There’s No Place Like Home: Adapting Fairy Tales (and Ourselves) to Different Mediums

There's No Place Like Home: Adapting Fairy Tales (and Ourselves) to Different Mediums

My family has a tradition that after we read a novel together—which we do often, as my children have the fortunate or unfortunate circumstance, depending on how you see it, to have a children’s literature professor as their mother—we watch the movie if there is one. Naturally, what is different or the same between the movie and the book comes up in conversation, though I usually try my best to leave my literary scholar hat at the door when engaging in pleasure reading and literary discussions at home. When my children and I recently watched The Wizard of Oz together, my eight-year-old son was especially alarmed at the differences between the 1939 movie and the 1900 children’s book: in fact, I would go so far as to say that he was anxious that the two were so different. The next day, after many conversations, he announced that he had worked out what was wrong. He told me: “What that movie needed was a narrator.” 

I realized after talking with him that in his eight-year-old way, he was trying to tell me what the movie was missing was the encouragement for him to use his imagination; it was missing fantasy. Indeed, the book’s fairy tale quality had been supplanted in the movie with a psychological drama about a girl trying to make sense of the difficult adults in her life. There was no room for his dreaming, or for anyone else’s, only Dorothy’s. There was no room for him to dream of himself as “a narrator.” What L. Frank Baum had concocted as a “modernized fairy tale” about “childhood” in 1900 became a Hollywood production about a child who did not much look like a child at all in the 1939 film adaptation. In the book, there is never any question about whether Dorothy travels to Oz; the film’s Dorothy (who is described as a “little girl” in the novel but is played by a seventeen-year-old Judy Garland in the movie), though, is most definitely dreaming.

In his now-famous essay defining fairy stories, Catholic theorist and author J. R. R. Tolkien asserts that any text with a dream sequence before or after the plot reduces the wonder that happens in a fairy tale to an illusion, thereby rendering it something other than a “fairy story.” “I would . . . exclude, or rule out of order, any story that uses the machinery of Dream, the dreaming of actual human sleep, to explain the apparent occurrence of its marvels,” he writes. By this standard, Baum’s original story would be in; the movie would be out. It is here, perhaps, that we begin to arrive at some distinctions that help us to contemplate adaptations of fairy stories from the book to the screen. How do we judge, and help our children to judge, adaptations of classic children’s stories, specifically fairy tales? How do we lead children, and ourselves, to the good, the true, and the beautiful? 

I return here to The Wizard of Oz and will explore it throughout this essay because it is emblematic of one of the most famous book-to-screen adaptations,” having been identified by researchers as “the most influential film ever made.” Even the Catholic Church has recognized this movie’s importance. In 1996, the Pontifical Council on Social Communications of the Church chose it as “one of forty-five movies that best represent the Church’s perspective” because of its artistic significance.[1] How can any of us forget iconic songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or conceive of a world without references to ruby slippers, yellow brick roads, or the unforgettable line, “There’s no place like home”? Because this particular book-to-film adaptation is one lauded by the Church and popular among audiences of all ages, it serves as an ideal entrée into our contemplation of how fairy tales for children are treated and transformed as they shift audience scope and medium from text to screen. It is important to note here that I do not claim that one genre is better than the other—printed text or moving pictures—but I do think it is important for us to recognize the audience distinctions as we ascertain how they interplay with our moral imaginations. Fairy tales, I assert, allow young imaginations to roam free and thus immerse the moral mind. In other words, the written story will almost always privilege children’s eyes and imaginations, while screen adaptions will more likely privilege those of the adults interpreting the fairy tales for broader, family viewing.

Likewise, it is important to note that Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was conceived of as a fairy tale, one explicitly created for children—and it absolutely reads that way. As early as 1929, Edward Wagenknecht writes in Utopia Americana that in Oz “we meet the first distinctive attempt to construct a fairyland out of American materials,”[2] and Baum himself makes it clear that his novel “was written solely to please children.” Like Tolkien, he did not consider Lewis Caroll’s 1865 text Alice in Wonderland a fairy tale or an ideal story for children because it conveyed an adult rendering of a child’s world. Alice’s world, the adult world overlayed on the child one, is steeped in irony, satire, and psychological torment; Baum’s fantasy world is articulated and imagined as the opposite. Whereas Alice wakes up and contemplates her dream at the end of Caroll’s novel, Dorothy runs exuberantly home to her Aunt Em, who merely inquires, “Where have you been?” Baum attempts to capture, as much as possible, a child’s world, wherein a child’s imagination can still roam free. Fairy tales do not have to be dreams, and they do not have to be psychologically one thing or another. They are possibilities.

