Warning: some spoilers ahead!
Wicked, the novel by Gregory Maguire
(the review of the musical is much further down)
Let me start by saying how much I love the land of Oz. I’ve always been fascinated by Oz, and by Wonderland, ever since I was a kid. I don’t know what it is about these strange parallel worlds that fascinates me so much. Maybe it’s because they were some of the first really speculative stories I was exposed to as a child. In any case, anything in either of these universes is almost an automatic hit with me, but Maguire has managed to write the only Oz story I’ve ever hated.
I read Wicked a few years ago, and hated it. Then I saw the play last year and LOVED it. I decided to give the book another try, just in case I’d been wrong. Nope, I still hated it. The book has almost nothing at all to do with the play, other than sharing the same characters and a couple settings.
For those of you aren’t familiar with the premise of the book, it’s a retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from a new point of view–the Wicked Witch of the West. He attempts to explain why the witch is perceived as wicked, how she came to own the west, how she came to be called a witch, etc… Honestly, with a premise this great, how could I not like it? I have plenty of reasons.
The book is split into several sections, each basically covering a portion of Elphaba’s life (Elphaba is the Witch of the West’s name). But it often seemed like all the important events were occurring off-camera. We see part of Elphaba’s life, then it skips 5-7 years between sections, then Maguire works the events of those years into pace-killing infodump summary that made me want to skip ahead. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
Not only that, but each section introduced a whole new cast of characters–who for the most part were not seen either before or after that section. So I felt like any characterization of them was just a waste of time.
Sure, there were a few major events that happen on-camera, but even those were hard to get into. Part of it was the head-hopping. The predominant style these days is to choose a single POV character for each section/chapter of a book, and stick entirely with that character. I think this is a very positive trend, because I think it can be so much more immersive. I like to see the world through the eyes of the character using the narration as a lens. It’s a hard thing to do as a writer–trust me, I know–but it’s a worthy goal, a writer’s Everest. But the head-hopping in this book killed any potential it had. By head-hopping I mean that the point of view (POV) jumped from person to person within the scene. Elphaba would mentally describe Glinda for a paragraph, and then suddenly Glinda would mentally describe Elphaba, etc… I find it distracting.
And Maguire’s use of sex constantly annoyed me. Now, I’m no prude when it comes to sex in stories, but the sex has to serve a purpose just like everything else. It has to carry its weight. Sex can be a great tool for characterization, showing motivation, exploring relationships between characters. But instead of using sex to enhance the characters and plot, Maguire’s uses sex like pink flamingo lawn ornaments–it’s only effect is to distract and annoy. You can’t go a chapter without the subject coming up in the strangest of places. Perhaps it’s a countercomment on the total lack of sex in the film and book? I don’t know. A way to ensure that it didn’t end up on the kid’s rack? Could be. For instance, about 1/3 of the way through the book, many of the characters go to the Philosopher’s Club, a cultish sex club reminscent of Eyes Wide Shut. But neither Glinda nor Elphaba went in. Boq the munchkin, who had been a major character in the prior section, went in, but we barely see him for the rest of the book. Fiyero, the Winkie who becomes Elphaba’s only love, goes in but he seems unaffected by his experiences inside there. Crope (or is it Tibbet?) goes in, and gets some kind of STD and wastes away from it, but he’d always been a minor character. On the subject of Crope and Tibbet, both of those two were just token homosexual characters with no individual personality, as if they were an afterthought to meet some sort of equal rights requirement from his publisher. I got the impression we were supposed to gasp at the idea of homosexuals in Oz, but no effort was made to make them into real characters.
And the premise of this book is for us to try to understand the Witch better, right? Well, by the end of the book she’s actually more despicable than I had thought she was in the movie/original book. In the movie/book, I think the Wizard is the villain, not the Witch. Think about it. A little girl goes to the Wizard for help. He says he’ll help, but only if the little girl acts as an assassin and goes to kill the Witch. Dorothy doesn’t want to do it, but feels she has no choice. After that, the Witch’s actions are all self-defense. She knows Dorothy is her intended assassin–what is she supposed to do, sit and wait for her to come and kill her? We as viewers know that Dorothy could never intentionally kill anybody.
But in Wicked, what really convinces me that she’s a bad person is how she treats her son. She’s not entirely sure he’s her son (long story), but when she leaves the convent (another long and uninteresting story) the other nuns make her take the child with her. The narration makes it very clear that he is her son, referring to Fiyero as the father, etc, so we know he is. But whether or not he’s her biological son is beside the point. He’s her responsibility either way because she’s accepted custody of him. But she totally ignores him. She has no idea where he sleeps (on the floor in one of the children’s rooms), what he eats, what he does (lives in constant torment by the other children). He’s so unloved that he will do anything for approval, including getting kicked around by the cruel other children. Elphaba sees this and doesn’t care, nor does she lift a finger to stop it. One day Liir (the boy) is playing hide and seek with the other children, and one of them convinces him to hide in the fishwell, where he can’t get out on his own. Then the kid leaves him there where he sits for DAYS and almost dies. During this time Elphaba doesn’t even realize he’s gone! It’s this that really convinces me she’s a villain. I liked some other aspects of it, but this is what really made me hate her. I couldn’t like anyone who treated their own child that way.
