Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Introduction
In a Nutshell
When people think of The Wizard of Oz, they probably think first of the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, not L. Frank Baum's original novel, published in 1900 and entitled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The same thing happens with Wicked; the novel is kind of overshadowed by its own spinoff, in this case a Broadway musical entitled Wicked. Not to say that the novel hasn't done extremely well; it's sold over 2.5 million copies since its publication in 1995. But the musical Wicked is a sort of pop cultural icon. It came out in 2003 and it's still being performed all over the place, which isn't all that common for Broadway shows.
But author Gregory Maguire doesn't really mind that Wicked the novel is overshadowed by its musical adaptation. He explains that both his novel and the subsequent musical are just two things in a long line of creative productions that inhabit the world of Oz. In a 2004 interview, Maguire notes:
"I feel like I stand in an avuncular, grandfatherly relation to the Broadway play. It does do some things to the story that I wouldn't have done myself, and that I didn't do myself ...but that's not to say that I disapprove of them. I recognize that it's another generation.... It's not a clone; it's something else." (source)
Maguire himself has made a career out of re-imagining classic stories, from Snow White in Mirror, Mirror to Cinderella in The Ugly Stepsister. Wicked was Maguire's first novel for adults (he'd written children's books before). But even Wicked fits into a larger tradition of retelling popular stories from the perspective of secondary characters, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (an absurdist retelling of Hamlet), Grendel (Beowulf from the monster's perspective), and Wide Sargasso Sea (a retelling of Jane Eyre).
But Wicked does a lot more than just tell The Wizard of Oz from the Witch's point of view (which is probably a good thing, since that book would have read something along the lines of "Chapter 20: More Exciting Times With Those Creepy Flying Monkeys"). Wicked actually flips Oz on its head and, in a lot of places, departs entirely from Baum's novel and the 1939 movie. In Wicked, the Witch is misunderstood, the Witch of the East is a religious zealot, Munchkins are prone to mob violence and bigotry, the Wizard is a dictator, and animals can talk (C.S. Lewis is raising an eyebrow at that).
Given all of this "re-imagining," it's not surprising that Wicked garnered some mixed reviews upon its release. The critical reception was positive for the most part, though (you can check out a variety of reviews of the novel in our "Best of the Web" section), and sales have actually gone up over time, which speaks to the book's staying power. Since 1995 Maguire has published two other novels set in the "Wicked-verse": Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men.
People coming to Wicked the book after exposure to the musical might be in for a shock. We'll break it to you up front: the book is almost nothing like the musical. Really. The book does not have a happy ending, and people who are fake-dead in the musical are, well, "really most sincerely dead" (movie shout-out) in the book. Wicked was conceived by Maguire as a philosophical reflection on evil, after all.
Maguire explains that he became interested in the nature of evil in the early 1990s, when the media in England were covering the "evil" Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War and the horrifying local murder of a toddler by teenagers. Maguire says:
"I became interested in the nature of evil, and whether one really could be born bad. I considered briefly writing a novel about Hitler.... But when I realized that nobody had ever written about the second most evil character in our collective American subconscious, the Wicked Witch of the West , I thought I had experienced a small moment of inspiration." (source)
So it's no wonder that the book isn't all sunshine, poppy fields, and yellow brick roads. Instead, it's philosophical, thoughtful, and a lot darker (and less musical) than any previous or subsequent incarnation of Oz.
Why Should I Care?
Unlike the musical, Wicked the book isn't really about "popularity" or "defying gravity." It's really more of a dark and twisty downer. So why should you care about this book when there's a perfectly happy musical version available, where the heroine actually gets a happy ending?
Well, aside from curiosity as to what inspired Wicked the musical in the first place, this book is worth caring about because it really is the perfect companion to the musical. And we're not trying to make some balanced darkness and light metaphor here. We're thinking more of what Obi-Wan said to Luke in Star Wars about how most things in life are true from a certain point of view.
Points of view are what the entire Wicked franchise is all about, after all. Both the book and the musical re-imagine Oz and the people in it. Changing the point of view of a narrative (for instance, from Dorothy's to the Witch's) can help us to see the stories we know differently and help us find new depth and complexity in old characters and places.
So just think of Wicked the musical as the alternate reality version of Wicked the book, which is the alternate reality version of The Wizard of Oz.... What's cool is that we have a whole universe of Oz lore to explore, and many different versions of the life of the Wicked Witch of the West. In our book, that makes Wicked worth caring about.