Recently NBC announced its production slate for the upcoming television season. In the works is an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fanciful children’s books about the fairyland of Oz. Predictably, however, rather than remaining true to the source material and creating a series that could become a hugely successful family TV hit, NBC instead envisions a “dark retelling” featuring a headstrong 20-year-old Dorothy Gale who “finds herself at the center of an epic and bloody battle.”
Those familiar with the Oz books know that Dorothy Gale is a little girl. Younger, even, than Judy Garland’s age would suggest in the celebrated 1939 musical based on The Wizard of Oz. She often mispronounces words, and is devoted to her pet dog Toto, her Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry. She is guileless, friendly, curious, and kindhearted; as are most of the inhabitants of Oz. The closest Oz ever gets to an “epic battle” is when the Nome King plots to tunnel under the deadly desert and invade Oz and enslave its inhabitants; but the wise and kind girl ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma, refuses to fight. Instead, she magically fills the tunnel with dust, so that when the Nomes and their allies emerge, they are so parched and thirsty that they run immediately toward the forbidden fountain in the center of the Emerald City, and drink the water of oblivion – causing them to forget why they were there. Hardly epic, and entirely bloodless.
But where the Nome King failed, NBC will undoubtedly succeed in destroying and laying waste to the whole magical kingdom of Oz; turning these charming fairy tales into something dark and sordid.
When I was a child, I devoured all of the Oz books. I couldn’t get enough of them, and was heart-broken when I finished the final chapter of the last book. Last year, when my son was old enough to sustain interest in chapter books, I started reading them to him, a chapter at a time, and he has been thoroughly captivated by the magical stories of Dorothy and her friends and their adventures throughout Oz and the surrounding lands. As we read through the books, I could not help but think that these lovely stories would lend themselves so well to a television series, and how warmly such a series would be embraced by families.
NBC appears to have learned something from the recent success of their live telecast of The Sound of Music, because the same article announcing the development of Emerald City also states that NBC is planning a live telecast of Peter Pan for 2014 — but they seem to be missing the forest for the trees.The lesson they should have learned from the success of The Sound of Music is not that they can have one night of blockbuster ratings by airing an annual family musical, but that they can have ratings success week-in and week-out by making their programming schedule more family friendly.
An Oz series that was faithful to the original books is something I would gladly have watched, and probably would enjoyed watching with my son, now that he knows the stories. And I know many families who probably would have done the same. But by putting a dark edge on Oz, and making Dorothy a grown woman (no doubt so they can add a love interest or sexual content that was not in the original stories), I know this is not something we will be watching as a family. The same will likely be true for many families.
NBC will be missing out on a potentially huge audience of families that are desperately looking for something they can watch together. They already have the material, all they had to do was to stay faithful to the source; but instead of listening to consumers they are listening to those too-clever-for-their-own-good programming executives who think that more sex and violence will reverse their ratings woes. What a waste.