LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Dumbing Down Dorothy

on March 14, 2013 1:49pm

Like any book-to-movie adaptation, there were significant differences between L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. One of these differences is the characterization of the heroine and main character, Dorothy.

In Baum’s novel, though sweet and somewhat naïve, Dorothy seems to really have it together for someone of the young age that she seems to be presented as being. She is self-reliant, or at least becomes so by the time she returns to Kansas. She manages a band of outcasts. She stands up to the Wicked Witch, and responds to her wickedness with a flash of anger, ultimately leading to the witch’s demise. She rids the world of her wickedness, and indirectly improves the lives of all its inhabitants, especially her three close friends. She cultivates a type of independence and conviction that she can take back to Kansas, apply, and become a strong woman one day.

As a child watching The Wizard of Oz, I was not very partial to Dorothy’s character. Looking back on the movie now after reading the book, my feelings toward MGM’s Dorothy feel even more concrete. She was a typical American farm girl: sweet, innocent and somewhat mindless. She seems older than Baum’s Dorothy, yet acts less maturely. She cries and sings much more often than speaking her intelligent thoughts. Even when she defeats the witch, it is less out of anger and conviction than a reflex to the witch’s holding fire so close to the scarecrow.

I am not sure if the movie characterized Dorothy so differently, or if the choice of actress (though I do love Judy Garland) just made her seem so much older than in the book that her innocence became annoying. Either way, I think that MGM did not do the character of Dorothy justice. They took an entertaining and somewhat inspiring young girl, and turned her into an overly naïve, immature teen.

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2 responses to “Dumbing Down Dorothy

  1. thethenabean says:

    Great post, Brittany!

    There are so many challenges in converting novels to movies, and certainly one of the most difficult ones can be choosing the right actress for a role. Often, readers have a specific image in their heads about the way a particular character should look (and, often, those images differ from reader to reader). This makes it increasingly troublesome to find an actor appropriate – and Judy Garland was not appropriate for Dorothy (however great her rendition of “somewhere over the rainbow”).

    I also agree that the Dorothy of the movies is much less sharp than the Dorothy of the novels. Not only is she relatively incapable, but she rarely expresses in a clear manner anything that she is thinking. However, novel Dorothy also has no dearth of child moments; the way in which, for example, she defeated the witch. Neither heroine is particularly heroic, and I think that speaks to a larger in the issue: gender politics. While her three companions are certainly not depicted as being superior to Dorothy, it is Oz who really controls the situation. The idea that even a heroine is to be outsmarted and ultimately manipulated by a male protagonist is not the most feminist approach in the world, and I think it is certainly worth noting. While there is Glinda the Good Witch somewhat balancing the female portrayal, even she is somewhat minimal in her role. In the movie, she is seen as largely decorative and frivolous – what could be a more stereotypical female portrayal?

    I can’t say with certainty that these gender issues were intentional – or even are substantial – but I think they are certainly worth examining in context of both the movie and the book. Often, it is those problems which are not concrete, and which work themselves subtly into narrative, that are the most pervasive and damaging.

  2. I agree that there is large difference between Baum’s Dorothy and MGM’s Dorothy. There is definitely a change in how strong her character is and how much she relies on her posse to get to the Emerald City. But I think a large portion of why MGM portrayed her in a more child-like manner is because the movie was on screen. Back in the time that it was being filmed, women were supposed to be very dainty, reliant on men, and not very smart. So yes, she was different than the book character, but she fit into the mold of what women were expected to be in the 1930s and early 1940s. Baum was very ahead of his time when he was writing The Wizard of Oz. Some critics say that his novel could be a pro-feminism novel, which was a new concept in his time. So, the view of a woman in Baum’s eyes compared to MGM is very different, and is why there could be a difference in character. To sell movies during the 1940s, men and women would agree more with a softer, dependent Dorothy than an independent, go-getting girl.

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