Even the language in Baum’s novel mirrors that of a child, which J. T. Barbarese notes, declaring, “Dorothy’s book is one Dorothy herself likely would have been able to read—and probably on her own.[3] Consider the more difficult language of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, and Alice in Wonderland, all of which are considered precursors to Baum’s novel. Now, contemplate the opening line of Baum’s book: “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.”  How like a fairy tale this diction is! Reminiscent of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” perhaps. There is no interiority for Dorothy! No complexity. We are not expected to contemplate her feelings in the text. It is easy, then, to overlay our own narrative voices, our own imaginations, on her adventures. This is Baum’s intent with his fairy tale novel for children, the one that “sold over 10,000 copies in eight months” and “three million copies by the time it fell into the public domain in 1956.”

Consider now how we discuss Jo March, Huck Finn, and even Alice: arguably these are perhaps Dorothy’s best-known literary child precursors and likely the heroes and heroines you have heard more about in scholarly essays or have studied in school. These are famous children’s characters with interiority. These are children’s characters that adults love to contemplate. Jo March’s fire. Huck Finn’s sobriety. Alice’s curiosity. Dorothy, however, is an “ordinary little girl” whose biggest dream is to return home to Kansas. A forced “growing up” of fairy tales, of altering children’s stories for adult tastes, of altering, I will go so far as to argue here, children for adult tastes, is part and parcel of writing and adapting children’s stories. Adults watching Baum’s novel made into a film need an explanation for its wondrous happenings: they need the dream sequence. Kansas is featured front and center in the movie version, yet we see only a glimpse of it at the end of Baum’s novel when Dorothy returns home jubilantly. I submit that the dream sequence at the beginning and end is why my son felt the narrator was missing in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. In this story he was missing, not just his imagination, but himself. That is, the child had been taken out of the fairy tale, out of a story meant for children.

As I rewatched the classic movie and thought about my son’s reaction, I realized I was missing myself too but for entirely different reasons. The 1939 movie, I concede, is beautiful, an artistic masterpiece. Yet I found it lacking when I rewatched it. Although not a child, I, like Victor Fleming, the film’s director, had begun to superimpose my own adult dream sequence onto Dorothy’s adventurous Oz experience. Fleming and I, both adults, had different—conflicting—visions of the story.

In his canonical The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim relates that fairy tales allow for imaginative interpretation regarding morality in ways that fables, or stories with single moral directives, do not. With fairy tales, we have the freedom to evaluate the ambiguity in them as we wish, he suggests, which is one reason why adults love interpreting and reinterpreting fairy tales from their youth. Think only of the many and varied adult adaptations of The Wizard of Oz. In the hit Broadway musical Wicked, we sympathize with the older witches in the tale. In The Wiz, Dorothy is now twenty-four years old, Black, and maneuvering an urban landscape. We reenvision children’s stories time and time again for adult inclinations, persuasions, and purposes. Multiple Disney iterations of fairy tales come to mind, including Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio. You might have other examples that spring immediately to your mind too.

Additionally, Bettelheim relates that fairy tales give readers freedom of choice: I will add (and diverge from Bettelheim’s other Freudian analyses in his book) that they also give children freedom from strictly adult interpretations. Of the literary ambiguity of fairy tales, Bettelheim states:

[They] leave . . . all the decisions up to us, including whether we wish to make any at all. It is up to us whether we wish to make any application to our life from a fairy tale, or simply enjoy the fantastic events it tells about. Our enjoyment is what induces us to respond in our own good time to the hidden meanings, as they may relate to our life experience and present state of personal development.[4]

What Bettelheim gets right here is that fairy tales as revelation rise or fall on “enjoyment,” or on “joy.” To augment this discussion, it is perhaps helpful to remember that Plato suggests that revelation to moral ideas, to “the hidden meanings” that Bettelheim references above, is akin to remembering something we forgot long ago but are awakened to over time—awakened to after a meaningful encounter. A beautiful literary piece, one that brings us joy (i.e., a fairy tale) can stir our moral imaginations and be a conduit to such an encounter.

