Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Map of Oz
First published in 1900, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is quite possibly the greatest distinctly American fairy tale ever written. The book itself has been a best-seller for 114 years, and the story of the Wizard has been adapted many times -- first in 1902, as a wildly successful stage play (for this version, Baum gave Dorothy a last name -- the playful "Gale"), then as a film by Selig Polyscope in 1910, then again in 1925 (with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man), and most famously in 1939 with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Frank Morgan.  Film and television versions continued, including a 1960 TV version starring Shirley Temple (whom the 1939 film's director, Victor Fleming, had originally wanted for the role of Dorothy), and the all-black cast "The Wiz" was a hit Broadway show in 1975.

L. Frank Baum wrote 13 additional "Oz" books before his death in 1919, and they were all enormously popular, although sales declined gradually over the period. Many of the greatest characters of the Land of Oz were introduced in these sequels, and would have been familiar to anyone growing up in the first half of the twentieth century: Jack Pumpkinhead, The Nome King, the Sawhorse, Professor Wogglebug, and Tik-Tok the Royal Army of Oz (he had his own modestly-successful Broadway show). Unbeknownst to many, Walt Disney acquired the rights to all the post-Wizard sequels back in the 1950's, but it wasn't until the early 1980's, when these rights were about to expire, that the Disney company showed much interest. The Disney producers brought Walter Murch,  Francis Ford Coppolla's longtime film and sound editor, aboard to direct, and engaged the services of stop-motion animator Will Vinton (famous for his commercials featuring the dancing California Raisins), along with some of the Jim Henson company's muppet designers and puppeteers. Murch had in mind a much darker tone than the 1939 film, and Disney grew alarmed as they saw the production designs and early tests. It was, according to Much, only because of George Lukas's personal intervention that he was not fired from the film. Fairuza Balk, a young actress who would later become well known for her roles in indie films such as Gas, Food, and Lodging, was cast as Dorothy, and Nicol Wiliamson -- known for his role as Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur -- was cast as the Nome King.

The movie did poorly in its initial release -- I remember seeing in at a multiplex where I was one of only two or three people in the audience -- but has gained an enormous following on VHS and DVD; many Oz fans consider it to be, by far, the most faithful adaptation of any of Baum's books for the screen.

Since then, of course, Gregory McGuire's Wicked -- a book which brilliantly re-cast and re-shaped Oz and its denizens (who else would have suspected that the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda were college roommates?), and the resulting Broadway musical has been the highest-grossing of any theatrical Oz adaptation to date. More recently, 2007's Tin Man miniseries and 2013's prequel Oz the Great and Powerful have shown that, once again, Oz is a realm capable of continual reinvention.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Lucian's True History

Lucian of Samosata was anything but a stodgy old classical Greek writer. In fact, he made a living making fun of stodgy old classical Greek writers; one can think of him as a very early stand-up comic. He knew that his listeners were familiar with Homer and the other great Greek authors, and he used the classics as fodder for irreverent freestyles that brought him fame (and money) all over the eastern Mediterranean.

One of his styles was what was known as "Menippean" satire, which involved parodying men, ideas, and other styles of writing, often all at once. He was a particular master of one sub-genre of this kind, the so-called "Dialogues with the Dead." Here, Lucian, like an ancient version of Father Guido Sarducci, made mock visits to dead celebrities and conducted farcical interviews with them (you can see something of this in his interview with Homer in Book II of The True History). Menippean satire has had, largely because of Lucian, a lasting influence on English fiction, from Chaucer to Swift to Carlyle; more recent practitioners include the Irish novelist Flann O'Brien and the American Thomas Pynchon.

But what Lucian excelled at was, in a word, sheer invention. While loudly proclaiming that everything in his story was false, he set out a "true history" that opened the floodgates of fantasy and science fiction long before those genres came into their modern existence. 

You'll see Lucian's influence as well in the films of Terry Gilliam, especially in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The idea of a "King of the Moon" who rides on a three-headed vulture and casts asparagus-stalk spears is right out of the True History -- in part, this is Gilliam's fancy, but it's also because the original tales of Baron Münchausen penned by Raspé in the Eighteenth Century were richly plagiarized from other authors, Lucian chief among them.

So plunge in! Have fun! And remember, not a word of this is true!

