Petra Quince (petra_quince) wrote,
Petra Quince

A word on Wicked - because everyone loves reading complaints about how they got the book wrong.

After a longish spell of reading Serious Literary Fiction, and a bit stressed for unrelated reasons and in the mood for some undemanding, entertaining genre stuff, I picked up Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Personal background: as a kid I adored all things Oz. I read all the Baum books, watched the movies umpteen times, wrote an ill-informed research paper in high school on how The Wizard of Oz was the shit for being the first American fairy tale, omg. However, with time and exposure to other fantasy, my interest in Oz lessened. When the Wicked books came out, I didn't take notice, and when the musical became a phenomenon, I basically ignored it. I've heard a couple of songs from the show -  Defying Gravity and Popular, advance apologies to those who love them and the show, but I found the first unpleasantly saccharine and the second grating (Sorry Chenoweth, I think you're great, it's just the song.) But I was always a bit curious. And damn, I so did not get what I bargained for.

So the most important thing to know about this book? It is a tragedy. In Maguire's Wicked, it's as though Baum's original novels were tales of a "foreign land" as told by by a naive colonial power - underestimating and exoticizing the people and cultures, misunderstanding the significance of events, putting its own people at the center of the story. History told by the winners. Wicked is a correction, dispatches from a real place, through the eyes of the natives, but more than that as well. It's a novel about how people behave under fascism, and accommodate themselves or not to systematic oppression. It's about how messed up family dynamics and parental expectations can warp people. It's about the function of faith and belief in our lives. It's about the possibility of never actually knowing each other, never fully understand or connect with one another. And it's about magic and the unknowable. While there are some darkly comic moments (Elphaba's first word, horrors, still strikes me as both extremely funny and awful) and satire, it's unmistakably a tragedy. Every plot point twisted away from a happy or satisfying conclusion. Every relationship that could-have-been either never happened, or ended so awfully that you wished it hadn't. It's a book about an antihero who survives an emotionally abusive childhood to grow into a brilliant, nihilistic woman who eventually cracks under the pressures of failure, loneliness, and injustice. Like Dorothy, Elphaba spends her life pining for home but unlike Dorothy she has no idea where that is and by the time she's figured out what it means to her she's about to die in agony, in a country is poised on the brink of anarchy. She's a Yellow Wallpaper woman. Rising to the occasion rarely produces the desired results, in Maguire's Wicked. Which is why I couldn't stop asking myself how, for the love of flying monkeys, how did anyone turn this book into a hit musical?

So then I read the musical plot synopsis on Wikipedia. And shuddered a deep shudder of shuddering. I know, I know, different medium, the story must adapt to it, yadda yadda, but for real? Let's look at the ending, although my issues with the musical interpretation start far, far sooner. "While Elphaba and Fiyero leave Oz forever, Glinda continues her bittersweet celebration with the citizens of Oz. They gaze up at the sky, individually appreciating their true friendship and acknowledging that they have changed for the better because they knew each other." This is way worse than "it was all a dream." This is like someone took Heart of Darkness and decided that what would be really super is of Kurtz and Marlow's fiance should get married at the end and have a kicky dance number with all the natives singing about togetherness. I know a lot of people are into the musical because it's rare to find a story centering on female friendship, and believe me I agree, there's a dearth of that, but...why not write an original story about women, rather than trying to shoehorn that plot into an existing story where it truly doesn't belong? Oh right, bestseller, amazingly lucrative property, etc. There's just something profoundly oogy to me about the nuanced, non-sentimental toughness of Maguir'es Wicked forcibly re-fitted with rosy glasses. Whyyyyyyyyy.

At some point, I will probably sit through the musical version of Wicked, to give it a fair(er) shake. It's quite possible that if I had encountered that first I would have loved it. As it is though...yeesh.

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