On the Net

Harry and Dot

by James Patrick Kelly


ur Harry Potter www.pottermore.com/explore-the-story/harry-potter moment has lasted some twenty years now and counting; as I write this we are still a month away from the premiere of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them http://www.fantasticbeasts.com, the latest communique from the Potterverse. An entire generation has grown up dreaming of wizardry. However, some ninety-seven years before Harry got sorted into Gryffindor House, a young girl named Dorothy Gale www.oz.wikia.com/wiki/Dorothy_Gale was whisked from a bleak and muggled Kansas to the magical land of Oz. These two eleven-year-olds are arguably the most famous children in literature. And while J. K. Rowling www.jkrowling.com/en_US has never cited influences and may well have been shielded from American Oz-mania by the wide Atlantic Ocean, it seems clear to me that the multimedia incarnations of Oz and the Potterverse have much in common. Many American parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents engaged with Oz in their day in the same intense way that Potter fans engage with Hogwarts. I count myself among their number; the Oz books, and to a lesser extent the iconic 1939 movie, are important influences on my own writing. A tattered 1944 edition of The Wizard of Oz, which had passed through several other kids’ hands before preteen Jimmy Kelly bought it used, still sits on my bookshelf. Next to it are the 1979 Del Ray paperback editions of the canonical Baum novels that I read to my kids when they were Dorothy’s age. And as we celebrate the beginning of a new Harry Potter decade, I am here to report that communications from the Land of Oz likewise show no sign of abating.

Lyman Frank Baum www.biography.com/news/l-frank-baum-wizard-of-oz-facts had failed at several careers before he found literary success with a children’s book called Mother Goose in Prose www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5312, which was illustrated by the great Maxfield Parrish https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxfield_Parrish. He then teamed up with another noted illustrator, W.W. Denslow www.aiga.org/the-man-behind-the-man-behind-oz-w-w-denslow-at-150, on the first Oz novel. You may be surprised to learn that he and Denslow shared copyright on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but look no further than the online copy at the Library of Congress http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=rbc3&fileName=rbc0001_2006gen32405page.db and you’ll understand why. Denslow’s twenty-four color plates and dozens of monochrome illustrations helped define Oz in the popular imagination. Baum went on to write thirteen Oz sequels and fifty-five novels altogether, although he and Denslow quarreled after the publication of the first Oz book and stopped working together. Ever fortunate in his choice of illustrators, Baum teamed up with John R. Neill www.oz.wikia.com/wiki/John_R._Neill, for the immediate sequel The Marvelous Land of Oz www.classics-illustrated.com/landofoz/landofozpart1.html. It was Neill who changed Dorothy from a chubby child to a more stylish preteen in her next appearance. Not only did he illustrate all the rest of Baum’s Oz books, but also twenty-one sequels written by Ruth Plumly Thompson www.oz.wikia.com/wiki/Ruth_Plumly_Thompson after Baum’s death, as well as three that he himself wrote.

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The canonical Oz novels by Baum, Thompson, Neill, and assorted others, are sometimes referred to as the “Famous Forty” www.tor.com/2010/08/05/reread-all-40-books-in-the-oz-series. They were a cash cow for the now defunct publisher Reilly and Lee from 1900 to 1963. But Oz was not only a literary phenomenon. Two years after publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a stage version, called simply The Wizard of Oz, had two very successful runs on Broadway and toured the country for a decade. Baum tried several times to replicate this theatrical success by adapting various Oz sequels, but all his efforts failed. He also tried movie-making, and in 1914 founded his own independent studio, the idiosyncratically named Oz Film Manufacturing Company http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oz_Film_Manufacturing_Company, which made five features and five shorts before folding. For years, Oz was regarded as box office poison. In 1937 Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs www.movies.disney.com/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs proved there was a market for quality films for children, so MGM www.mgm.com bought the rights to Baum’s first Oz novel, by now an acknowledged classic.

The Wizard of Oz was critically well-received and was one of the top grossing movies of 1939. However, it lost money in its original release due to high production costs (someone had to sew three thousand costumes, for example) and did not turn a profit for the studio until a 1949 re-release. Bursting with memorable songs by Harold Arlen www.npr.org/2015/11/07/455017504/remembering-harold-arlen-the-mystery-man-behind-over-the-rainbow and Yip Harburg www.yipharburg.com, it made a star of sixteen-year-old Judy Garland www.judygarlandmuseum.com, despite the fact that it was a stretch for her to play Neill’s Dorothy and absurd to imagine her as Denslow’s. However, the film didn’t begin to enter the collective consciousness of America until it was first shown on television in 1956—in black and white, of course. Its triumph was made complete by two decisions made at CBS www.CBS.com. The first was to broadcast The Wizard of Oz as a heavily promoted special every year from 1959 to 1990, and the second was to transition the network’s prime time schedule to color in the mid-sixties. The film couldn’t make its full impact until American consumers upgraded their video reception devices to color as well. After all, one of the most special of the film’s ground-breaking special effects comes at the moment when Dorothy steps out of a gray Kansas farmhouse into the dazzle of Munchkinland. “Toto, I have a feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQLNS3HWfCM.

