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AT THE MOVIES

Toto recall

Yes, we could be back in Kansas as studios eye several 'Wizard of Oz' film projects. But is it really a good idea?

March 11, 2010|Steven Zeitchik

Hollywood is once again off to see the wizard.

In fact, it may make several trips.

As Tim Burton's interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" continues to attract audiences, film-world power brokers are looking to jump-start a number of remakes of "The Wizard of Oz" -- a close adaptation of the original novel, a prequel about the wizard and a darker tale about Dorothy's granddaughter in Oz. Two of the three are, like "Alice," stories about a girl on an identity-forging series of adventures.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 12, 2010 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Wizard of Oz": An article in Thursday's Calendar about proposals to remake "The Wizard of Oz" said that Temple Hill Entertainment envisions a film franchise that would adapt as many as 22 books about the Land of Oz written by L. Frank Baum. Baum wrote 14 Oz books; the remaining eight are books written about the Land of Oz by other authors after Baum's death that were based on the author's characters.

Audiences who know the film only from TV runs and remastered DVDs of the 1939 Judy Garland classic could soon find themselves with several Oz options at the multiplex. But the remakes again raise questions about whether Hollywood is turning too often to its past -- and whether a new version will expand on the rich mythology of "Oz" or simply trade on it.

Two "Oz" updates that have been set up at Warner Bros. -- one at its New Line label and another at the parent studio -- are suddenly surging in the wake of the $210-million worldwide opening weekend of "Alice." Warner Bros. executives have put the word out to representatives of top-level Hollywood directors that they're keen to make at least one of the movies.

The New Line movie is conceived as a comparatively faithful, non-musical adaptation of the original L. Frank Baum novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Produced by "Twilight" producers Temple Hill Entertainment, the film is written by "Shrek Forever After" writer Darren Lemke, who has completed a draft of a script. The script hews closely to the book -- published in 1900, Baum's novel lies in the public domain, thus allowing screenwriters to adapt it free of copyright concerns -- with only small adjustments. (Dorothy is 16 years old instead of 14, for example.) Producers hope that the movie can become the basis of a franchise whose future installments would draw from the 21 other books Baum wrote about the Land of Oz. Warner Bros., whose "Harry Potter" draws to a close next year, is hoping the same.

"The idea is that no one has done a faithful adaptation of the Frank Baum books, something that's more of a straight adventure story," says Temple Hill's Wyck Godfrey, a producer on the film. "The MGM movie [from 1939] took the source material and made a classic musical."

A second project is notably darker. Titled "Oz," it's written by Josh Olson, who also adapted "A History of Violence.". "Oz" tells the tale of Dorothy's granddaughter, who returns to the Emerald City to fight evil. But it, too, takes cues from Burton's "Alice": It features a girl who returns to a magical land with which she has a history in order to right a wrong.

"Alice" is more directly tied to yet another new "Oz"-related project. "Alice" producer Joe Roth, is producing "Brick," a prequel about how the wizard arrived in Oz (he's from Kansas too, apparently). Roth says he met with Disney production president Sean Bailey on Tuesday and is in discussions with several directors. Mitchell Kapner ("The Whole Nine Yards") has written an original script partly derived from pieces of Baum books.

Laying out a sprawling story of Munchkins, wizards, witches and Dorothy's rogue band of characters, Victor Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz" has been embraced by numerous generations and landed as the No. 6 film on the AFI best-of list. Studios clearly hope its popularity will give a new film a head start in finding an audience.

But it's precisely the title's iconic status that has discomfited some observers, who, in the era of "Transformers" and "Battleship," see it as evidence of Hollywood's over-reliance on established names. And because "Oz" occupies a special place in the American consciousness, a remake comes with a stigma not unlike that of, say, Madonna covering Don McLean's "American Pie."

In fact, even directors have their reservations, which have impeded the search for an A-list filmmaker. "The knee-jerk thing is, 'I'm not remaking the MGM movie,' " Godfrey says. "And we have to explain, we're not remaking the classic, we're making a movie out of the book."

Defenders also point out that there have been numerous "Oz" interpretations: the 1978 black-oriented film "The Wiz" (based on a play), the 2003 stage hit "Wicked" (based on a book) and multiple television versions.

"It's healthy for any culture not to depend on one definitive version of its myths," says Syracuse University TV and popular culture professor Robert Thompson. "The big caveat is that it has to be done well. If you do a bad remake of 'Starsky & Hutch,' it's no big deal. If you mess with 'The Wizard of Oz' and you do it badly, the level of emotional investment is much greater."

The new projects could create a battle within Hollywood more intense than a battle between the wicked witch of the West and the good witch of the North.

Despite their differences in tone, it's unlikely Warner Bros. would make both films.

And the progress of the other films could affect the status of a film version of "Wicked," which Universal and "Wanted" producer Marc Platt have been developing for some time.

Sometimes, it turns out, there can be too many blue birds flying over the rainbow.

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this report.

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