I’m doing The Wizard of Oz with my film class. This is really the height of masochism, in a way, because there is so much about this film that is unquantifiable.
People love to break down The Wizard of Oz. God knows I understand that. I’ve used tons of examples from Wizard myself. We all KNOW Wizard, so it makes sense to reference it. But The Wizard of Oz is such a special case. It’s a deceptively simple film with profound psychological and political undercurrents. And it is an iconic movie for so many reasons that I wouldn’t possibly want to have to explain – it’s like explaining sunlight, or – a rainbow. You can break it down into its elements, but that will never give you the experience. There was a special magic (which my film agent calls “the movie gods”) looking over that movie through all its harrowing changes of writers, directors, actors, etc. - and let's not forget that it was based on a classic SERIES of books - and, oh, yeah - it's a friggin' MUSICAL. And all that terrifying mess somehow combined to make a classic. It is not something anyone could ever duplicate by design.
Just consider what The Wizard of Oz would have looked like had Shirley Temple (often named as the top choice for Dorothy) been cast instead of Judy Garland.
The casting of Garland, and her lush, just blossoming, completely vulnerable sexuality, TOTALLY changed the dynamic of the character and every single interaction she had with the other characters in the movie. It changed the meaning of the journey. A young woman’s dream, or fantasy, or metaphorical journey – whatever you want to call that adventure to Oz – is completely different from a child’s. Teenagers yearn for significantly different things than children do.
When I was a preteen I became firmly convinced that the whole Wizard of Oz journey was Dorothy's dream letting her explore which one of the three farmhands she wanted to marry - as a young woman reaching marriageable age, those would be her obvious choices in such a farm town. In Oz, Hunk/the Scarecrow is the first one she meets, and over and over and over again the Scarecrow steps forward as the problem solver and her biggest defender. (She also dances with him in a musical number that was cut from the final film – The Jitterbug - and as any dancer or choreographer knows, when two characters dance in a musical, that means sex.). When she leaves Oz, she tells the Scarecrow she'll miss him most of all, and when she wakes up in bed, he kneels by the bed and she touches his face. She's chosen.
I would tell people this occasionally in college and they'd laugh - but years later I read much more about the elaborate history of the film and learned that the final scene of an earlier script really had concluded with Hunk going off to agricultural school and winning a promise from Dorothy to write to him – implying a romance that would continue (and marriage once “The Scarecrow” had his real-life diploma).
Okay, I might be the only person who’s ever watched The Wizard of Oz and gotten that out of it. Quite possibly. But my analysis of the subtext is meaningful to me, just as my analysis of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet is, and my strong personal opinions on the movies I watch and the books I read, however obscure they may seem to other people, have been invaluable to my growth as a writer. My point is, a LOT goes into creating a film or book, a lot of it unquantifiable, and even if some writer or teacher or workshop leader breaks it down brilliantly for you, it's even more important for you to figure out what YOU think is going on in that film or book.
I’ll continue this longest disclaimer in history by saying it’s confusing even to break this movie into sequences, because it is a musical, and musical numbers were cut and rearranged (and rightly so!) which would have made the timing of the sequence structure make more conventional sense. Just as an example - the studio wanted “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” cut because it made the first Kansas sequence too long, but the movie gods apparently intervened, the song remained, completely screwing with the sequence timing, and film students have been arguing about the Act One break ever since.
All that being said, The Wizard of Oz is also a pretty perfect template for the Hero/ine’s Journey structure, with some of the best-realized examples of key story elements you’re ever going to find on celluloid. It gives us all something to aspire to. So for better or worse, here we go.
The Wizard of Oz
Directed by Victor Fleming
Written by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay); Noel Langley (adaptation)
From the book by L. Frank Baum
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Running time 101 minutes
In the olden days, before ADHD, movies had credits sequences at the beginning of the film. Nowadays apparently audiences lack the attention span to sit through a credits sequence, so the credits go at the end. But if you’re looking at a classic movie there are often two separate Opening Images: the image(s) under the credits sequence and the actual opening visual of the film. In Wizard, the image under the credits sequence is slow movement through clouds in a blue sky (only it’s black and white), setting up the subliminal idea that we are going to be up in those clouds pretty soon.
Then there is a placard telling us that this is a beloved classic story, for the young and the young at heart. Opening scrolls or placards give us the sense that this is an Important Story, even maybe epic. (Think of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”)
Then we get the true OPENING IMAGE, and INTRODUCTION OF THE HEROINE: We see Dorothy running on a country road, under stormy skies. This is a great opening image because it directly introduces Dorothy's PROBLEM and sets up her CHARACTER ARC. We learn in the opening lines that Dorothy is running away from Miss Gulch, the tyrant of the county, and that she fears retaliation because Toto, her beloved dog, has bitten Miss Gulch, and Miss Gulch has threatened to call the sheriff.
