There have been few films that left such an indelible mark in the American collective psyche like The Wizard of Oz. It inevitably appears in every list of top ten movies of all time. The fact that it is a family feature that all ages can enjoy and understand to different degrees, has cemented its iconic status.
It is a movie that appears to have it all: suspense, humor, tenderness, danger and even a moral to top it all off. There are witches, a cute puppy, a fairy godmother, tornadoes, and a magical emerald city. Who could ask for more?
When I watch the film (and most of us have watched it more than once) I realize that there are several plot tracks moving forward in unison. The narrative is linear and chronologically told (much like in Alice in Wonderland) but we cannot be sure that it was all just a dream.
I will not go into the main storyline which is well known by everyone, but I will instead entertain a few theories regarding the true meaning of the tale of Oz. They are all equally fascinating.
One interpretation that surfaced during the 1960s, stated that each character represents a strata of society: Dorothy is the average individual, the Scarecrow represents farmers (not a stretch), the Lion represents a cowardly politician of that era by the name William Jennings Bryan and the Tin Man is a lowly industrial worker. In this version, the yellow brick road is the gold standard and the Emerald city the dollar. The witches are bankers and drought in turn. However, as intriguing as this reading was, it fell out of favor quite quickly.
Not surprisingly, many religious interpretations have also been popular over the years. In one of them, the yellow brick road is a symbol of the path to enlightenment with twists and turns full of temptations and sinister traps. This analysis is reinforced by the fact that the wicked witch is destroyed by water as in baptismal water washing away sin and evil.
Then again, non-religious interpretations are as precise and captivating. The wizard is not real, and he represents God. He is just a man behind a curtain. The emphasis is on free will and in being kind and helping others find what they truly need to be whole in their lives. The characters show compassion for one another and protect each other from the dangers of their shared journey.
In a later and interesting change of perspective, many film historians have pointed out that all the characters with power and agency in The Wizard of Oz are, in fact, female. The male characters are somewhat lacking in one way or another, the wizard being a complete fraud, the lion being a coward, the tin man and the scarecrow needing assistance and protection due to their own “infirmities”. What a remarkable realization, particularly if you consider that the book was originally written in 1900.
In an engaging essay about the MGM classic, Salman Rushdie takes it up a notch and declares that The Wizard of Oz is a parable about the inadequacy of adults who have lost their innocence, imagination and the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Dorothy (the child) must take matters into her own hands and find a home of her own making, rather than be a passive passenger in the sidecar of life. She is exiled, and finds her way in a strange land all the while growing and learning what the adults around her failed to teach her.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book if you have not read it. It has amazing insights and deals with Rushdie’s own form of political and literary exile after he wrote The Satanic Verses and a fatwa was put on his head.
Now that we are all experiencing our own private exile from our normal routines, I find it particularly poignant to revisit this movie with fresh eyes and a recognition that we all deserve the chance to search for our home (our safety) whatever shape it might take. There is no guarantee you’ll find what you thought you wanted, but you’ll certainly find what you actually need.
Now, we’re off to see the wizard…