In his preface to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum writes that his story is unique, different from “Grimm and Anderson” because of his targeted focus on “wonderment and joy” in his conception of a “modernized fairy tale,” accomplished by excising “the heartaches and nightmares” of “old-time” narratives. While one might disagree with Baum about whether he is successful in extracting the “heartaches and nightmares” from his text (or whether he ought to try to do so), a focus on joy is what I would like to point out as a universal value that is unequivocally part of fairy tales and induces us to respond to them with an analogical moral heedfulness. Baum does not say he wants us to read morals into his fairy tale, yet we cannot help but do so, I believe, because that is what the genre leads us to do by its nature. From a Catholic understanding, Tolkien takes the concept of a moral awakening through joy in fairy tales a step further, ascerting that “[t]he peculiar quality of the ‘joy’” in these type of stories “can . . . be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” Fairy tales potentially do not lead to a vague type of “personal development” as Bettelheim terms it but to a closer relationship to God in the Tolkien sense. A fairy tale can lead us to a deeper understanding of the truth of the Christian life that is ignited through the joy that the aesthetic experience provides.

 “In our own good time,” after we have processed what we have either read or watched, as Bettelheim states, we ought to consider the enjoyment of the encountered text—and we ought to consider how much our imagination was able to engage with the text we encountered, whatever its medium. Was our interior life, or our inner narrator, able to engage with the text on our own terms or are we finding the interior life of someone else there already? Stated differently, are our children (and are we) allowed to be our own narrators, as is the case in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, or has our voice, our imagination, been subsumed, as in the movie? If so, is this new voice in the adaptation one we can still find imaginatively fruitful? In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis shares, “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades (§2)” I suggest that the moral imagination—and a Catholic reader’s Catholic imagination—needs joy to bloom, and we ought always to consider whose interests and concerns are at the forefront of whatever we are reading and watching. Moreover, I submit that when we watch art for and with children, there is less room for their perspectives to bloom than if we read stories with them. Naturally, film is a more literal medium that consists of visual—rather than mental or audience-generated—images. However, when adapting a children’s story like Baum’s, the fairy tale genre makes it especially possible to center children in such a way that they can still feel their worldviews are of consequence—they can still let their imaginations roam. It takes the extra work of asking questions that we might not normally engage in after viewing a movie. After all, there is a reason why The Wizard of Oz was selected as an artistic masterpiece by the Church.

Now, I remind readers again that I am not suggesting one medium is better than the other. Instead, I contend only we should be aware that it is more likely that children’s moral imaginations are piqued by fairy tale literature than movies. To go back to The Wizard of Oz as our example, Dorothy as a character in the movie ultimately has a limited number of thematic interpretations because we see why she feels as she does and why she goes to Oz in a dream: she is upset about her dog being taken, she runs away, and she dreams about the motivations of everyone she knows. The lack of interiority in the original book, however, provides a more archetypical feeling of fairy tale and reaches child readers on a less literal, more subconscious, level. The novel “opens up room for others,” as Pope Francis states above. Therefore, children are more apt to ask moral questions following the experience of reading because there are no answers given to them.

Here, then, are some questions Catholic viewers might ask of cinematic fairy tale adaptations to help spur dialogue: Is the director behind the scenes leading us to God and, as Pope Francis says, is that director leaving room for “interests and concerns” that are of a higher nature rather than those of “self-interest?” Is there room for our and our children’s narrative voices to be reflected in the movie? Later in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis provides guided questions (§153) about spiritual reading that also are of use: “It is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this?’” All of these could lead to a revelation over time.

