Adapting The Wizard of Oz

Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, takes a look at screenwriter Noel Langley’s early draft of the script for The Wizard of Oz:

The differences between this version and the final shooting script? Hardly a page escapes without crossed-out speeches and handwritten substitutions. Plot points abound that are later abandoned (the Wicked Witch of the West has a son named Bulbo?). Only a couple of scenes refer to singing, and none of the famous lyrics appear. What would become “Over the Rainbow,” which I call America’s unofficial national anthem, is referred to as “the Kansas song.”

What this draft achieves is the compression of choice elements from a best-selling, although rambling, children’s book. In the original novel, the Wicked Witch of the West dies on Page 155, but Dorothy doesn’t leave Oz until 100 pages on. If Langley stuffs in extraneous characters for ballast (a Kansas farmhand and his sweetheart among them), he also abbreviates the trajectory of the story so that the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West kick-starts Dorothy’s return to Kansas.

Adapting a book to film means figuring out which elements of the source material really belong on the big screen. It many cases, you end up dropping things not because they’re “un-cinematic,” but rather because they don’t help you tell the two-hour version of the story.

Sometimes, the choices you make feel better than the original:

The American author-illustrator Maurice Sendak believed that The Wizard of Oz film was a rare example of a movie that improves on the original book. I agree with him. Langley consolidates two good witches into one. He eliminates distracting sequences involving populations Dorothy encounters after the Wizard has left in his balloon —the china people (porcelain figures) and the Hammer-Heads (a hard-noggined race).

You’d have a harder time taking these liberties with a popular novel now. The Harry Potter films were faithful and tremendously successful, as was Twilight and The Hunger Games. Studios see this and take note.

Over the last ten years when I’ve been approached to adapt current best-sellers, one of the first concerns has been not angering authors and fans. That may be the smart choice financially, but it doesn’t always result in the best movie.

Had Langely been given this directive when adapting The Wizard of Oz, I doubt we’d remember the movie at all.

Why did Weekend Read spike?

This past Friday, download numbers for Weekend Read shot through the roof for no apparent reason.


To give some sense of scale, those ordinary days on the left range from 50 to 75 downloads per day. The spike is 3,591. 1

Weekend Read is a free app, so it’s certainly possible that an online mention convinced a lot of people to download it.2

Or perhaps it was featured on a section of the App Store.

Was it related to Rian Johnson and his Star Wars news? The scripts for Rian’s first three movies are available inside the app. Maybe someone linked to that in a Star Wars forum.

Or perhaps it really just was a fluke — a flurry of downloads that pushed it up higher and higher in the charts, creating a virtuous cycle. (We peaked at 162 in Productivity.)

Weekend Read sends our server a ping when it’s first installed, but we can’t track the source of download unless it comes from a specially-crafted URL such as this one.

We may never know exactly what happened. Apple currently gives developers no way of tracking where traffic is coming from. Better analytics are coming in a future version of iTunes Connect, but for now all we get are mysterious numbers. It’s our own little Wow! signal.

  1. The graphic comes from the iOS version of App Viz, which I love. The trend line is certainly misleading in this case.
  2. In-app purchases of Weekend Read Unlocked, which gives users an unlimited library, were not up proportionately to downloads.

Secrets and Lies

Scriptnotes: Ep. 151

John and Craig discuss why most characters are liars, and how that’s actually a good thing. John offers seven suggestions for picking character names that will help your readers. Then we look at a three page challenge that’s been filmed to see what worked on the page versus on screen.

In follow-up, we discuss the Aereo decision and our mutual love of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

Finally, we answer a reader question about the proper protocol for checking in after a meeting.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 7-3-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Yes, screenwriting is actually writing

Scriptnotes: Ep. 150

Craig and John take a swing at several of the week’s hyperbolic headlines, from conflict-free comedy to Fitzgerald’s failures to Strong Female Characters with nothing to do. In each case, there’s a valid idea lurking beneath the overstated claim, but it’s important to separate good examples from bad.

We then answer a stack of listener questions, ranging from slow contracts to strange emails to friendly options.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-26-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

How to Write a Scene, now in handy two-page form

My 2007 post on How to Write a Scene got recirculated in infographic form last year, which featured only the bullet points.

Both versions are useful. The blog post is detailed; the infographic is handy. But screenwriter Zak Penn asked for something in-between:

Can you send me PDF of your scene writing checklist? Want to use when I speak to students, thought it was excellent.

It’s a good idea. So here’s the original post, slightly edited and reformatted to fit onto two pages you can print or email:

pdf link

Anyone is welcome to use it. I just ask that if you distribute it, please keep my name and the link on it.

And because you’ll ask, the fonts are Minion Pro and Trend Hand Made.

The Long-Lost Austin Three Page Challenge

Scriptnotes: Ep. 149

John and Craig open the vault to bring you a never-before-heard episode recorded live at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, where we did a Three Page Challenge and met with the writers.

We’ve kept this episode banked for months just in case we can’t record a new episode. But we didn’t want to wait any longer.

We’ll be back with a normal episode next week.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-22-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.