Atheism in the Wizard of OZ

Posted by Mark 2000 | Insight | Monday · 17 May · 2010 17:44 | 6,285 views

Although L. Frank Baum insisted that his classic “The Wonderful Wizard of OZ” story was merely a modern fairy tale stripped of any unnecessary morality and lessons written for children who were already taught such things in school, historians claim there are many political undertones in the book. Of course, Baum also claimed he was attempting to remove the “horrors” and “blood-curdling incidents” of fairy tales and then included a chapter where hundreds viscous wolves and birds are brutally axed to death by the Tin Man with their rotting corpses lying in piles. So his public commentary on the book should be taken with a grain of salt. The 1939 movie – considered the definitive film version – was made 40 years later, and many of those claimed political icons would have meant as much to it’s audience as an I Like Ike button would mean to us today. There’s still a message in the film, mostly presented in dialog and scenes not in the book – one that takes the book’s theme of self reliance and pushes it deep into secular humanism and, perhaps, even atheism.

Both the book and the movie put emphasis on self reliance. You can get things done on your own. You don’t need witches or wizards. The power to control your destiny has been within you the whole time. The movie, however, solidifies this theme further and adds to it the idea of faith as a negative that will always fall short. In the book Dorothy is whisked to OZ after a few paragraphs. Nothing more than the environment of Kansas and her Aunt and Uncle are described before the cyclone hits. In the film Dorothy runs away from home and encounters a fortune teller. The fortune teller means well, but his methods are deceptive. While the amazed Dorothy is willing to believe anything he says, the audience knows that his prescient guesses are made based a a photo he’s palmed from the girl. This is Dorothy’s first encounter with false magic and her first mistaken act of faith.

Once Dorothy gets to OZ in the film the Wizard is presented to her as a magical being who rules over the land from an amazing place far away. He’s basically the god figure. He can do anything. Dorothy is inducted into the “cult of OZ” and she spreads it’s faith to those at their lowest – in this case the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion, all of whom are desperate to believe in anything that will fill the void they think is in them. Reality hits nearly as soon as they get to the gates of the Emerald City. Dorothy’s encounter with the door man is nearly identical to the book; however, a line is added that show’s Dorothy is starting to have doubts. When The doorman claims even he has never seen the Great and Terrible OZ, Dorothy replies “Well then, how do you know there is one?” OZ begins to line up perfectly with the modern idea of the God that no one sees, but is present never the less.

Dorothy does finally see the Wizard after may attempts to thwart her. When he appears he takes a combined form of several of OZ’s tricks from the book – mostly the ones that make him seem like an all powerful deity. OZ’s head floats in the air as fire and smoke swirl about him. He appears and speaks much like the God of the Old Testament decreeing orders down from the clouds. The film makers certainly had the tech to recreate any of the other images of OZ from the book – such as the shimmering woman or the six armed rhino beast – but they chose the head and the fireball. And, much like the Old Testament God, OZ can’t seem to get his own business done and needs to “test” the puny mortals he reigns over.

Another scene purely in the movie speaks to the negativity of faith and belief. On the way to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy and company are walking through some creepy, foreboding woods when the Scarecrow “believes” that there must be “spooks” about. Spooks being invisible spirits that will do them harm. “Believe” being the focal word of the rest of the scene. The Tinman considers this silly. “You don’t believe in spooks?” asks the Lion. At this point the Witch uses magic to toss the Tinman through the air. The Lion, not able to attribute this action to a logical source begins chanting “I do believe in spooks!” over and over again. The scene caps off with the Witch watching them through her crystal ball and spouting the most ominous and blatant line about faith in the whole movie: “You’ll believe in more than that before I’m finished with you!” Is belief something bludgeoned into people with fear and intimidation? The Witch would have enjoyed the Spanish Inquisition.

Naturally the crushing of faith comes with the reveal that the Wizard is nothing more than a man behind a curtain. But the movie goes further in the humanist direction than the book does. In the book the Wizard figures out ways to trick people into believing they got what they came for – stuffing the Scarecrow’s head with pins and nails, for instance, to make him believe he has brains. In the film he merely convinces them they don’t need any of those things, but that they have them already.

This rings the most true for Dorothy, who was also being tested by Glinda, the good witch, from the beginning of the film. Glinda knew the whole time that the ruby slippers would return Dorothy, she just wouldn’t tell her until the proper moment. At this point every authority figure in the movie has been stripped of their mystique and power. It’s the little people, those who have gained knowledge and self awareness, that have achieved and become heroes all on their own. I can’t know for sure what the film makers were thinking when they made these very specific changes and additions, but if this isn’t a story of secular humanism then I don’t know what is.