The Adventures of Baron Münchausen

By varying accounts, Terry Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is either one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, or an epic failure of almost cosmic proportions. There's no question that Gilliam's ambitious production plans clashed with the expectations of the film's producers, and that the set was -- as it often is in one of his films -- chaotic at times. Commercially, it was a failure (failure being defined as costing much more to make than it made in profits), but in retrospect, it remains one of his best and most delightful films.

And one might have expected no less -- Münchausen, after all, was born from disaster, grew via prodigious invention and prodigious plagiarism, and was stranded for some time on the nursery bookshelf along with such congenial fellows as Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe -- none of which really belonged there. There was, in fact, a "real" Baron Münchausen, whose lively tales of his experiences in the Russian army in two of its campaigns agains the Turks gained modest fame. Then came Rudolf Erich Raspé, a man of some repute as a legitimate historian, who'd landed a job watching over a collection of gold medallions, some of which were later found missing. Fleeing from his employer, he landed on his feet in England, where -- as a member of the Royal Society -- he still had some friends of note. He secured a job overseeing mines in Cornwall, and while there wrote and published the first of his Münchausen tales, later adding more. His death in Ireland in 1794 (his grave is on the estate of Muckross House, hereditary home of the Guinness family) did nothing to stop fresh editions, and more stories, from accumulating in Münchausen's name.

It was a perfect set-up for Gilliam, who could play off the idea of a "real" Baron against a theatrical one, on all kinds of levels, and pick and choose from the canonical (and not-so-canonical) stories at will. As the Baron, he cast the brilliant Canadian actor John Neville, and as his three remarkable assistants he chose fellow Python Eric Idle (Berthold), Charles McKeown (as Adolphus -- he also wrote the script), and Jack Purvis as Gustavus. Sarah Polley (as Sally Salt) and Uma Thurman (as the goddess Venus) made their film débuts here, and Robin Williams does a brilliant (and uncredited) turn as the King of the Moon. It's a fantasy about fantasy, and the politics of the repression of fantasy. In a brilliant exchange between the Baron and the "Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson" (Jonathan Pryce), the gauntlet is thrown:
Jackson: "You, sir, seem to have a weak grasp of reality!"
The Baron: "Your 'reality,' sir, is lies and balderdash, and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of its whatsoever!"

Saturday, May 12, 2018


First off, welcome to our class blog for English 123: Literature and Genre, Summer Sesion I, at Rhode Island College.

The genre we'll be tackling goes by many names -- 'Fantasy and Science Fiction' is one; 'Speculative Fiction' another. It's an old genre, stretching back to the earliest literary texts, and yet still, for some reason, one that's been frowned upon in modern times by 'serious' literary thinkers and creative writing professors. One of the latter, an old friend of mine, always liked to begin her CW course with a simple admonition: "No Hobbits!" Which may seem odd, since she was and is a huge fan of Tolkien; her aversion likely had more to do with not wanting to read a stack of creative pieces which, in addition to their other issues, were set on strange new worlds.

But the larger bias -- the feeling that Fantasy and Sci-Fi (and here we could include comics, graphic novels, and much of the rest of the geekazoid literary universe) are somehow juvenile, somehow not quite suited for grown-up readers, somehow lesser than 'literary' fiction -- is still out there. Sci-Fi has its own awards (the Hugo and Nebula), but Sci-Fi and fantasy writers rarely show up on the list for any major literary awards, unless they're for children's literature. Some noted writers have dabbled in it -- Doris Lessing with her Shikasta series, or Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake -- but they were both established writers before they did so. Atwood, pointedly, does not like the phrase "science" fiction -- she prefers "speculative" -- because, as she puts it, her novels don't have "things in them that haven't been invented yet."

And to be sure, plenty of old-school sci-fi was filled with those kinds of things, sometimes (it seemed) at the expense of character development. How many rocket ships, lasers, ant-gravity rays, or cyborgs do we really need? In the fantasy realm, hobbits, despite their charms, have done great damage; everyone wants to imitate Tolkien, but it's been a practice with diminishing returns, from Sword of Shannara on downwards.

But just because the setting, the characters, the geology, climate, and perhaps even the physics and the power of a world and its inhabitants are different from our everyday reality doesn't make them unrealistic -- indeed, it adds all kinds of other possible dimensions. Ursula K. Le Guin, who spent a lifetime writing in, and defending, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre, referred to its authors as "realists of a larger reality" in a widely-reported speech she gave when receiving a lifetime achievement prize at the National Book Awards.

Many years ago, she put it even more forcefully, in her essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?":
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.