In 1957, Theodor Geisel, under his pen-name Dr. Seuss, released a storybook for children title How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As with many of his works, the tale included a lesson which, in this case, was that Christmas was about peace, love, and joy, instead of decorations and presents. The book was received well, and was adapted into an animated special in 1966 which padded the runtime with new songs written for the occasion by Geisel himself. This was also received well, and has been a staple of American television at Christmas ever since, along with entering the pop culture mythos. For many, this is what they imagine when you ask them about The Grinch. But there is another… in 2000, the story was adapted for the big screen in live-action by director Ron Howard- of Apollo 13 fame- which clocked in at a staggering 1 hour and 50 minutes. I have seen both ends of the reaction spectrum with this one, from hate and ridicule right through to love and enjoyment, but whatever your opinion, it exists in infamy.
The plot follows The Grinch as he plots to steal Christmas from the present-and-decoration-obsessed Whos of Whoville. We also glimpse the life of Cindy Lou Who, who is no more than six, and seems to be the only Who aware that Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. If you are familiar with the Whos of old, this may seem a little odd to you, because they knew what Christmas was about and this seemed to be what finally changed The Grinch’s sour heart. It’s one of the several issues that I have seen levied at the film, but I am of the opinion that it’s a good way of updating the story for the 21st Century. There is a discussion to be had about whether or not the story needed updating, after all the 1966 Special seems to be doing just fine, but there is no denying that society has changed since then. Over the decades, Christmas has only become more commercialised and even in the 20 years since this movie was released it has only continued to increase. It really does feel like the decorating, the shopping, the music, and the advertising start earlier every single year, especially to those of us who work in retail. (Side note: Please be nice to retail employees. They are only doing their jobs and it is especially stressful at this time of year.) Updating the Whos to be consumers makes them more relatable to us, the audience, which makes the final message of the story hit a little bit closer to home.
This update does come with an odd repercussion which becomes difficult for me to ignore. In the original tale and the 1966 Special, we know next to nothing about The Grinch. We know that he hates the joyful noise, lives atop Mount Crumpet, is disgusting, wears shoes that are too tight, and has a dog named Max. However, the film gives us an extensive backstory where he is taken in by two old women, is made fun of as a child, and when he finally gets into the Christmas Spirit is mocked by his peers and his teacher. (2 side notes: Firstly, those women are lesbians and I love them. Secondly, that teacher sucks. I mean if you are that mean to a child you need to find a different job). We know exactly why he hates this time of year, and if it wasn’t clear enough, when The Grinch finally returns to town he gives a lecture about how the Whos are focused on the presents and the decorations to a ridiculous degree, which is what inevitably leads to his decision to steal Christmas. Where as the original had him hating the Whos and wanting to do something exceedingly cruel, here he is trying to teach them a lesson. The Grinch is not the villain of this movie, he is more like the anti-hero. There is one constant between these iterations, and that is that his dog Max is adorable. You can add and change what you want about this story, but it is difficult to not make Max a cute and lovable character.
The tone of the film is also criticised as it comes across like an action movie instead of an uplifting Christmas tale. However I do wonder if this is because many are viewing it through the same lens that they view the 1966 Special. Personally, I have never viewed it through this lens because until recently I had not seen that special, and this film was actually my introduction to the town of Whoville. Now that I have seen it, and have compared it to the film, I have come to the conclusion that the 2000 version is itself a response to the commercialism of that year. Through this lens, the film becomes a parody of the media that surrounded it. It has all the traits of a blockbuster, from the relatable villain and montages to the chaos and explosions, but if you really look at what message the film is delivering, it doesn’t fit in with that genre. The message is that same as it has always been, but it is being reached in a way that seems to be the complete opposite of how it was done in the original. I think the best example of what I mean may be the mayor of Whoville, who is more like a game show host than a mayor, right down to the promise of a new car. Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a beautiful book and a marvellous television special, with a beautiful message, but if you are expecting a direct adaptation, I think the satire in this film may go over your head.
In terms of adapting the design of the book to the realm of live action, I remain stunned as to how close it is. The Whos themselves are mildly odd to look at because they allowed them to look a little more human, but once you get over that, it fits with the rest of the aesthetic. Every physical aspect seems to have been lifted directly from the book, and all this led to Academy Award nominations for Best Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup – the last of which it won. There are also elements that originated with the 1966 Special that have carried over, including You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch, and The Grinch’s green skin tone, which have themselves become synonymous with the story and the festive season. Special acknowledgements must go to James Horner for his brilliant score and to Jim Carrey- The Grinch himself.
It’s possible that the two and a half hour long application of the Grinch makeup has become as well known as the film itself, but I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t the makeup doing the acting, it’s Carrey. If you don’t like Jim Carrey, and his cartoonish performance style, then this really isn’t the film for you because he’s in full swing here. It takes a great amount of skill to act through a costume that only allows us to see your eyes and mouth, but Carrey had proved he could do this with his 1994 film The Mask. He has often been likened to a living cartoon character, and that is not the mockery that some may think it is. Wife of the author Audrey Geisel herself said that she thought only several men could pull of the role: Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, and Jim Carrey. For the record, she was absolutely right.
So here we are, 20 years later and, love it or hate it, we are still talking about Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There is now a generation of children that experienced this before any other Grinch media. I have watched it every year since I was young, as have many of my friends, and as someone who enjoys this film I can see why there are those who don’t like it. Although I don’t think it’s as far removed from the source material as it could have been, I dare say that you could recreate the 1966 special using the footage from this film, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what version you prefer. What matters is who you share it with.
Until Next Time…
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