University City

2 Dorothys travel through ‘Oz’ book, film

Everyone knows the scene: A girl, her little dog and a house – all swept up in a twister – tumble high above the cornfields of Kansas until they land smack-dab on a wicked witch on the east side of a faraway land.

The girl opens the door of the house, breathes in the intoxicating color-popping Land of Oz, and leaves her sepia-tinted world behind to follow a winding yellow brick road.

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the film “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s estimated that more than a billion people have seen it since it first appeared on the silver screen in 1939.

To commemorate the occasion, the Special Collection department of UNC Charlotte’s Atkins Library will display through Jan. 17 the 14 books that author L. Frank Baum wrote that inspired the film version.

In the classic tug-of-war about which is better – the book or the movie – the film version of “The Wizard of Oz” pulls its weight like no other.

But to take a side, said Mark West – a UNC Charlotte English professor, an expert on Baum’s books – people first have to understand how completely different the two are from one another.

The differences extend all the way down to the color of Dorothy’s slippers, which were silver in the book. They were changed to ruby red in the film to take advantage of the brand new movie technology of the late 1930s: color film.

The most striking difference, however, has nothing to do with color and everything to do with the message for each audience.

In the novels, Dorothy is a heroine, an adventurer who strikes out on her own and often saves the male characters in the story. But in the movie, she’s the damsel in distress, who needs men to lead her to safety.

“In the book, Dorothy kicks butt. She takes action. She’s on a quest. She is the person in charge,” said West. “In the movie, Dorothy says, ‘If I ever seek my heart’s desire again, I shall look no further than my own backyard.’ She is basically like a dog with her tail between her legs.”

There’s a reason for Baum’s feminist point of view, unusual for a man living in the 19th century: His mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was a well-known suffragist, lived with Baum and his wife for most of their adult lives.

“Baum was very much exposed to feminine ideas way ahead of when most men had ever thought about it,” said West.

The message may have been flipped like a coin for the film, but many tout that the movie’s other virtues are what make it one of the most popular pictures of all time.

“It delivers characters that we can identify with, and amazing songs that we all know by heart,” said Sam Shapiro, a program director at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library and a film studies professor at UNC Charlotte.

Shapiro grew up before VHS, DVDs, and video streaming, and recalls his anxiety about the possibility of missing its annual airing on television.

“I remember that it only played once a year, always around Easter time. And you had one shot at it,” said Shapiro. “I was massively depressed when it was over, because I had to wait another 365 days for it to come back on.”

Like generations before and after him, he was taken in by the elaborate sets of that era, the struggle between good and evil, and the switch from sepia tones to vivid primary colors in the fairytale world.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ doesn’t seem to age,” said Shapiro. “If it blows my mind in 2013, I can only imagine what it was like in 1939.”

His only qualm is with Dorothy’s final decision to leave, after her wild journey through a wonderful land with warm and loyal new friends.

“I’ve seen it maybe 200 times, and you know, I know there’s no place like home, but Kansas doesn’t seem that great,” said Shapiro. “She should have stayed in Oz.”