Re-Post: "The Feminist Harry Potter?"
Well, maybe not quite. It may be a fantasy about witches, but Gregory Maguire's Wicked is transgressive, crushingly dark, and definitely not for kids. It also defined my adolescence.
I never enjoyed the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Even as a child, I found it far too saccharine and trite. "There's no place like home?" Really? L. Frank Baum's original book was also never a fixture of my childhood, nor were any of its staggering thirteen sequels. (Which actually go on to deconstruct the naïve sentiments of the first book.)
When I first chanced upon Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I was thirteen years old. I was immediately drawn to it, but it wasn't any kind of nostalgia for the yellow brick road that compelled me. I literally judged the book by its cover. The original cover art (the book has since seen many different designs) features a scratchboard drawing of the titular witch, her head bowed, her face obscured by the brim of her iconic hat, a heavy cloak swirling around her shoulders. The image instantly reminded me of a similar illustration from a book that had enthralled me when I was a young girl: The Widow's Broom, a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, the children's author/illustrator famous for The Polar Express and Jumanji.
While I had no affinity for the Wicked Witch of the West in particular, I was drawn to images and portrayals of witches in general. It was, in part, this interest that had endeared me to another fantasy series: Harry Potter. Yet, while the witches of J.K. Rowling's universe sometimes wear pointy hats, they generally lack the wildness and fascinating grotesqueness of the hags that have haunted western culture's collective consciousness from ancient myth, to the Brothers Grimm, to Shakespeare.
At twenty-two years old, I am definitely a member of the generation whose childhood and adolescence have been defined by the Harry Potter phenomenon. I've bought into "Pottermania"--not to the point of attending book signings in costume, but I have read every book, seen every movie, and spent many a heated discussion defending the honor of Severus Snape.
As much as I have enjoyed Harry Potter, and as bittersweet as it was to watch the saga finally come to a close, for me Rowling's boarding school epic just can't touch Gregory Maguire's meditation on evil, destiny, and failure.
Wicked was Maguire's first adult novel after a long career as a writer of young adult fiction. It was first published three years before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in the United States. While Harry Potter was, of course, an instant hit, Wicked was met with quiet critical praise and it would have to wait almost a decade to gain public recognition. In 2003, a musical loosely based on the book opened on Broadway and became a sensation. Tapping into the collective nostalgia associated with MGM's 1939 film, the musical tampers heavily with its immediate source material, and it is precisely this tampering that allowed for its runaway success.
Any adaptation of a novel into a shorter, visual form will entail some very heavy editing, but the musical version of Wicked goes further than distilling the complex politics of the book into a simple allegory for racism and dictatorial oppression. There is a kind of claustrophobia that hovers over the entire novel--we already know how the witch's story ends, after all. The musical lifts this sense of dread and futility entirely, going so far as to completely change the ending. What is left is a sugar-coated ("Disney-fied," if you will) story of female friendship, wherein a nerdy, guardedly sarcastic Elphaba and a popular, ditzy Glinda start out as rivals but end up as BFF's. Elphaba is even given glasses, and there is even a pivotal scene where Glinda removes them to reveal her hidden prettiness, à la She's All That.
The glasses-removal scene roughly echoes a scene early in the novel in which Glinda (at that point called Galinda; it's a long story) realizes that her fascination with her bizarre college roommate might not stem from revulsion but from genuine attraction. To the musical's credit, it does maintain some of the sexual tension that Maguire imagines between the two witches--the song "What Is This Feeling?" hints at the characters mutually confusing attraction for loathing, and when I first saw the show on Broadway I half expected the leads to kiss at the end of "For Good."
Ultimately, however, the musical makes sure that heterosexuality prevails. Fiyero, the Winkie prince who is only Elphaba's love-interest in the novel, becomes an object of mutual desire for both women. The overall lightened tone, along with the thematic combination of female bonding, a bookish heroine with latent magical powers, and a love-against-the-odds romance, ensured the musical's instant popularity among tween- and teenaged girls. Precisely the same demographic that would then go crazy over Twilight.
It's easy to see why the musical deviates so dramatically from the book. The Elphaba of Maguire's original novel bears little resemblance to the musical's green but misunderstood (and pretty) heroine. She certainly resembles even less the vapid, relentlessly "average" Bella Swan. She would never sell; she could never appeal to a mainstream audience, much less to a young, female audience.
