Study Guide

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

By Gregory Maguire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Introduction

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.

What is Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West About and 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.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West Resources

Websites

Gregory Maguire's Official Website
Want to learn more about Maguire and all the other books he's written? This is the site for you. It's hosted by his publisher, Harper Collins.

Wicked the Musical
The musical's official site. This site has some cool behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast, crew, and Gregory Maguire.

Wicked: The Novel, the Musical, and the Author
One website for all your Wicked needs. This site has news items about the novel, the musical, and the sequels that take place in the "Wicked-verse." The site is hosted by Stephen Schwarz, the composer of the music for Wicked the musical.

The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairytale
Interested in learning more about the book that got this whole thing started? Check out the Library of Congress's Wizard of Oz exhibit, which has lots of great archival images and information about L. Frank Baum and the history of his famous Oz novels.

The Wizard of Oz Online
A website devoted to everything Oz: the original novel series, the 1939 movie, Wicked, and Wicked the musical. The site also has a store where you can buy Wizard of Oz costumes. We guess it's never too early to start planning for Halloween.

The Wizard of Oz at Seventy
This Guardian article has tons of pictures and all sorts of cool trivia about the making of The Wizard of Oz. Did you know that the movie is over seventy years old? Well, now you do. Put on a birthday hat and throw some confetti. (Extra confetti for the original novel, which is over a hundred years old.)

Meet the Writers: Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire's page at Barnes and Noble's Meet the Writers series. It has audio interviews with the author, a fact file, and links to some of his favorite novels.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
A comprehensive website and blog dedicated to Baum's novel series.

Baum vs. Maguire
A cool rundown of the two authors' respective biographies and their shared ties to Oz. This page also includes links to some other Wicked-related articles and material.

Movie or TV Productions

The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Info on the 1939 movie, staring Judy Garland as Dorothy.

The Wiz, 1978
Another Oz story. This one stars Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.

Documents

New York Times Review of Wicked
A 1995 review of Wicked by Michiko Kakutani. It's pretty critical in places, so all you fans can Tweet angrily after reading it.

USA Today Interview with Maguire
A pretty lengthy interview with Maguire about his sequel to Wicked, Son of a Witch, as well as the Wicked phenomenon itself.

Entertainment Weekly Review of Wicked
The original review of Wicked from the EW archives (1995).

Powell's Books Interview with Gregory Maguire
Great interview with the author about Wicked and many of his other works.

Chicago Tribune Interview with Gregory Maguire
Maguire talks about the musical, his book, and witches.

Wicked + Harry Potter
Fictional worlds collide! Not really – this is just a book review that Maguire wrote of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If you like Maguire's writing in general, he has written other reviews for the New York Times, as well as tons of other novels.

Wicked Good Time
A pretty lengthy interview with Maguire, plus a history of the Broadway musical and a review of the show by a newspaper in Tampa Bay.

Video

Gregory Maguire Goes to Borders
And he does some interviews there. This page has a series of video interviews with Gregory Maguire, handily divided into separate segments, so you can watch just the Wicked content or everything. These interviews were done in 2007, when Maguire was promoting his new novel, What-the-Dickens, a story about a rogue tooth fairy. Color us intrigued.

Maguire Lecture at Miami University
Part one of a three-part video series of a lecture Maguire gave at Miami University in 2006. The lecture covers a wide range of topics.

Wicked the Musical: Behind the Scenes
Selection from a behind-the-scenes documentary about Wicked the musical.

Audio

NPR Interview
NPR's Mike Pesca interviews Maguire on his Wicked novels just before the opening of the Broadway musical.

An Evening with Gregory Maguire
Interview with Maguire on New Hampshire Public Radio, where he discusses all things Wicked.

Images

The Wicked Witch of the West – 1939 Movie
Here are a couple of images of the iconic Wicked Witch of the West, as played by actress Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland.

Wicked: The Broadway Musical
Here are some images from the Broadway show, where Elphaba looks pretty fashionable and Fiyero is suddenly blonde.

Wicked: The Poster
The very stylized poster for the musical version of Wicked.

"I'm melting, I'm melting!"
Illustration (a highly disturbing one, by the way) of the Witch melting in Baum's 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This illustration, and all the others in Baum's book, was done by W.W. Denslow.

The Emerald City
Image of the Emerald City, looking very sparkly, from the 1939 movie.

Gregory Maguire
The brains behind this whole Wicked thing.

But Where's Boq?
Picture of the Munchkins in the aptly named Munchkinland in the 1939 movie.

"I want those shoes!"
The ruby slippers from the 1939 movie, plus the Witch herself reaching for them.