October 11, 2008
The Yellow Brick Road Gets a Fresh Lick of Paint
By Lee Randall
I'M OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD, THE wonderful Wizard of Shoreditch - otherwise known as artist and author Graham Rawle, the inventive genius behind Woman's World, a novel consisting entirely of bits of text cut and pasted from women's magazines, and the long running Lost Consonants series.
Unaccustomed as he is to working with other people's text - he dislikes relinquishing control - Rawle nevertheless decided to make an exception for a very special story. The happy result is a new edition of L Frank Baum's classic, The Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900.
Baum's book contains many more adventures, a good deal of back story - such as how the Tin Man came to be made of metal - and is far scarier than the famous 1939 film. His Oz is divided into four colour-coded counties, with the Emerald City their central hub, but it has a dark side. At times the reader genuinely fears for Dorothy's life.
"It's the greatest story ever told," enthuses Rawle. "It works on every level. I've read all the different interpretations; people putting political allegories on top of it or finding different meanings is only natural because it's a story with so much psychological depth. I don't think Baum ever intended it to be a political allegory. The only scene that it's hard not to see any historical parallel with is their visit to the Dainty China Country, where they come to a great wall made out of china. I have a vague sense that the Boxer Rebellion was around the time he was writing. It's certainly a scene in the book that doesn't propel the story forward and it was absolutely right to cut it from the film because you can't have that slack."
We say "the" film, but in fact, The Wizard of Oz was filmed several times, from the silent era onward. But for fanatics - Rawle and I are practical co-presidents of that club - there is only the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland. I tell Rawle how devoted I am to the books and film. That's unusual, as I routinely dislike film adaptations of favourite books. These, however, feel like distinct entities that work equally well, and as a writer, I admire the film's streamlined efficiency.
"You're right, there isn't a wasted second. I teach narrative structure and have always used The Wizard of Oz as a perfect model for the story of the hero's journey. The film doesn't have any loose fat, but the way you tell a story is different in a book. Dorothy lies down and sleeps or eats all the time, which you'd never do in the film because it slows down the action. In a children's book it's probably quite a good way of saying, 'Dorothy's tired and goes to sleep at the end of the chapter, so maybe we should shut the book and you go to sleep, too.' "
Then Rawle drops a bombshell. He'd never read the book prior to this project. This, from a man with a long wall of bulging bookshelves! "Like you I know every line of the film inside and out, and I can watch it endlessly. But I'd never read the book and was slightly ashamed of that. When I discovered all those other characters [in Baum's original text], I thought it was a great opportunity. The challenge was that The Wizard of Oz has been illustrated by very many people. I thought, what am I going to do that's different?"
What he's done is amazing and represents two years' hard slog - a year of getting it wrong, he jokes, and another twelvemonth creating the 70 images in the finished book. He built sets, made characters out of dolls and stuffed toys, sculpted shoes and other necessities out of clay, and trawled flea markets and supermarkets looking for props. Then he began the painstaking process of photographing and Photoshopping his constructs using a complicated series of layers, in order to get the lighting just right. Some pictures consist of almost 200 layers of fore, middle and background images. "You can't get the light into the corners otherwise," he explains. It's Greek to me, but my photographer seems to understand.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT IS FUNNY, unsettling, and dazzling, though I can clearly see, now that I'm here, that some of the skyscrapers are just candles encrusted with glitter. That's the idea, apparently.
"In the Emerald City I mostly used household goods: Christmas decorations, Pringles cans, salt and pepper pots. The idea was always to make an Emerald City that, when looked at closely, you could see that it was transparently homemade and a bit rubbish, really. It should never look slick and too sparkly.
"I was keen that it should have a handmade and lo-tech feel. The film's like that. It's sophisticated in one way but quite crude in another. You see the Yellow Brick Road winding around the bend, but as an adult you know it ends and hits a flat. What always appealed about the film was that everything was a set and fake. If you'd done the poppy field scene on location it would have been really dry and disappointing because it doesn't have the magic of the fabricated, imagined world."
The story is king and it was not for Rawle to impose his personality, though inevitably, he admits, "Your style, whatever that means, will permeate through the work that you do." One of my favourite instances of this is when we meet the dangerous kalidahs, who are described as "monstrous beasts with bodies like bears and heads like tigers". Rawle presents them as grizzly bears wearing tiger masks held on with elastic bands.
"I thought, wouldn't it be funny if they were just bears who'd cut the backs off cornflake packets? I went with whatever Baum said, and then occasionally other decisions are made, like putting Toto on wheels. That seemed right to me because unlike the film, where Toto plays quite a pivotal role and kind of represents Dorothy's instinct, in the book he doesn't do much, apart from knocking over the wizard's screen. Dorothy never mentions he's on wheels, so it tells us something about Dorothy's take on reality. If she ignores the fact Toto's on wheels, maybe there's something else she's not telling us about the Land of Oz, as well. It makes the facts open to interpretation."
Rawle has served the text well. He's restored Dorothy's silver slippers and created a hideously accurate Wicked Witch of the West, with the grotesque face of a modified glove puppet and a telescopic eye. "And she's also quite vulnerable and weak, and has crappy trainers on. I gave her those because what she wants more than anything is Dorothy's silver shoes, with their magical powers. I thought she should have terrible old trainers on."
He directs me to the business end of his vast loft and introduces the characters. Dorothy is his clear favourite, and fans of Rawle's Diary of an Amateur Photographer will recognise her, for she is Gloria, reborn. "She was a teen doll, so I knew she could never play Dorothy - she was too grown up. But I couldn't find another doll with the right face. I almost auditioned them, because I have lots of dolls. But nobody was ever quite as good as Gloria, as she was known then.
"It's really strange, but she photographs so well! You can turn her head one millimetre and her facial expression completely changes. She can look happy or sad, depending on how you interpret the mood of the picture. I actually made her head bigger than it really is [via Photoshop]; it makes it slightly strange. But there's something sweet about her face, and what I recognised was that if you don't love Dorothy, if I don't get Dorothy right, the book is lost because people won't go for it. And people are already slightly wary of a character that isn't Judy Garland or isn't their favourite illustrator. I had to reinvent it so people would see this as a completely new thing."
Rawle once said he learns something new on every project. So like Glinda quizzing Dorothy on lessons learned in Oz, I ask what he took from this experience.
"When illustrating someone else's text your job is to make it work. My pictures support The Wizard of Oz. They don't get in the way; they don't contradict. The thing that dissatisfied me about other people's work was that it was always an apology for the film, or you didn't get a sense of place. That when you were in the forest it was dark and scary and when you come out of the forest, as in all fairy stories, you come back into the light and into consciousness again. On a psychological level it's interesting that you go into the depths of the forest to conquer some dark monster and come out having learnt something, equipped with more skills to face the next challenge."
I can't wait to find out about Rawle's next challenge - it's bound to be a doozy.
* The Wizard of Oz is published by Atlantic Books on 13 October, priced GBP 25.
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