‘The Wizard of Oz’: Interpreting a Classic Novel

[Update 20/3/13: a shortened version of this post is on GUISE Magazine. Please check it out and their other articles.]

Following the recent release of Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) (I still haven’t seen it though!) I thought about continuing my ‘From Page to Screen’ “series” (started on GUISE magazine and continued here) with The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 film (directed, mainly, by Victor Fleming with costumes designed by Adrian) was an adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. The change of title instantly moves the film away from the novel. The plot also differs in several aspects. In the novel, darkness surrounds Dorothy in Oz and there is little made of her life in Kansas and barely an allusion to Oz being just a dream. This leads to instant changes to the costume fidelity as a number of scenes and character present in the book are completely removed from the film.

Dorothy's Gingham Dress

Dorothy’s iconic dress is described as ‘gingham, with checks of white and blue’ (Baum, 1900, p.13) and this is accurately translated to the screen. ‘The Wardrobe Department…chose to follow as closely as possible the illustrations drawn by W. W. Denslow for Baum’s book’ (Harmetz, 1989, p.209). Dorothy’s dress is one clear example of this decision. A blue dress would not cause that much difficulty within the filming process, but deciding to use white (for the gingham and the under-shirt) when filming with Technicolor was a strong choice. White is hard to light, and therefore film, under modern circumstances, but particularly with Technicolor. The desire to be faithful to Baum’s description and Denslow’s illustration of Dorothy’s dress is clear from this alone. The choice of Judy Garland to play Dorothy (16 years old at the time) also affected the costume because it needed to make her look younger than she was – specifically hiding the shape of her body.

Inhabitants of the Emerald City

However, despite the Wardrobe Departments decision there are few other examples of ‘perfect faithfulness’, one involving the inhabitants of the Emerald City ‘all dressed in green clothes’ (Baum, 1900, p.69). Illustrations for the inhabitants are few and do not show an overall design idea for the characters, but they are expected to be dressed in green due to the title of the city. Adrian was described as announcing that the Oz books were ‘favourite stories of his youth’. (Fricke, Carfone and Stillman, 2007, p.121). This seems to be the main reason for the Wardrobe Department’s aims to follow the illustrations but, due to plot and slight tone changes, this “faithfulness” is not always appropriate.

The most iconic costume pieces in The Wizard of Oz are the ruby slippers (it may only be part of a costume but within the story it is a very important part). It is fairly commonly known now that in the novel the shoes are ‘silver shoes with pointed toes’ (Baum, 1900, p.7) but were changed to red to make full use of the Technicolor. The shoes are the manner in which Dorothy gets home but she needs to learn a valuable lesson along the way. As a colour, red is much more powerful (especially when combined with the light blue of her dress) and, within the Technicolor world of Oz, the silver shoes would probably have got lost. ‘Red is her visual courage’ (Bellatoni, 2005, p.6).

The Scarecrow from 'The Wizard of Oz'

The Scarecrow is another case where the costume has been slightly changed and seems to be connected with the costumes of the Munchkins. The overall shape of the costume is very similar to the illustration but the colours differ. In the book the Scarecrow has a different backstory that links him to the Munchkins. As the Munchkins in the film have different costumes, specifically colours, (which I will discuss later) this connection between the Scarecrow and the Munchkins is lost. ‘An old, pointed blue hat, that had belonged to some Munchkin, was perched on his head, and the rest of the figure was a blue suit of clothes, worn and faded’ (Baum, 1900, p.17). The removal of the Scarecrow’s backstory seems to be as a way of concentrating on the journey, especially as the arrival at Oz takes longer than it does in the book.

The Munchkins

In The Wizard of Oz many aspects of the story were not included and a number of costume descriptions included were superfluous or less suitable without those aspects. This mainly involves the description of the Munchkins’ clothes. In the novel ‘the men were dressed in blue, of the same shade as their hats and wore well-polished boots’ (Baum, 1900, p.6). The Munchkins only wear blue and this becomes more noticeable when meeting other characters. Each “race” of people in Oz tend to wear one colour but as most of these characters are excluded from the film dressing the Munchkins all in blue would detract from the wonder of the inhabitants of the Emerald City. Another reason for the change is probably connected with Technicolor. Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland and the first Technicolor shot of the film is of their land and the people that live there. What better way to showcase Technicolor than having every aspect of this land a different colour? How much further from Kansas could Oz be shown to be if not in Technicolor?

Glinda the Good Witch of the North

Another costume change is in regards to Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. In the novel Glinda is the Good Witch of the South and is only introduced at the end ‘her dress was pure white’ (Baum, 1900, p.143) when sending Dorothy home. When the Good Witch of the North met Dorothy in Munchkinland ‘she wore a white gown that hung in pleats from her shoulders’ (Baum, 1900, p.6) but is not Glinda. The film combines the two characters so that there is one remaining good character to feel bonded to and also so that Dorothy does not need to go on an additional journey after defeating the Wicked Witch of the West. Glinda’s light pink dress sparkles as the Witch of the North’s dress does ‘over it were sprinkled little stars that glistened in the sun like diamonds’ (Baum, 1900, p.6). I think that to dress Glinda in white would have been too similar to Dorothy’s main costume, very difficult to shoot in Technicolor and also shows true 1930s glamour – much more believable as a Good Witch than a Wicked Witch.

In The Wizard of Oz many of the costumes were not taken directly from the novel. At the time the story was well known but, in present times, the story of the film is much more widely known. The costumes have become undetachable from the film and the story despite their infidelity in regards the novel.

I must admit that I haven’t read any of Baum’s other Oz books so interpreting the costumes for Oz: The Great and Powerful would be more difficult – especially as the film doesn’t seem to be based on a specific book but takes the whole series into account. But I am intrigued to see what costume designer Gary Jones has done with that world – particularly with the witches that we didn’t meet in The Wizard of Oz and even a more modern interpretation of the beginnings of Glinda.

S x


Baum, L.F. (1900). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Reprinted 2010. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Bellatoni, P. (2005). If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling. Focal Press: America.

Fleming, V. (1939). The Wizard of Oz. [Digital Video Disc]. USA: Warner Bros.

Harmetz, A. (1989). The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Great Britain: Pavilion Books Limited.


One thought on “‘The Wizard of Oz’: Interpreting a Classic Novel

  1. Pingback: ‘The Hunger Games’: Translating a Post-Apocolyptic World from Page to Screen (Part One) | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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