Possible spoilers below!
When reviewing a book that has a Hollywood/Broadway equivalent, I always feel a tremendous pressure to abstain from such clunkers as “The book is a lot different from the movie.” I did essentially that when I reviewed Sideways last year, but largely because I felt I had some significant to say about their differences, and not just that I was disappointed that such and such a scene was left out or something banal like that. Having seen Wicked the musical twice in the last year, and having thoroughly enjoyed it, I was somewhat nervous going into Wicked the book.
Okay, I’ll get it out of the way: the book was a lot different from the musical. A lot different. Significantly more than I was expecting. About that only similarities that can be pointed out are some of the names and locales. In every other case, I fail to see even the most tenuous of connections between the two. I’m not slamming the musical: it’s supposed to be enjoyable and digestible, and it is: it takes Maguire’s characters, simplifies them, adds a Primetime love story, and throws in enough references to the original story of Oz that the audiences shrieks with glee when they make the connection between, say, Fiyero and the Scarecrow.
Let me very clear, for those of you who have seen the musical: Maguire’s book doesn’t end any different than Frank Baum’s original. Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, is killed by a well-aimed bucket of water; the wizard takes off in a balloon; Dorothy uses enchanted slippers to get home. There are no surprises. What’s more, the many characters that the musical seeks to explain (lion cub as Cowardly Lion, Boq as Tin Man, Fiyero as Scarecrow) aren’t actually explained in such a way, with the exception of the lion.
But enough of that: this isn’t a comparison between the two media. Wicked the book doesn’t serve merely to give a bit of a backstory to a beloved piece of the literary canon. Maguire attempts to achieve several different goals with his writing, the first and most important of which is to look at the nature and formation of evil. The musical had sought to do that in the context of popular opinion (i.e. evil is what people perceive as evil), but Maguire sets up an entire world, replete with philosophically warring religions. Elphaba (the WWotW) is an atheist; her father Frex is a minister of the Unionist faith, which prays to an Unnamed God1; many of the land of Oz are Lurlinists, who pray to a fairy god named Lurline2; then there is the center of the “pleasure faith,” which is a giant mechanical dragon, run by a surly dwarf, that not only seems to predict the future, but also tends to inspire violence.
Elphaba’s journeys, her political rebellion, and her sympathy for intelligent animals (a facet which was brought out in the musical), not to mention her own green skin and dangerous allergy to water, leads to a lot of rather postmodern discussion of the nature and meaning of life—and wickedness. The story begins with Frex and Melena, Elphaba’s parents, and for a few years after he birth. It then jumps to an 18-year-old Elphaba at Shiz university; 5 years later, as an underground as a political rebel in the Emerald City; 7 years later, after a long stint in a Unionist nunnery (called a “mauntery); the 7 years later, living in large castle in the mountainous Vinkus region, where she is eventually killed.
There are a number of things to note about Maguire’s book. First, it’s filthy: there’s a lot of sex, even including Elphaba, and even an implied scene where someone is forcefully sodomized by a tiger (an event which causes him to go insane and eventually die). Don’t read this because you liked the original story, or the new musical. Second, the book is more sociopolitical intrigue and philosophical inquiry than downright action. If you’re looking for magicking and other excitement, you won’t find it: Elphaba is never really even a particularly good sorceress. Except for possessing a flying broom and killing a teenager with an icicle, she does very little magic at all: the label of “Witch” comes about in part because her magic-shoes-wearing sister, Nessarose, is known colloquially as the “Wicked Witch of the East” before she is crushed by a house.
Some of the book’s conventions felt rushed at the end, and may be due in part to Maguire having opened so many storylines and failing to close the majority of them, perhaps by design. This wasn’t meant to be a book that progressed arithmetically (and he’s already followed it up with one sequel, Son of a Witch). It’s an interesting read, if nothing else, but I submit that the detail alone of Maguire’s work is enough to merit a closer look at Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
- Its parallels with the major monotheistic faiths being obvious, not only in its cosmology, but also because by refusing to name that god, it collects the gods of Abraham, similar except in name[↩]
- This I take as a conflation of the various pagan religions with “magical” deities and creative creation stories: the creation myth of the Lurlinists is that Lurline took an enormous piss, which brought life out of the dirt[↩]