One of the greatest facets of any storytelling tradition is the ability to bring an old story to new life by recasting it in some way.
Cast your line into a different point of the story, like Gregory Maguire did in “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” and not only is the resulting story a tremendous catch in its own right, it can even swim upstream and forever change the source where it was spawned. There’s an art to this, known only to the best writers.
But often a lesser, if still talented, writer will visit the fishing hole, reel in a story, and put it in another pond. To be sure, it’s a feat to make the story survive the transplant into a new setting, but if you want readers, viewers or other writers to start making pilgrimages to your new story, you have to make sure the story fits in its new setting.
That was how I felt recently watching the Sci-Fi Network’s “Tin Man,” recorded and recommended to me by my friend Rob the musician. It was clever way to retell “The Wizard of Oz,” but by the time we had finished watching the miniseries, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. .
The story starts well enough to get your hopes up that it will be an interesting story, as the Dorothy character, D.G. (Zooey Deschanel), is disturbed by a nightmare ― “The Dream,” her father ominously calls it, when D.G. isn’t around ― and before long, she and her parents are whisked off through a cyclone to the Outer Zone.
The Outer Zone is a world under the tyrannical rule of Azkadelia, this story’s version of the Wicked Witch of the West. From this point of the story on, the main source of entertainment is looking for the nods, winks, and sly references to the 1939 MGM movie, spotting the Scarecrow in an apparent felon who had half his brain removed, the Tin Man in a resistance fighter who has been imprisoned in an iron suit for several years, and so on.
Some of these are clever enough to laugh at ― Toto, it turns out is a child’s mispronunciation of “tutor,” the job this particular character had fourteen years ago ― but the story itself flounders on the flat acting the principals offer, the evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil behavior of the witch, and the failure of the story to transcend its source material.
What’s worse, some times it fails even to reach the level of sophistication of the MGM movie, and if you’ve seen the MGM movie, you know what a statement that is. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion find the brains, heart, and courage to rescue Dorothy from the witch; here, D.G. has to tell them that they have those things in a scene that carries none of the growth, none of the realization, and none of the meaning of its parallel scene.
When he wrote “Wicked,” Maguire so transformed the Wizard of Oz that the witch’s name became “Elphaba” once and for all. Similarly, the wizard was forever recast as a brutally fascist dictator.
“Tin Man” could have done that. The miniseries skims across the surface of a story to the title character that could have remarkable depth, where some truly tremendous fish are waiting to be reeled in. Unfortunately, while what they did catch wasn’t floating upside-down, it wasn’t in good shape at all.