I first saw The Wizard of Oz while reclining on an emerald couch in my father’s best friend’s house. My veritable aunt was watching over me for the evening and while we were never very close and I could not yet understand why, I was grateful for the maternal presence she represented. I was glad she existed. Of course, I was young enough that my memory of that time is mostly a haze composed of one part memory, one part loneliness, and two parts imagination, so please bear with me.
I sat there watching with rapt attention as Dorothy, the kindly Scarecrow, the reliable Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion went off to find the wonderful Wizard of Oz, who they had been promised would grant their every wish. The Scarecrow wanted a brain, the Tin Man wanted a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wished to be brave. Dorothy just wanted to go home.
I didn’t realize then that this was a film was largely about gratitude and accepting what you had, appreciating the intangible moral values that can turn even animals and inanimate objects into men of honor, or trusting only your own hard work to take you where you want to go in life (and not strange magicians who made big promises). Themes, at that age, were only an abstraction that served to make for better stories, not to be thought of as having any deeper meaning. It was a film that was very well-suited for its time. Originally written as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by children’s author L. Frank Baum in 1900, a time brimming with exciting technological leaps, marvelous industrial feats, and pre-WWI idealism, the 1939 film adaptation was released in the midst of the Great Depression and at the offset of the Second World War.
It was only long after this viewing experience that it occurred to me that such a message of hope was coming at a remarkably grim time in the world. So what motivated people out of their funk to create this message of personal perseverance and hope? My guess: because they knew that the world just needed to hear it.
There are a lot of takeaways to The Wizard of Oz that I feel help me articulate some parts of myself that I value and find defining. While I understand that having a strong understanding of your own morals makes you feel more human, that strange men behind curtains should not be trusted to do anything but provide the desperate with impractical yet mollifying gestures (granted Oz eventually turned out to be sort of useful), and that your very best tools in this wide ol’ world are yourself and the persistence to keep moving down that yellow brick road, I also understand that unexpected friends will find you when you need them, and that good witches really do exist. There’s a strange optimism and comfort to Dorothy’s bildungsroman that, if we are to enjoy Israel Kamakawiwe’ole’s cover of that oh so famous song, one needs to appreciate has been valuable to scores of people through time.
Maybe I’m just the sort of person that appreciates collective optimism but life has taught me, as I’m sure it has or soon will teach you too, that sometimes things get scary. Occasionally, flying monkeys sent by evil witches will come swooping down at you. But you know what? That’s no reason to stop trying; on the contrary, one should never stop trying. That’s the only way to wake up one day and find that the clouds have been left far behind.