Throughout the first act, and most of the film, Dorothy’s answer to the threat of Miss Gulch is to run away – here, and in her Wish song (she wants to be over the rainbow, away from her troubles) and then when she runs away with Toto, and later when she tries to escape from Oz to evade the Wicked Witch. But the truth of her situation is, she is never going to be able to run away from Miss Gulch. If she wants to live a fulfilled life in this town, she is going to have to face and defeat this powerful ANTAGONIST. The whole story of the film is Dorothy’s psychological transformation; she is going through an inner journey, through this dream of Oz, to internalize the qualities of braininess, heart, and courage – and all the powerful qualities of her higher self, Glinda - so that as she grows into a woman, she will be able to use those qualities against Miss Gulch (and any other enemies that come up) instead of running away as she does at the beginning of the movie. And in the FINAL BATTLE, she will face Miss Gulch in her scariest incarnation, the Wicked Witch of the West, and defeat her.
In just a few seconds, the opening image sets up this theme of running away. It’s a priceless lesson in how to set up a character from the beginning so that it will feel like a huge character arc when they finally face their greatest fear in the end.
The opening image also incorporates the open road, letting us know that this is a road trip story, and suggests the storm to come, as well as immediately setting up the bleak grayness of Kansas, the ORDINARY WORLD which is in such contrast to the spectacular beauty of the special world. All in all a very layered image, a textbook example of how much you can convey in the first shot of a film or first page of a book.
Next we see Dorothy at the farm, and more images of the ORDINARY WORLD. We meet Dorothy’s guardians, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, plain, hardworking people who care for Dorothy but have no real time for her. Dorothy tries her best to explain the danger, the threats that Miss Gulch has made against Toto, but her aunt and uncle have problems of their own (the broken chick incubator) and can’t help her. Dorothy then goes to her ALLIES, the three farmhands: Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke, and tries to get help from them. Each man has his own comic (but not very helpful) advice about the situation, and the dialogue, movement and gesture is laced with setups (PLANTS) that will be paid off when we meet the three allies again in Oz. Then Aunt Em shoos Dorothy away with an admonition to “find someplace where you can’t get in any trouble,” the lead-in to Dorothy’s “Wish Song” – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The protagonist’s first song in a musical is almost always an “I Am” song or an “I Wish” song, which spells out the character’s OUTER DESIRE. Dorothy longs to journey over the rainbow, where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” Again, her instinct (and plan) is to escape, rather than face her problem. Notice that this song not only makes us identify with Dorothy, but also strongly features Toto. We must fall in love with this little dog, and quickly, because the great FEAR the filmmakers are creating here is that Toto will die. Talk about STAKES! A child’s greatest fear, besides the loss of their parents, is the loss of a pet. (Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s also one of the biggest griefs we experience as adults). “Over the Rainbow” is one of the ultimate tearjerker songs – remember, one of the prime reasons we go to the movies is to experience the CATHARSIS of tears. The longing of the song, Judy Garland’s breathtaking talent and heartbreaking vulnerability, and the emotional tug we get from those close-ups of the little dog, all work to lower our defenses and provide an excellent opportunity for weeping, if we happen to need it.
And then in a splendid moment of contrast, just as we’re wide open emotionally and probably dissolved in a puddle, we cut from the end of the song to Miss Gulch furiously pedaling her bike toward the farm (with that ominous theme music underneath). Uh oh. Dorothy was right. (An excellent demonstration of how to intensify an audience’s sense of fear and dread by opening up their emotions first and then hitting them with the threat.)
There’s a comic moment at the fence, Uncle Henry serving briefly as a GUARDIAN AT THE GATE, not allowing Miss Gulch in at first and letting the gate hit her in the backside. But this is an ineffectual protest. In the next scene inside the parlor Miss Gulch pulls out an order from the sheriff demanding Dorothy surrender (SET UP) Toto to her so he can be “destroyed.” (The INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE – the event that forces the heroine to take action). And we see Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are unable to help; though it clearly pains them, Miss Gulch threatens the loss of the farm if they don’t give her the dog. This all adds to Dorothy’s sense of fear and isolation – her parental figures are unable to help her or to protect her dog.
Another very layered scene here. Let’s take a look.