Maguire set out to write about the Wicked Witch of the West, a figure who, thanks to MGM's film, is forever burned into the American consciousness as the green-faced, cackling embodiment of evil. Maguire takes the visceral impact of Margaret Hamilton's archetypal witch and leaves it intact. He takes the few character traits that the film provides--the witch's single-minded obsession, her penchant for sarcastic quips--and expands them into a complex woman with a fully-realized backstory and a tormented inner life. Elphaba Thropp is unmistakably the witch made immortal by Hamilton's performance. That is to say, she's not just green-she's ugly and unlikable. She's also brilliant and desperately alone. As a precocious and lonely thirteen-year-old, I adored her immediately.
The Oz that Elphaba inhabits is also as fabulously queer as one might expect from a contemporary take on a land that lies "somewhere over the rainbow." Homoeroticism abounds. The nightlife of Oz's cities is a carnival of debaucheries. Maguire even takes the device of intelligent, talking animals exactly as far as you can imagine.
Wicked was the first fantasy I had ever read that featured gay characters. Remarkably, there isn't a single gay student at Hogwarts. Twilight is practically bursting with kink, from domination to violent vampire sex to the bestiality implicit in any portrayal of werewolves, but there's nary a plain old homosexual to be found. Wicked is explicitly intended for an adult audience, but, in the fantasy genre, the line between "young adult" and "adult" is decidedly blurry. And all gay adults were, at some point, gay adolescents. There is no good reason why, at thirteen, I never saw any characters who were like me in books that were ostensibly written for people my age. We have yet to see a popular young adult fantasy series with any openly gay or queer characters, much less a queer protagonist. Teen fiction that does feature gay characters tends to fixate on homosexuality and turn it into a plot device. In Wicked, some characters' sexual and romantic entanglements happen to be same-sex, but that fact goes refreshingly unremarked-upon.
In spite of the vast differences between the two works, the musical's success led to the public's rediscovery of the novel. In response to the book's sudden popularity, Maguire wrote two sequels and turned his stand-alone piece into a series. The one glaring problem with this is that his protagonist is dead. I don't have to preface this point with a spoiler alert--even if you haven't read Wicked, you know that the Wicked Witch dies. That's the point. Wicked is the story of how the iconic green hag that we all know and despise came to be. Elphaba's story is an epic one, but it's also relentlessly, inescapably tragic. Like Harry Potter, Elphaba is consigned to her destiny from birth, but she doesn't get a happy ending. By the time she fatefully confronts a farm girl from Kansas, she is a madwoman broken by a life of failure and loss. The shoes that have become her final obsession--silver slippers like in Baum's original book, not ruby as in film--aren't some kind of powerful magical talisman. They're a symbol of her father's withheld love.
I read the sequels to Wicked only reluctantly, and I must confess that I did not enjoy them. Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men follow the exploits of Elphaba's son, Liir, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. The books explore the political and social upheaval in Oz following Elphaba's death, but I have a hard time seeing the point of continuing the series without her. The fourth and final book in the series, Out of Oz, will be released in November. My hopes are not high, but I've put in my pre-order.
Elphaba's absence has haunted Oz and its denizens throughout Maguire's series. It was her death that finally drove the despotic Wizard from Oz and made her a symbol for political resistance. Behind the cackling archetype is a woman who led a life of torment and failure, and died a painful, undignified death. As depressing as it sounds, Elphaba's is a far more realistic road to greatness than Harry Potter's.
Throughout Wicked and its sequels, Elphaba has been attended by Christlike imagery of salvation and resurrection. What this means for the final installment is impossible to say. Out of Oz will focus on Elphaba's granddaughter, Rain, who shares her grandmother's unique skin color. Hopefully a literal resurrection is out of the question: Witches may live forever, but women die. As much as I'd love to see Elphaba again, it is the finality of her death that lends Wicked its tragic power.
However Gregory Maguire finally lays Elphaba to rest, we'll always have Wicked and its haunting, perfect final lines:
And there the wicked old witch stayed for a good long time.
And did she ever come out?
Not yet, not yet.