The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is the first of L. Frank Baum’s fourteen Oz books, and is the inspiration for the 1939 film you almost certainly have seen: a tornado picks up young Dorothy and her dog Toto and carries them to Oz, where they meet numerous fantastical characters, including, of course, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who are all seeking to correct self-perceived character flaws.
One hates to discuss a book in terms of its succeeding film, but here it can scarcely be helped. Suffice it to say that on the whole, the movie follows the book wherever possible, barring omissions that would not have been possible with thirties special effects, and a tidier ending.
Baum’s stated purpose with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was to create “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” He has largely succeeded, although the book features a distinct flatness, particularly when compared with contemporary works that were purposely more clever, like Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Dorothy is flat – she’s a stubborn and determined girl, but Baum doesn’t dwell on her personality. The story is also flat – it’s imaginative, but it isn’t clever simply because it isn’t trying to be; it has little ambition to be anything more than a regular old fairy tale, with one episode of deus ex machina after another. The film is better because it adds style and personality to the work. But then, Baum was writing for kids, not for us grown folk, and the book’s enduring appeal is a testament to his success with that audience.
Baum’s writing is often inconsistent. An obvious example of this is the “heartless” Tin Woodman, who is inconsolable after inadvertently crushing an insect, but later hacks up wild beasts without a qualm. But none of these incidences are unforgivable (they’re certainly more forgivable than Baum’s many awful puns).
W. W. Denslow’s illustrations are iconic, although perhaps not as iconic as the imagery from the film, which is what most people think of nowadays when they think of the Wizard of Oz. But it’s hard to imagine this book being illustrated by anyone else.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fast-reading, simplistic fairy tale worth reading for its own sake and for the sake of its remarkable legacy.