Miss Gulch is not only the ANTAGONIST, she is Dorothy’s GHOST, and the town’s ghost, and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s ghost. The film was developed in the late thirties, when Hitler was coming to power in Germany, Stalin was already carrying out the Great Terror AZin Russia, and the rise of these tyrants was a looming fear in thinking Americans’ minds. There is no doubt that the political darkness building overseas had a profound influence on the development of this film; Miss Gulch is portrayed as a tyrant in the county and a threat that is not going to go away, but no one in the county has had the courage to face off with this woman. And yet we see teenage Dorothy stand up to her, shouting at her, even physically shoving her basket away. This is a girl with courage, and the potential to defy Miss Gulch. Her INNER DESIRE, though she does not know it yet, is to defeat Miss Gulch. And she does not yet have the power to defeat this villain, but by the end of the journey of the film, she will have gained that power.
Another symbolic layer of this scene is the Jungian archetypes that Aunt Em and Uncle Henry represent. This film was made when the new theories of psychoanalysis were all the rage, and it’s a fact that the studio mandated that the fantasy journey of the original book be presented in the film as an elaborate dream sequence, because it was felt that a 1930’s audience was too sophisticated to buy into a straight fantasy. I strongly suspect that one or more of the filmmakers involved was a student of the psychology of Carl Jung rather than that of Sigmund Freud, because Jungian archetypes abound in this story, and Jung specifically wrote that these archetypes, among many others, populate our dreams.
Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are representative of the animus, the inner male, and the anima, the inner female – but they are the weak, damaged versions of those forces. The “hen-pecked husband” and the “fishwife” are the unfulfilled versions of the masculine and feminine principles. While they are good, decent, hardworking people, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry have been worn down by the unrelenting evil that Miss Gulch represents. They are not strong, integrated role models for Dorothy. And Miss Gulch is an even more twisted version of the feminine: the destructive anima.
We’ll soon meet Glinda, the ideal version of the anima: the powerful, wise, beautiful, fully-realized feminine, the inner goddess. She is the fulfilled feminine that Dorothy is capable of becoming.
And together, Dorothy, Glinda and the Wicked Witch represent the Triple Goddess, the three feminine forces that Jung and the goddess religions said live in every woman of every age: Maiden, Mother/Queen, and Crone.
All of these concepts are so very Jungian that I can’t imagine that someone involved in this production wasn’t having Jungian therapy, or at least was reading a lot of Carl Jung. (And the Maiden/Mother/Crone trinity even makes me think that someone involved with the film did their research on basic witchcraft.)
Anyway, at the end of this harrowing scene, Miss Gulch departs in triumph, with Toto in her basket, and a heartbroken Dorothy flees weeping to her room.
CLIMAX of SEQUENCE ONE
But as Miss Gulch bicycles off, pedaling furiously, Toto escapes the basket and runs home. TWIST.
He leaps in to Dorothy’s window, and she is wild with joy to see him, but immediately realizes that Miss Gulch will come back to get him. So she tells Toto her PLAN: they will run away.
Dorothy and Toto hit the road. (I told you this was a road trip.) We see them crossing a bridge, a favorite image of filmmakers everywhere, symbolizing transition, a new phase. The bleakness of the images also suggest the desert, the age-old symbolic setting of a spiritual journey.
They find the caravan of Professor Marvel, an itinerant carnival psychic, who is dismayed when Dorothy wants to come with him “to see the crowned heads of Europe.” The man is an amiable fraud, but with a good heart. Acting as a MENTOR (and a SEER), he tells Dorothy they must “consult the crystal”, and ushers her into his wagon, a masterpiece of set decoration which gives the scene an eccentrically mystic flair (and SETS UP the visual for “Oz the Great and Terrible” in Act II. Marvel himself is a SET UP for the payoff of the Wizard of Oz being nothing but a clever carnival balloonist who got trapped in an upwind and has conned the people of Oz into believing he has magical powers). Using all the tricks of a con artist, Marvel rifles through Dorothy’s belongings, then “sees” Aunt Em becoming ill because of worry over Dorothy. We’ve seen Dorothy’s courage, now we see her heart: she abandons her plans to run away when she thinks it will hurt Aunt Em.
Dorothy and Toto head back for the farm as the wind is picking up, and by the time they reach the gate we can see the cyclone heading straight for the house, an awesome visual effect (and another Jungian symbol, the spiral that represents inner transformation) that begins the SETPIECE SEQUENCE of the storm.
Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and the farmhands take refuge in the storm cellar (symbol of the unconscious), and Dorothy and Toto are left on their own, barely making it into the house. And as soon as they’re in the bedroom, the window crashes in, knocking Dorothy unconscious, and beginning the dream sequence.
Dorothy wakes up in the middle of the storm, to find the house sailing in the middle of the cyclone. One of the most fun and trippy elements of fantasy is the PASSAGEWAY into the SPECIAL WORLD: think of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the mirror in Through the Looking Glass, the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the little door in the wall in Coraline.... and of course here, we have the cyclone that takes Dorothy into Oz. There’s some beautiful comic relief as we see other people and animals from the county flying past in the storm, a bit of whimsy which lowers our defenses for the shock that comes when Miss Gulch suddenly appears in the cyclone, pedaling her bike... and then transforms into an even more terrifying figure: The Wicked Witch of the East riding her broom. Dorothy screams, the house begins to spiral downward, the furniture slides around the house, and the house thumps down to the ground.
