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 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. These are tactics right out of the evangelical’s manual.
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.