Apparently somebody liked the book, because it’s already spawned two sequels, “Son of a Witch”, which I’m assuming is about Liir, and I saw a new one about the cowardly lion.
Wicked the musical
As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing that came of Wicked the book is that it gave someone the idea to make Wicked the musical. This play is great! I like musicals in general, and this was better than average. It was everything the book should have been. Instead of being a meandering, slow-moving plot about a despicable character, it tells us about an Elphaba that I can actually relate to. The play is much more focused on the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba, which gave it a much stronger core. In the book, the two were only anywhere near each other in one section. The musical is focused around both of them, starting at Shiz, the college they both went to, and progressing to their meeting of the Wizard. From there, their paths diverge, but they are still both relatable. They both want to change the world, but Glinda tries to do so by society-approved advancement through government, and Elphaba tries her own radical ways. We already know how this works out for them, of course, but I still rooted for Elphaba because she was clearly a good person at heart with a good cause.
There are a lot of amazing songs in the soundtrack. Particularly noteworthy are “What is this Feeling?” where Galinda (it’s spelled Galinda in the early scenes where she insists on an aristocratic air, and Glinda in the later scenes where she’s more down to Earth) and Elphaba profess their immediate loathing for each other and “Popular” where Galinda gives Elphaba a much-needed makeover. Galinda/Glinda was played by Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway, who some people might know as Olive Snook on the now-cancelled TV series Pushing Daisies. She deserves special mention because she plays such an amazing Glinda the Good Witch. Spot-on, the voice, the look, everything is perfect. I didn’t actually see her in the part but she did an amazing job on the soundtrack, and she is perfectly suited for it. Also good songs are “The Wizard and I” sung by Elphaba, and “A sentimental Man” sung by the Wizard. Some of the lyrics were very impressive with their clever rhyming. For instance, the Wizard: “There are very few at ease with moral ambiguities…” And Glinda: “Don’t be offended by my frank analysis. Think of it as personality dialysis. Ever since I’ve become a pal, a sis–ter, and advisor, there’s nobody wiser. One slight pause in the middle of sister and it all works.
Now, I should note that the play deviated from every other version in major ways. It wasn’t particularly faithful to any of the other renditions. But the ways it veered off the beaten path were so compelling, and they made such sense with the world of Oz that I didn’t mind at all.
For one thing, the origin story of the scarecrow and the tin man were totally different, but the way they were changed tied them very closely to Elphaba’s story. Their original backstories were fine for the original book, because they didn’t have to be tied closely together to the witch.
The Tin Man in this rendition turns out to be Boq. While they’re in school Boq has a crush on Galinda, but she convinces him to take pity on Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, because Nessa’s in a wheelchair. He asks her out, and then never has the nerve to break it off. She becomes mayor of Munchkinland to the East, and eventually labeled the Wicked Witch of the East. She’s so afraid that he’ll leave her that she never lets him leave, always keeping him cooped up even though he wants to travel. He feels smothered, and one day during an argument between Nessa and Elphaba his heart gives out on him. Elphaba tries to save his life, and using the Grimmery, the magic book given to her by the Wizard, which she barely understands, she tries to find a spell that will save him. Instead of healing him, the spell changes him to a form where he doesn’t need a heart at all–the Tin Man.
The Scarecrow turns out to be Fiyero. He is engaged to Galinda for quite some time, and works in the military for the Wizard. But he defects in order to save Elphaba’s life. He’s captured by a troop of soldiers and they carry him away. Elphaba casts another spell to try to save his life, casting a spell that his bones may never break, that he’ll never die, and will not feel pain. Thus he became the scarecrow.
The Nessarose portrayed in the book and the play are totally different in almost every way. They’re both crippled, but with totally different disabilities. In the book, she has no arms. This makes her very dependent on other people–she can’t even walk unless someone helps her balance. While in the play she’s in a wheelchair. Book–she’s a religious zealot, following the religion of her father, but using it to become a Tyrant in the East. I couldn’t find anything about that Nessa to like. Play–she’s very sweet and it’s easy to feel bad about her bad fortune in life. It’s very sweet when Boq asks her out to the dance, and I really enjoyed seeing her face light up, even though I figured it would end badly one way or the other. Again, Maguire seemed to go out of his way to make sure every character was totally unlikeable. Just because a character is labeled as a villain doesn’t mean they can have no redeeming qualities!
Obviously I feel very strongly about these two versions of this concept. I guess the other positive thing I can say about Maguire’s version is that it certainly got me aggravated enough to give me a topic to go on about.