Nov 22, 2011

[Books] Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Back in 2008, I was fortunate enough to get tickets for a staging of the Broadway musical Wicked at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. I had long wanted to see the play and finally getting to do so was quite a major moment for me, at least in terms of musicals. I had always known that the musical was based on a book, but for one reason or another I had delayed reading it - even when I had acquired a copy of the book some years back.

Now I never expected the play to be a faithful recreation of the story of the book, but I wasn't expecting just how far away one was from the other. The analogy that works for me at this point is that comparing the two is like comparing Disney's Pocahontas with a historical record of her actual life. This is not to say one is better than the other, but they are definitely two distinct works with two different audiences in mind. Some of the major themes from the book were certainly retained in the musical version, but that still keeps them as pretty different.

It took me a bit longer than expected to finish the book given the rather mature tone and the complex ideas being tossed about, but it was still a rather fulfilling read. While it remains a bit of a challenge to reconcile the characters in the book with their stage-adapted alternates, both are still strong characters in their own right.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a novel loosely based on the original Wizard of Oz characters created by L. Frank Baum as written by Gregory Maguire. Some refer to this as a revisionist book or you could think of it as a reimagination to borrow the popular Hollywood term.

The book features Elphaba as our protagonist. This green-skinned girl starts with rather humble (and sometimes feral) beginnings and one day becomes the more infamous Wicked Witch of the West. Her parents are Frex, a unionist minister, and Melena Thropp, who is nobility given she is the granddaughter of the Eminent Thropp of Munchkinland. The circumstances of Elphaba's conception are rather complicated and are not fully revealed until the latter part of the book. Her birth is little different given she does in fact have green skin, sharp teeth and a strong aversion to water.

Margaret Hamilton as the Witch in the 1939 fil...
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We follow her through part of her childhood until we eventually reunite with her as an adolescent just starting  at Shiz University in Gillikin. There we finds herself roommates with Galinda, who will one day become Glinda the Good Witch of the South. The two don't get along initially, but over time they develop a decent level of tolerance and respect for one another. It is there at Shiz that Elphaba becomes fully involved in the efforts to fight for the rights of speaking Animals (versus normal Animals), such as Doctor Dillamond, who teaches biology and life sciences at the university.

To some extent this part of the story is still mirrored by the musical, but things change well enough over time. And I can understand why the book went one way while the musical went another - their respective stories would not quite have worked otherwise.

Wicked is a rather intelligent read with many major themes discussed throughout the book beyond the events in the story itself. A main theme is the discussion regarding what being wicked or evil truly is and what the differences are. As a reader, we're made to reflect on this time and time again as various characters find themselves approaching this same question but within the context of different events. And since we are focused on Elphaba, it makes it a lot easier to see how she might have seen things and how she thought she was doing the right thing if the means she employed for her noble goals were less than ideal.

There's also the central issue of discrimination against other groups, in this case the efforts by the Wizard to suppress the sentient Animals. You could overlay this discussion with any other minority group fighting for its rights in the face of a disapproving majority. The lengths that some characters go to either oppress or defend these groups presents an interesting contrast to things and makes you wonder how best one should proceed in terms of fighting for causes of this nature.

If anything, fans of the musical should look away from this book since the romantic angle isn't a central theme here. In fact, it's just a piece on the side of things and it's rather sexually graphic in nature - don't let your kids read this until you've done so yourself and believe they are ready for this sort of thing. Sure there's still a bit of an Elphaba-Fiyero thing going on here, but it certainly won't be like how it was depicted in the play.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch, is certainly an experience on its own. It's smart, well-written and with a somewhat sardonic sense of humor at some points to boot. It's a book that will require your full attention and can't be just read casually, otherwise you'll miss a lot of what's going on between the lines. It gets 4 sad deaths of Elphaba's animal minions out of a possible 5.

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