Emerald City loses its gleam

8th November 1996 at 00:00
THE WIZARD OF OZ By L Frank Baum, Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger North-South Pounds 14.99.

Lisbeth Zwerger says that The Wizard of Oz was "new territory" for her, that she has no "seriously" illustrated edition and that she has never seen "the complete" MGM film. So that's all right: she can't be accused of approaching the task of illustrating L Frank Baum's fairy tale with undue preconception.

I should mention here that Lisbeth Zwerger is a new illustrator to me, that I admire John R Neill's robust original illustrations to the Oz series and that I have seen the film. So this edition, which comes with a pair of green specs for wearing in the Emerald City chapters, is one that I find presumptuous. How is it possible to ignore the image of Judy Garland, acting childish, the Munchkin troupe, the Yellow Brick Road sets and the flying monkeys, like miniaturised King Kongs bent on revenge?

Unlike Lewis Carroll, L Frank Baum wasn't satisfied with just one sequel. He flogged Oz through 14 volumes, his invention flagging. This is so even here, and for any child coming new to the story without having seen the film, the narrative detours will be irksome.

This is where the illustrations should help, just as special effects did in lending enchantment to the screenplay. Lisbeth Zwerger, however, has a too-delicate manner. Oz is nothing if not Zsa Zsa Gaborville ("beautiful houses all built of green marble and studded everywhere with sparkling emeralds"); and a resourceful illustrator, while suppressing memories of the cinematic model, would have put the frolic in period. That's to say, turn of the century and in a properly realised Midwest.

Oz is, after all, an adult's notion of a child's view of a World's Fair. Shall we say the St Louis World's Fair, celebrated in Meet Me in St Louis? Illustration should enhance a text, tease it out and spark off full illusion. Not prettify, not artify; especially not when the story is so blatantly a journalistic attempt to create an American Wonderland.

Dorothy has none of Alice's sharpness; indeed she reacts to characters and events as predictably as Anne of the Famous Five. It isn't an illustrator's duty to strengthen a heroine, particularly when she is designed to be something of a cipher. But equally it is not the illustrator's job to make a book less vivid.

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