By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the perennially popular children’s book, was excellently adapted in the 1960s for television as an animated short. Like the book it was based on, the program was concise and insightful, bringing the Grinch story to a widespread audience and making it a bona fide cultural phenomenon for the past half-century. Given the animated program’s popularity and the tendency for filmmakers to put on the silver screen those things they adored when they were young, it was only a matter of time before somebody would turn it into a feature-length film. That time came in the winter of 2000, and that somebody was Ron Howard. And the failure he wrought upon Dr. Seuss is something the Whos still sing about.
For those of you who (somehow) don’t know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” let me give you the quick version: the Grinch is a rather ill-spirited loner who lives outside of the town of Whoville. Every year, the Whos of Whoville celebrate Christmas with much singing, gift giving, feasting and enjoyment, much to the annoyance of the Grinch. One particular Christmas eve, the Grinch decides to steal all of the Whos’ food, gifts, and decorations in hopes that they won’t celebrate the holiday, only to find the Whos still rejoicing on Christmas morn. This causes a change of heart in the Grinch, who realizes that Christmas has a much deeper meaning than he had thought, and so he takes everything he stole back to the Whos and celebrates whole-heartedly in the holiday.
It’s a nice, short children’s story, and the message is appropriately subtle. The book, read thoroughly, can still be finished in a little less than a half-hour, which was also about the running time of the animated program. You may wonder how such a pithy tale translated to a two-hour film.
Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Howard & Co. for needing to add more to this story in order to fit it to film. I am not criticizing them for exploring Whoville in greater depth, giving the Grinch more personality, or providing him more of a reason for disliking Christmas. My issue is that this film changes the very nature of the story itself.
In the original story, what the Grinch failed to understand was the concept of the sacramental (see James’s review of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ for a detailed explanation.) Gifts and feasts and songs are signs of Christmas—pointing to the charity, love and hope of the holiday—but they are not what the season is about. Though it might seem strange, we, as humans, are more like the Grinch than the Whos in the story, for we often lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas amongst all of the clutter. The altruistic Whos, then, are what we strive to be, understanding the important role of sacramentals, but never confusing them with or forgetting about the real meaning of the holiday.
Contrast this with what Ron Howard gives us in the film, which is a Whoville that is overwhelmingly materialistic and almost hedonistically obsessed with gifts, celebrations and parties (references to sex, adultery and alcohol—all of which are found in the film—should NEVER EVER belong in anything Dr.Seuss-related). The Whos are a self-absorbed, self-righteous lot, hardly a model to live up to, hardly a great contrast to the Grinch, played far too extravagantly by Jim Carrey under heavy make-up. Sorry, Carrey, the Grinch was grumpy and a little eccentric, never border-line insane.
As in the book, the Grinch hates the Whos, but here it’s completely understandable. He hates them because of their arrogance, their selfishness, their blatantly shallow commercialism, and their underlying cruelty. It is revealed in flashbacks that he lived among the Whos as a child, only to be mocked and ridiculed by them. He might be over the top, and he might be a little crazy, but the Grinch’s resentment for the Whos and their holiday is hardly misplaced. Unlike the book, the Grinch’s flawed understanding of Christmas doesn’t come from some misconception of the Whos and their ideas of Christmas, it is rather a direct result of the attitudes of the Whos themselves. In that sense the Grinch is almost in the right. Though he may not understand the meaning of the holiday, neither do the Whos. The exception, of course, is a young girl, Cindy Lu Who, who seems to consummately grasp the real meaning of Christmas. In the book she was a charming representative of the Whos’ good ways, here she is an exception to their rule. Her message of goodwill would be endearing if it unfortunately weren’t so on the nose; the subtlety of the book has been replaced with a kind of embarrassing blatancy. And unlike the book or the animated program, the film never quite effectively answers what role sacramentals play in the role of holidays.
This leads me to believe that Ron Howard, in fact, “stole” The Grinch. He borrows the characters as well as the setting from Dr. Seuss’s story, and he inserts them in a superficially similar, but far inferior, plot. The combination of over-acting, extravagant but poorly designed sets, and bad cinematography don’t help much either, as they make the film oddly depressing. The film’s humor does work semi-frequently, but again, it’s typically adult in nature and not really something for a Dr. Seuss story. Worst of all, again, the film’s moral is too blunt to have the same effect it did in the book or animated program.
All of this is another way to say that ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is a mediocre film that attempts to cash in on nostalgia. On it’s own, it’s worthy of a few laughs, and Carrey’s performance, while not faithful to Dr. Seuss, is at times admirable. But as an adaptation of one of the most profound children’s stories by one of the most influential children’s writers, it simply does not deliver.