a heart, but Glinda did not . . . was Glinda just unwilling to see anything but the ruin her actions caused? Did Glinda ever recover from the guilt and grief? Did she make new friends, or stay forever locked in her bubble, punishing herself for the past?
It just goes to show that stories are far from easy. But despite all the differences between The Wizard of Oz and Wicked, they both have the same central messages. One is that women have value and can make a difference in the world, they aren’t just there as props for men. The larger message, the universal one, is that the most important parts of life aren’t the temporary, fleeting things like adventure or popularity. The important parts are the people one meets and, especially, the people one loves. People change each other in strange and unpredictable ways.
I’ve heard it said,
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return.
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you.
Image courtesy of London Musical Posters.