Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

As far as spin-offs go, Gregory Maguire's Wicked is better than some, but not better than most.  Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, giving some insight into her background and telling her point of view the way all spin-offs do.

Here's the thing--some spin-offs are amazing.  They reveal new ideas in stories and question our preconceived notions of morality.  Jesus Christ Superstar is one such spin-off--while it features Judas Iscariot as the protagonist, it doesn't lessen Christ's story by undermining it.  Jesus is shown to be a human bearing a divine burden.  Judas, while immature and extremely childish in some ways, is not evil.  He's human, also bearing a divine burden, and he stumbles beneath its weight.

Maguire tries to do much the same thing with Wicked.  Dorothy is not the "bad guy," the way she easily could have been.  He does not try to cast Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) as God's gift to mankind.  But neither does he fully do justice to his story--its potential is, unfortunately, unrealized.

For one thing, while Elphaba is shown to be a bit selfish and self-centered, she is also a champion of social-political justice, with a special passion for Animals.  By the end of the novel, however, her focus throughout narrows, to the point that her final concern (getting back her sister's silver shoes) appears petty because it does not compare favorably (in terms of scope) to her previous battles. 

In addition, while Maguire questions the nature of good and evil throughout the novel, he never has any character throughout the entire novel actually have a solid opinion on the matter that is not based on religious dogma.  While Elphaba has philosophical musings, most of the book is entirely made up of unresolved questions. Perhaps that was Maguire's point, but I have enough questions of my own--it would be nice to be able to consider different possible answers.

Finally, most of Wicked is original thought--while it is purported to be based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in truth nothing more than character names, geographical locations, and the events of the last chapter have anything to do with the original story. It seems to me that the story of the Wicked Witch could have easily not been based on Frank L. Baum's original story and still have retained most of the important themes and events. The fact that it is based on the story therefore smacks of riding-on-tailcoats-to-glory-and-wealth.

Anyway, I don't really understand why the book was the raging success it proved to be.  If you want a good spin-off, go see Jesus Christ Superstar.

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