Episode IV: Ozpocalypse Now
Having been given the mission to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, Colonel Willard -- oops, I mean Dorothy -- heads off into the wilds of Cambodia, or Winkie Country. There's no road, as the Wicked Witch has cut off her realm from the rest of Oz. Sadly, Dorothy doesn't go by patrol boat.
In the novel we first meet the Witch sitting at the door of her castle, watching everything in her domain with her single all-seeing eye. No mention of whether it's wreathed in flame, but the foreshadowing of Tolkein's Sauron is pretty neat. "One eye?" you ask. "Margaret Hamilton didn't have one eye!"
You're right. The Witch in the book isn't green, either. You hear that, Gregory Maguire? SHE ISN'T GREEN! Sorry, but I simply can't stand the Wicked retcon of the Wicked Witch of the West as some kind of put-upon minority girl, shunned and oppressed because she's green. If you go by the book, she's the same color as everyone else in Oz. If you go by the movie, she's the same color as all the other people in Winkieland (or Cambodia or wherever the hell her castle is). Either way, she's not some kind of green-skinned freak.
Why am I so vehement about this? Because the Wicked Witch of the West -- in both her incarnations -- is one of the baddest-assed villains in film or fiction, and turning her into a victim is as bad as turning Darth Vader into a petulant teen-ager with mommy issues.
I must admit, Movie-West is even more awesome than Book-West, because she is one scary woman. Book-West is reluctant to do anything to Dorothy because of North's protective kiss (though she is willing to give the Lion the Colonel Nicholson treatment from Bridge over the River Kwai, locking him up without food until he agrees to be harnessed like a draft horse; only Dorothy sneaking him food at night keeps him alive). Her efforts to get the Silver Shoes are almost petty.
But Movie-West! Ah! One of the greatest villains in cinema history! I even figured out why, after reading a 'blog post by the redoubtable Alex Jablokov. The Wicked Witch is particularly awesome because she has no bumbling sidekicks (as so many Disney villains do.) A bumbling sidekick reassures the viewer -- "See? That villain may be bad, but she keeps these comic relief characters around so she can't be too bad." Plus, laughable henchmen can be outwitted; they reduce the tension and suspense.
None of the Wicked Witch's henchmen are reassuring at all. There is no comforting incompetence, either. The Winged Monkeys are like a furry tornado of destruction. The green Cossack dudes carry enough vicious-looking halberds, glaives, guisarmes, glaive-guisarmes, voulges, glaive-voulges, ranseurs, pikes, guisarme-voulges, pointed sticks, and Bohemian ear-spoons to warm Gary Gygax's heart. Judy Garland as Dorothy is properly terrified by the witch, along with the audience. If you're a child the Wicked Witch is (in many cases, literally) your worst nightmare: an adult who means you harm, with no one to restrain her.
Best Movie West villain moment: when Dorothy activates the crystal ball and sees her beloved Auntie Em, giving her a moment of hope and reassurance -- and then the Witch appears in the ball and mocks her! That's just cruel. Even Darth Vader didn't mock Princess Leia when he was interrogating her aboard the Death Star.
Attempting to "humanize" a supervillain like the Wicked Witch is, in my opinion (which is the correct one), a mistake. The villain is in the story to make the hero look good. The Witch is an awesome, terrifying villain. Dorothy is scared out of her wits and her three companions have to summon all their brains, courage, and love to rescue her. Beating the Witch makes them truly heroic. Making her someone with an unhappy childhood who got picked on in witch school and had some failed relationships just makes the heroes smaller. It's one thing to try to gain a deeper understanding of a real historical "villain," but the Witch is a made-up character. There are no nuances, no hidden depths. She should be allowed to retain her perfection.
Book-West, as I said, isn't so bad. She is cruel, but kind of petty. In her attempt to get Dorothy's silver shoes away from her, she creates an invisible bar to trip the little girl, and snatches one of the shoes when it goes flying off. This, as it happens, is the Witch's last mistake. In the book, Dorothy accepts her captivity with patience and forbearance, but this last trick PISSES HER OFF. She picks up a bucket and throws it at the witch. She's not putting out a fire, she's just angry. Result: one dissolved witch.
That's the trade-off between the book and the film. The movie has a more awesome villain, but Judy Garland's Dorothy is less of a badass. She melts the Witch by mistake. Baum's Dorothy is angry enough to throw a bucket of water at a Wicked Witch on purpose. Evidently the Wizard looked into that girl's eyes from his hiding place behind the throne room back in the Emerald City and said to himself "This is the stone-cold killer I need."
Tra-la-la, the witch is dead.
Continued in Part V!