Fine, you can have your Tolkiens and your Rowlings and, yes, even your Stephenie Meyers. Especially your Stephenie Meyers. The author with the fantasy series that has done the most to populate popular culture over the past century? L. Frank Baum and his Oz books.
The latest example of Baum’s ongoing impact is “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Come to think of it, “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t a bad way to describe Baum’s continuing hold on the public. Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz, the film opens Friday.
You can find Oz on Broadway. “Wicked” won three Tony Awards. Oz inspired the title of Elton John’s most famous album. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” has sold 31 million copies (that’s an awesome — or Ozsome — number of candles in the wind). You can find Oz in legal history. The 1971 prosecution of the counter-culture magazine Oz was Britain’s longest obscenity trial, and John Lennon recorded a song in support of the defendants. Frank Oz was long a mainstay of the Muppets. OK, there’s no connection between him and Baum’s Oz — though one might note that the Muppets did a TV version of “The Wizard of Oz” (with a cameo by Quentin Tarantino, no less) in 2005.
The yellow brick road, in other words, leads not just to the Emerald City but pretty much everywhere. Certainly, it’s led to movie and TV screens, as the following examples remind us.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013)
It’s an origins story, of sorts. Franco plays the Kansas magician who finds himself transported to Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), better known to most of us as the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda (Williams), and Evanora (Weisz). Sam Raimi, the director, seems to have done all right making the three “Spider-Man” movies starring Tobey Maguire. Might there be another series in the offing?
“The Dr. Oz Show” (2009- )
All right, all right, the good doctor has nothing to do with Baum and his literary creations (though, yes, there are Turkish translations). Still, the association with the name of a certain famous fantasy land can’t have hurt the show in becoming an afternoon-TV staple. No one’s ever thought it might be
Dr. Phil behind the curtain.
“Tin Man” (2007)
No, not “Tin Men.” That’s the 1987 Barry Levinson movie with Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as aluminum-siding salesmen. This is the Sci Fi Channel update and reworking of “The Wizard of Oz.” Zooey Deschanel is the Dorothy character, Alan Cumming is a version of the Scarecrow, and, whaddya know, Dreyfuss is the Wizard equivalent. No, the Emerald City is not the Aluminum City.
“Oz ” (1997-2003)
Big, big difference, obviously. But Tom Fontana definitely had “The Wizard of Oz” in mind when he created the HBO series about a maximum-security prison. “Emerald City” is the name of the prison unit where most episodes are set, and the series tagline is “It’s no place like home.”
“Return to Oz” (1985)
Fairuza Balk is Dorothy in a movie notable for including the robot Tik-Tok, one of Baum’s more inspired creations, and being the sole directorial effort by a genuine wizard of Hollywood, legendary sound and film editor Walter Murch.
“The Wiz” (1978)
The all-black Broadway musical in which Harlem is Oz comes to the screen. Sidney Lumet directed. Diana Ross is too old for Dorothy. Michael Jackson, as the Scarecrow, makes his movie debut. Check out his moves in their duet, “Ease on Down the Road.” Name a better-cast Glinda than Lena Horne (Lumet’s mother-in-law!).
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Let’s hear it for commercial calculation. MGM made it in an attempt to cash in on the success of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The studio got the big box office it had hoped for. It also got something almost stupefyingly perfect. The Arlen-Harburg score, Judy Garland at her most winsome-vulnerable, the switch from black and white to color (the most brilliant coup de theatre in film history?), Margaret Hamilton scaring the beejesus out of several generations of children — and that’s just for starters. Centuries from now, when entertainment archeologists seek to demonstrate the greatness of Hollywood, they could do worse than to start here.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1925)
Baum’s popularity with filmmakers started in the Silent Era. Beside this feature-length adaptation, whose cast includes Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame, as the Tin Woodsman, there are at least seven Oz-inspired silent shorts. The makings of the ultimate Oz were there for the taking back then. How about this potential cast: Mary Pickford/Dorothy; Lillian Gish/Glinda; Buster Keaton/Tin Man; Harold Lloyd/Scarecrow; Fatty Arbuckle/Cowardly Lion; Louise Brooks/Wicked Witch of the West; and, of course, Charlie Chaplin/the Wizard. Over the rainbow is where the dreams you dare to dream really do come true, right?