It must be hard for those brought up in the current fragmented mediascape to imagine how familiar several generations have become with this one movie, after having it drilled into our memories year after year, scene after scene, yellow brick after yellow brick. Consider how lines from the script have escaped into common parlance to become catchphrases or memes. Ding, dong the witch is dead. Off to see the Wizard. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There’s no place like home. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t help but love the flick, but doesn’t this explain in part why it ranks so high in the American Film Institute’s www.afi.com/100Years/movies.aspx various lists? It’s sixth on the Greatest American Movies of All Time, third on the Greatest American Musicals, and “Over The Rainbow” sits atop the Greatest American Movie Music list.

Reinforcing our technicolor memories of the 1939 classic are the movies and television shows that have come after http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptations_of_The_Wizard_of_Oz, even if they have strayed far from L. Frank Baum’s original conceits. This lot has been very uneven, in my opinion. I don’t have much use for the various American animated films and TV shows made over the years. I understand that there have also been several Japanese anime incarnations, none of which I’ve seen. I can take or leave the 1978 movie version of The Wiz www.rottentomatoes.com/m/wiz, although I’ve heard that NBC’s 2015 remake, The Wiz Live www.nbc.com/the-wiz-live?nbc=1, was pretty good, and I wish I’d seen the first run of the Broadway musical www.playbill.com/production/the-wiz-majestic-theatre-vault-0000007830. I am a big fan of the under-rated 1985 Return to Oz www.movies.disney.com/return-to-oz. Some critics opined at the time that it was too scary for children www.buzzfeed.com/briangalindo/the-11-most-traumatizing-moments-from-return-to-oz?utm_term=.ay8QQ2vdoL#.pxL77aXrRO, but they were wrong. Certainly it is the most faithful of all the movies to Baum’s books. Disney’s more recent Oz the Great and Powerful www.disney.com/oz-the-great-and-powerful had its moments, but failed to appeal to a key target audience, since it had no essential kids in it. I’m afraid that I didn’t much care for Gregory Maguire’s www.gregorymaguire.com Oz novels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_(Maguire_novel) and so resisted seeing the musical version of Wicked www.wickedthemusical.com until a couple of years ago. What a mistake! Not much Baum to it, but a great show! And since a film version has been greenlighted for 2019, this new version should keep making headlines for Oz.

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Which brings me back to the similarities between Harry and Dot. But first, a few words about copyright. Our copyright law springs from Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution “The Congress shall have Power To . . . promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” You can understand why the Founders thought this was good policy. At least I can, as an Author practicing Useful Arts. However, Congress has interpreted “Limited Time” to benefit certain corporations (I’m looking at you, The Walt Disney Company www.disney.com). In part to keep Mickey Mouse from falling into the wrong hands www.artlawjournal.com/mickey-mouse-keeps-changing-copyright-law, the current law extends copyright for the life of the creator plus seventy years—or ninety-five or one hundred and twenty years, if you happen to be a corporation. As of this writing, Mickey is safe until 2023. When copyright runs out, intellectual property enters the public domain www.fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain. For example, if you want to write a story about Sherlock Holmes and sell it to Sheila, go ahead. Holmes is in the public domain, and neither Arthur Conan Doyle nor his heirs and assigns can do anything about it. Or write about the Mad Hatter. Dr. Jekyll. Peter Pan. In fact, here’s a list of one hundred characters now in public domain www.comicvine.gamespot.com/profile/elderfingolfin/lists/best-public-domain-characters/18883 for you to play with.

However, none of them are from the Potterverse.

According to J.K. Rowling’s agent http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3753001.stm “. . . she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories. Her concern would be to make sure that it remains a non-commercial activity to ensure fans are not exploited and it is not being published in the strict sense of traditional print publishing.” Since then there have been millions of additional words of Harry Potter fanfic written in multiple languages, as you can see from this list www.fanlore.org/wiki/List_of_Harry_Potter_Archives. Of course not every one of these stories would meet with Rowling’s approval, perhaps not even most of them. For example, it’s clear that she has little use for slash or porn or violent fanfic. And her publishers keep a vigilant watch for any fanfic that strays into commercial activity. But the energy of the Potter fanfic community is a measure of the series’s impact on popular culture. And the perception that the world’s most popular writer takes an enlightened view of the idea of fanfic has helped validate what had been a suspect enterprise. Indeed, it might be argued that her occasional pieces on Pottermore www.pottermore.com are a kind of fanfic of herself!

The Baum books began coming into public domain in 1956. Today you can do as you please with twenty-three of the Famous Forty. That means that you or I or Gregory Maguire can write about Dorothy or the Cowardly Lion or Jack Pumpkinhead anytime we want. Not only have many writers, professional and not, been sending your favorite Oz characters on new adventures, but they have been publishing them. Here’s an incomplete list of new Oz books from the indispensable Wonderful Wiki of Oz www.oz.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_non-canonical_Oz_books. In this age of fanfic, not only does Oz have its own thriving fanfic community, but some of them are now making money at it!

I probably won’t be around to see Harry Potter’s hundred and twentieth birthday, but in terms of longevity at least, the lad and his school chums have a way to go to catch up to Dorothy and her friends. 

Copyright © 2017 James Patrick Kelly

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