There is a breathtakingly suspended moment of complete silence as Dorothy walks through the house toward the front door. Then she opens it and CROSSES THE THRESHOLD, the most famous entry INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD in all cinematic history, as she steps from the sepia- toned house into glorious Technicolor Oz.
Now, some people might say this is the beginning of Act Two, and I wouldn’t really argue it. But we still have no firm idea what this story is about, yet. Personally I think this is a long first act that has an extra sequence just exactly where a lot of fantasy and science fiction stories have an extra sequence, specifically to set up the RULES of the special world.
So I would put this next SEQUENCE THREE in Act One, and call it, of course, Munchkinland.
This is a sequence-long SETPIECE, a dazzling series of musical numbers with stunning set and costume design. SPECTACLE is one of the key promises of any fantasy, and Wizard delivers in every way. We meet the mentor, Glinda, with one of the most famous character entrances in history, floating down in that luminous bubble and stepping out in the princess dress of all time. Glinda assumes Dorothy is a witch, which Dorothy assures her she is not. (And yet by the end of the story Dorothy will have found her full feminine power, which is the definition of a witch if ever there was one!). In an extended song and dance number (“Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead”) the Munchkins celebrate Dorothy as a heroine, because she has slain the Wicked Witch of the East and set them free from her tyranny. Well, actually Dorothy didn’t do a thing; the house simply fell on the witch, killing her. But we see Dorothy enjoying the ceremony and attention. It’s an interesting framing device: Dorothy is celebrated here for killing a witch when really she’s done nothing, but it SETS UP that she really must kill the witch in the final battle, and then she is honored in another ceremony that is much more meaningful because she has actually done the job. (And though it is not overtly stated, our HOPE at the end of the movie will be that Dorothy is now prepared to do real-life battle against Miss Gulch and free the county from her tyranny.)
Notice that the Munchkins sing to Dorothy in clusters of three (THE RULE OF THREE). Also I’d like to point out that if you are creating a fantasy (or a costume drama!) it is part of your job to design wild and fetishy costumes that will be adopted by the significant portion of the audience for that genre that engages in cosplay. Cosplay is part of the interactive experience of a movie, and it’s part of your job to be aware of that world.
In another great moment of CONTRAST, at the very height of this celebration, the Wicked Witch of the West appears in a cloud of red smoke, a terrible shock which graphically illustrates one of the THEMES of the story: you can’t run away from your problems, because they’ll come right along with you until you face them and defeat them.
The Wicked Witch is royally pissed that Dorothy has killed her sister. She’s even more pissed when Glinda magically bestows the Wicked Witch of the East’s ruby slippers on Dorothy (this is a key element of fairy tales: MAGICAL GIFTS from magical allies. Also this addition of red to the blue and white of Dorothy's dress makes her a symbolic representation of America). Glinda tells the witch to be gone, she has no power in Munchkinland. But before she slinks away the witch threatens Dorothy in one of the most famous statements of an ANTAGONIST’S PLAN in film history: “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”
Glinda tells Dorothy she’s made a powerful enemy. And true to form, Dorothy’s desire and plan is to run away: she now wants to go back to Kansas to escape the witch. But no one knows how she can do that, so Glinda suggests a new PLAN: Dorothy must travel to the Emerald City to petition the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, who will surely know how to help her get home.
And that PLAN is underscored in song: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off to See the Wizard.” (In a musical, the PLAN is almost spelled out in song.) Note that the Yellow Brick Road begins in a spiral, another visual of that symbol of the transformative journey.
The Munchkins dance Dorothy to the border of Munchkinland, where she CROSSES THE THRESHOLD again, off on the road to Oz.
So – STATEMENT OF PLAN, big location change, big musical number – I’d say that’s the real CLIMAX OF ACT ONE. We know everything we need to know about what the story is about.
We know Dorothy’s new DESIRE: she wants to get back home (which is really just a variation of the initial desire to run away from her enemy).
We know what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is: Dorothy is going to journey on the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz for help getting home.
We know who is blocking her: the Wicked Witch of the West, who has overtly threatened to kill her.
Our HOPE is that she can get to the Wizard without being killed by the Wicked Witch. Our FEAR is that she won’t.
And we know – it’s a road trip. And now that we know the PLAN, we can settle in and experience the ride.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in e formats and as pdf files. Either book, just $2.99.
- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)