Certainly, we can ask the questions in the preceding paragraph of any novel or film meant to bring pleasure—or joy—to our souls. Nevertheless, they work naturally with fairy tales and their adaptations because the genre already incites the moral imagination. The questions help with film expressly because of the medium’s limitations. This may seem obvious with this topic, but it bears mention here that when contemplating formation through narrative, and when discussing genre limitations writ large, didacticism in any medium works counter to imaginative import. Heavy-handedness blunts joy in cinema and literature. Further, narratives consumed by and with children need not be penned or directed by a Christian with a set prescriptive mission, particularly if one aims to activate the moral imagination. Baum, for instance, was raised Methodist and eventually became a Theosophist. Even so, readers of this journal might be interested to know that he acknowledges his novel was divinely inspired, revealing that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “was pure inspiration. It came to me right out of the blue. I think that sometimes the Great Author had a message to get across and He was to use the instrument at hand.[5] It, therefore, seems no accident that joy flows from every part of Baum’s novel—the setting, the diction, the characterization, and the imagery. Significantly, I believe any text that is part of God’s work in the world is ripe for dialogue and analysis from a Catholic, universal lens. Fairy tales like Baum’s that ring jubilant to children and adults alike across mediums are especially conducive to imaginative engagement and productive dialogue, though. In Baum’s original novel, the word “joy” alone appears sixteen times, “happy” fifteen, and “glad” twenty-two.

As a Catholic scholar whose own joy and imagination were awakened during my most recent reading and viewing of The Wizard of Oz, I began to notice Dorothy’s reliance on community—not “self-interest”—as defining her character. This focus is what sparked my adult moral imagination. I realized Dorothy is bravest not when she sticks up for herself but when she fights for her friends. Indeed, Dorothy is the moral epicenter of the story—a youthful virgin decked in the Marian colors of blue and white; she is an “ordinary girl” unexpectedly called on to enact greatness. Virtues such as courage, empathy, love, and wisdom are sought after and lauded throughout the novel. These virtues defeat not only the Wicked Witch but also the Wizard, who is described as a “humbug” because he pretends to be something he is not. Juliet McMaster points out that the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow can be understood as trinitarian archetypes. Although each separate, they are a parallel unit; they are individual parts of one body. She writes, “The particular qualities assigned to these familiar dramatis personae are, respectively, omnipotence, benevolence, and omniscience; or to use less Latinely theological terms: for God the Father, power; for God the Son, love; and for God the Holy Spirit, knowledge.”[6] What the unveiling of the Wizard revealed to me was merely that we ought not allow humans like the Wizard to define who we are—that we ought not believe in false gods. Rather, we should look to the Trinity—to see the strength of the Church and the belonging it offers us and be inspired by that offering—and not be distracted by the smoke and mirrors of society, of humans saying that they will give us whatever seems good in the moment. In the end, it is only through reconciliation that we will ever, like Dorothy, get home again, that we will ever get back to our Christian family.

A few days ago, my son was already envisioning what he wanted to be for Halloween—and I was a little surprised that the Wizard of Oz was on his list. His sister would naturally be Dorothy, he would be the Tin Man, his dad the Lion, and I the Scarecrow. I am not sure if this will end up being our plan—though it might be—but I was touched by his idea of togetherness. Whether focused on the book or the movie, one theme remained clear for him: he did not need to be the star of the show to be important; he embraced community. For this scholar, who likely overanalyzed the book in her head as she read it aloud with her children, it is perhaps fitting that she is the one in search of the brain in this scenario and that her eight-year-old cast himself as the one with the heart. Here we are: the child and the adult making up this audience and having different narrative reactions—heart and brain—yet each undergoing moral imaginative moments with this American fairy tale. I can tell you that at the moment my son asked about Halloween and explained his plan for these characters, a thought came to me, one centered on joy and togetherness and which remains common to both the book and the movie: “There’s no place like home.”

[1] Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), 42.

[2] Edward Wagenknecht, Utopia Americana (Folcroft, PA: The Folcroft Press, 1977), 14.

[3] J.T. Barbarese, “The First American Children’s Book,” The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (NY, New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005), xviii.

[4] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York, Vintage Books, Random House, 1975, 2011), 43.

[5] Gita Dorothy Morena, The Wisdom of Oz: Reflections on a Jungian Sandplay Therapist (Cardiff, CA, ), 4.

[6] Juliet McMaster, “The Trinity Archetype in The Jungle Books and The Wizard of Oz,” Children’s Literature, vol. 20, (1992): 90.