Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Question Of Dorothy

The thing about Dorothy that’s always puzzled me in The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz is how she’s kinda passive. Sure the story revolves around her, but that’s also the problem, it revolves AROUND her, she rarely participates in moving the story forward.

The only thing Dorothy does in her own in the first half of the book is swatting the Cowardly Lion when he chases Toto upon first meeting them.

Every other problem in the first half of the book is either solved by someone else (Scarecrow figures out how to cross the ravine, how to cross the river, how to get out of the poppy field), or Dorothy is given the answer from someone else (Good Witch of South tells Dorothy to go to Emerald City to see Wizard about getting home, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion invite themselves to go with Dorothy to see the Wizard, she never offers to take them with her, though she’s happy enough to have their company along the way.) Dorothy rarely has to make anything happen herself.

Once she melts the witch (which in the book she does simply because she’s angry at the Witch for tricking Dorothy out of one of the two Silver Shoes that she wears.), she becomes slightly more pro-active. She gets her friends back together (which, you could argue, she had to do simply because Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Men weren’t around to help), but she also hits upon the idea to call the Queen of the Field Mice to get them back to Emerald City, she’s the one that uses the three charms of the Golden Cap (though the suggestion to use the second and third charm is given to her by Scarecrow and Tin Man)

That seems to be an anomaly, as things return to form for the rest of the story: She’s not the one that unmasks the Wizard, that’s done accidentally by Lion (who roars to frighten Wizard) and Toto (who jumps away from Lion in fear and knocks over the screen that Wizard is hiding behind.) The Wizard comes up with the idea to use the balloon to get them back to Kansas. The Soldier With The Green Whiskers suggests they seek out Glinda’s counsel, Tin Man gets them through the forest of Fighting Trees, Tin Man and Scarecrow get them up and over the wall of The Dainty China Country, Lion battles the Great Spider, and of course Glinda tells her how to use the Silver Shoes to get back to Kansas.

There could be several reasons for why Dorothy is written the way she is. One could argue that storywise, Dorothy can’t find solutions to problems in a land she’s completely unfamiliar with, or perhaps gender politics in 1900 dictated that little girls were not so much the leaders of their own story as they were a nurturing figure or princess to protect to the metaphorical warrior characters around her.

But a reactive main character who continually says “What shall we do?” “What can we do?” is not interesting to me. I have the same issue with Marty McFly in Back To The Future, and Benjamin Button in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. They don’t move their story forward so much as they mostly stumble through the consequences of decisions that other characters make for them.

Dorothy is good, sweet, kind, of course. But she still can’t take the reigns of Say Goodbye Toto if Toto is the driving engine. I had to build a new Dorothy that is worthy of Toto’s fierce devotion.

In Say Goodbye Toto, the characters of Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are tweaked to where they’re pursuing Dorothy romantically, to Toto’s dismay. Midway through the second rewrite, it occurred to me that Dorothy would have to be completely oblivious to what Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion’s intentions were to justify Toto’s desperation in protecting her. And the only way to make Completely Oblivious work so as not to exasperate your audience is to make it Completely Funny.

And that’s when I remembered Rose from the Golden Girls. Remember Rose? Betty White was wonderful as Rose, who was so good, so sweet, so kind, and so wonderfully oblivious, and drop dead hilarious at being wonderfully oblivious. Rose never got the jokes around her (or even the ones aimed at her) but she still went on her merry oblivious way through life with a skip and a smile (though maybe not in this picture.)

But then I realized I wasn’t done. I had been so focused on shaping Toto’s arc, on how a dog learns what the true meaning of love is, that Dorothy was basically the same from beginning to end. She was still completely oblivious, but without a major character shift, she felt a little one note. Drama depends on characters changing, and Dorothy had nowhere to go.

But the material was there, I just had to dig for it. I realized that I had a great opportunity with the melting of the witch. Even though in our version, Toto does the actual melting, the prospect of seeing a melted person on the floor, along with the scattered remains of a Scarecrow and the dented remains of a Tin Man (Lion’s just tied up, nothing new there) might be enough to send a girl into a type of humorous psychotic breakdown. Which is what happens to Dorothy. Suddenly, she’s in charge, leading the brigade back to Emerald City to get the things the Wizard promised them, she’s the one who unmasks the Wizard, all the while teetering on the edge of sanity.

It makes for a much more interesting character to write. And hopefully, a more interesting character to watch.

- Amy Heidish

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