Book Reviews

How Dark Are Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz Books?

Across the internet’s meme subculture, there’s plenty of fan-theory-like discussion of The Wizard of Oz movie. Among the prevailing theories, there’s the hypothesis that The Wicked Witch of the West was well within her rights to pursue Dorothy. After all, Dorothy did kill her sister and steal those magical red shoes. There’s plenty of other theories, too, all touching upon the theme of the movie being a lot darker than it intended to be.

Of course, we don’t need to stress what a cultural phenomenon The Wizard of Oz has become. It’s influenced everything from Wicked, which became one of Broadway’s longest-running shows ever, to popular casino games like Book of Oz from Microgaming. But it all stems from the works of Frank L. Baum, and it’s not just one book: Baum wrote 14 full novels based on Oz, as well as a host of novellas, short stories and poems.

But while it’s generally accepted that The Wizard of Oz is a kids movie, even if we adults like to come up with dark theories, it’s also well known that Baum’s version of Oz is a lot darker than the world MGM put up on the silver screen in 1939. The latter with Judy Garland is considered a must-watch movie for every child, but are the books suitable for children?

Horror has changed down the decades

Probably the first thing to say is that Baum’s works are a little darker than the movie. But this must come with the caveat that they were written as early as 1900. So, in respect of the sensibilities of the time, we aren’t talking about horror in the sense of Stephen King. Overtly gory horror wouldn’t wash with the sensors back then, even if the books were aimed at adults.

Some parts of the story could be considered horrific: A famous example is the origin of the Tin Man, who hacked off his limbs and replaced them with tin until he became as we know him in the movie. But again, it’s not as if Baum goes into great detail of the blood and gore. There’s other stuff too, from lobotomized cats to a princess that steals heads. Yet much of it is no more macabre than what we meet in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Grimm fairytales. After all, Gretel did push a cannibalistic witch into an oven.

Baum was a supporter of women’s suffrage

Perhaps the most important difference, however, is that Baum was trying to make a point. Yes, he got creative and over-the-top in his fantastical imagery, but he was also a satirist and political advocate. There is, for example, much in feminist theory attached to his books. Women’s suffrage was a hot-button topic at the time, and Baum was seemingly an advocate for women being given the vote. We should add, however, that the author was far from being perfect, and some of his racial views (not necessarily in his Oz works) have been revisited and make for uncomfortable reading.

So, there is something within the books to provide context for the bits of horror, and that might make them useful for older children. The point, as such, is that it’s not horror for the sake of it, and that is always useful in terms of education.

But we might say that beyond these questions of sensibilities, there’s an issue with quality. It might sound blasphemous to fans of Baum, but the 14 books are, let’s say, meandering and ponderous. When making the 1939 movie, MGM pulled some of the best bits from the books and made a coherent story. So perhaps instead of buying the books for your kids this Christmas, settle down and rewatch Judy Garland and company one more time on the television.


Award-winning writer, blogger, social media consultant and charity campaigner. Social Media Manager for BritMums, the UK's largest parent blogging network Freelance clients include Firefly Communications and Save the Children UK. Works with brands on marketing projects. Examples include Visit Orlando, Give As You Live, Coca-Cola and Kodak. Cambridge Law graduate with many years experience working across three sectors in advice, media relations, events, training and project management. Available for hire at affordable rates.

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