2 Comments »

  1. Comment by VanillaBeast — Friday, 14 January, 2011 @ 9:06
  2. Interesting view. I’ve watched this movie countless times from a child to an adult and never really thought of it like that. Hidden meanings and things of this nature are always around, people just don’t seem to see them, which is why they’re “hidden” lol. I’d say 99% of people on this earth pass through time not really “thinking”, but just “doing”, pretty much taking up space until they die. I bet Dorothy would have been fun to take out on a date, I would have had her rubbing the “magic lamp” to see the liquid Gene in no time ;)

  3. Comment by Rinkitink — Friday, 27 January, 2012 @ 14:15
  4. Baum’s statement about the type of story he was telling was probably, purely, for the market. It wasn’t his original intent that he would start telling stories that would eventually get published, at least these ones. He had already been telling his children bedtime stories with some of these characters loosely figured in, and, when they got repeated he was urged to start writing them. The idea for OZ was already there, and he was a pretty free spirit himself, not to mention a visionary (he wrote about the first all-mechanical man in literature). When putting together the Wizard of OZ, he named the orphan girl Dorothy after his the infant daughter they had lost; and it is true that of all the following thirteen stories he wrote, this was the most violent. Baum may have told the story for children, but wrote it for a much wider audience; hence the popularity of adults and children alike. And while the film version is a classic (considering it already been done many times decades before on the silent screen and stage); the film served the role of something “new” and fantastical never-been-seen on the big screen before. Sadly, it really did miss a lot as most films are apt to do.

    It is true there is a lot of time spent in Kansas. I can imagine that this was changed for the idea behind the notion we get to see a tornado whisk Dorothy, Toto, and the house off to someplace. How many Americans ever experienced anything like that? In Baum’s novels, each time Dorothy, or another character is transported to OZ, the time spent on this side of the rainbow is scant. It’s not important, nothing here could ever compare to what’s on the other side – even if we don’t know what that is. Baum knew how to entice curiosity, the stories are riddled with it if not a foundation. It’s what kids do. And adults. Baum was an educated man, and the world events in 1900 (The Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, assassination of the King of Italy, etc.) was forefront on the other side of the world while here in the U.S, we enjoyed relative peace. Everything Baum wrote about he knew about .. he attended a military academy (the military is a prominent feature throughout the OZ books, but that he included women was quite remarkable), he ran a poultry farm (which likely gave him the idea for Billina, the Yellow who accompanies Dorothy on another adventure). He loved the theater and this appealed to the boy who was known to daydream.

    I found it interesting that you mentioned the “cult of Oz”, which is probably the most accurate term I’ve seen for it. It does follow all the norms for the establishment of a belief or cult. Baum, like most deeply rooted New England families that he belonged to, was raised in a religious environment, and one that for most accounts may have been stifling. I don’t think he set out to preach any one kind of humanism, but it’s certainly there and I would have to agree that he was probably more of a humanist himself. I could go on, but if you haven’t read any of of Gregory Maguire’s latest books on OZ I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that he carries Baum’s vision.

    I think the best example is wrapped up in his final book “Out of Oz” … Dorothy comes back to OZ (and in a way I personally enjoy), but the amount of time spent “here” before going “there” is less than a chapter. Of course, Maguire’s novels are adult-oriented about a place that has real problems that are dealt in the environment they live in. Magic is not always used for good, wars happen and ethnic groups are the target of subjugation. The military, women and all, are there, as is the “Cult of Oz”. There certainly isn’t anything ‘atheist’ about this OZ; it is painfully more humanist than human.

    I’ve often mentioned that the OZ novels are a treasure trove for the big screen. But only if they are told as true to the story they can feasibly be. I believe this is why most if not all the subsequent attempts have failed or just fallen flat. It’s amazed me that we can live in a society of violence and disbelief, entertain it through cheap programming and blood-spattering video games; but can’t quite come to grips with a fantasy as a fully formed story where everything around you isn’t always beautiful in the sunlight, where moral issues that aren’t good, aren’t necessarily bad; where survival and comfort might be contingent on what you bring to life through a Magic Powder, where poppies aren’t just pretty – they’re addicting; and where one Great and Powerful can be replaced by another.

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