I have a confession to make. There is a story that I love… but I only know it through movie adaptations and not the original books.
I know. I KNOW. I’m a sinner.
It’s the Oz story, originally penned by L. Frank Baum, the first of which was published one day shy of 84 years before I was born. I fell in love with the 1939 The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland when I was wee. Indeed, my parents had to record the movie onto VHS from a television broadcast because I demanded it so often. I fondly recall the now-very-retro Pepsi commercial they accidentally taped at the scene when Dorothy meets Professor Marvel when she is running away. Every time I re-watch the movie, I expect that Pepsi commercial.
I loved this movie well before I knew how to read. My mother likes to tell the story of toddler Jessie pulling out the TV Guide (remember those?) and pretending to read aloud, “The Wizard of Oz is on RIGHT NOW.”
When I was little, it never occurred to me that things like that had a legacy. I honestly never gave it a thought that my beloved story might have had earlier roots. Indeed, the first time I think I realized there were 14 Oz books written at the turn of the century was when I was in college. I minored in anthropology and recall learning of the theories that Baum wrote the Oz books as (a) political allegory referencing the monetary policy of the 1890s or (b) a promotion of capitalism and the shift in perception of children as little people who needed their own stuff. (Neither theory is universally accepted, by the by.)
As a side note, until the Internet was a thing, I had this problem repeatedly. I didn’t know one of my first favorite books of fantasy, Sabriel by Garth Nix, had two sequels published 6 and 8 years later. When I discovered the sequels much later, I felt both thrilled and betrayed by my own lack of follow-up.
I think it’s amazing that such legacies can be born and persist through generations. I realize that I was a weird kid. I first read Jane Eyre—for fun, without being told to, just because I read the back of the book in the library and thought it sounded interesting—when I was in the fifth grade. And I liked it. In short, I wasn’t turned off by old stuff. But with Oz, I was not alone, not by a long shot. Every kid I knew had seen the movie, and just about every one of them adored it as much as I did.
So what’s the lesson to learn? I think a hundred different publishing pros from writers to agents to marketers could come up with a hundred different lessons to be learned from Oz. What is it, exactly (the movie, I mean)? Well, it’s a sanitized fairy tale at its heart, with a few gentle morals and very little violence. It stars a great team of lovable characters who fight a villain so scary I hid behind the couch every time she was on screen. Also, it is almost completely romance-free. And that is what holds my interest.
A few months ago, I asked my writer and publisher friends on Twitter to recommend some YA books that had no romance in them. My Twitter feed is FULL of YA book recommendations day and night, so I expected to be flooded. Instead, I heard cyberspace crickets. One person pointed me to an NPR list of great YA books as picked by their readers. No one else had a single recommendation.
So much entertainment includes some element of romance in it nowadays. But is that what young audiences crave… or is it what the authors themselves crave? Obviously one can point to other successful books and movies that pivot around steamy romance and spot the flaw in my mode of thinking. Heck, you can point to a 1939 film that many people adore today that involves heavy romance overtones: the movie adaptation of Gone with the Wind with Vivien Leigh. Some of my girlfriends watched it when they were pretty young and still have fainting spells over it.
I guess the point I am taking away from the legacy of Oz is that a successful story doesn’t have to involve steamy romance. It can, if that’s what you want to do, but don’t feel like you MUST cram romance into your story that doesn’t need romance to have legs. All this exploration is to say: be true to the story, and only to the story, forever and ever, amen.
And yes, I have purchased the 14 Oz books to read at some point.