Franchise Evolution: The Grinch

It’s the holiday season again, and one of the most beloved of all Christmas stories is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The book was written by Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

Published in 1957, the title character is a monstrous unfriendly sort who’s disgusted with how the populace in the village of Whoville, below his mountain home, are always so giddy at Christmastime. With the reluctant help of his dog Max, the Grinch attempts to give the Whos their worst Christmas ever by stealing all their food, presents, and decorations. Crudely disguising himself as Santa Claus and disguising Max as a reindeer, the Grinch goes to Whoville in a sleigh, and as the Whos sleep, he and Max take all their possessions. They’re almost caught in the act by young Cindy Lou Who, but the Grinch convinces her that he’s really Santa Claus, and taking their tree to his workshop to fix a light, and with that he sends her back to bed.

After dumping all their presents and decorations over the mountain, the Grinch waits eagerly for cries of anguish from the Whos, only to hear joyful singing at the arrival of Christmas. While shocked at getting the opposite reaction he was expecting, the Grinch begins to realize that the holiday season is not so much about material possessions, but rather love, joy, and family. He subsequently redeems himself by preventing the Whos’ possessions from falling over the abyss and returns with his huge load to Whoville, where he and Max join them in their annual feast.

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The book would go on to be adapted for the screen three times. So, which is the best of these three? Let’s find out!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

The first version originally aired on CBS on December 18, 1966. The story was animated by Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones and narrated by Boris Karloff, who also voiced the title character. In addition, there were three songs created for the special: “Welcome Christmas”, “Trim Up the Tree”, and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”. The latter was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, best known for voicing Tony the Tiger in commercials for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

An uncredited June Foray voices Cindy Lou Who. Foray also voiced other classic animated characters such as Rocky from Rocky & Bullwinkle and Tweety Bird’s owner Granny. Curiously, Karloff would voice the character in the subsequently released soundtrack version of the story, which was released at the same time the special aired.

Unlike the other two filmed versions of the story, the plot of this Grinch adaptation is pretty much the same as the book, as summarized above.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Over 30 years later came a feature-length film adaptation of the book, directed by Ron Howard and with Jim Carrey as the title character. As this was a bona-fide movie and not a half-hour special, it was perhaps inevitable that some additions were made to the story for purposes of length. In this version, the Grinch still hates Christmas and the Whos, but the feeling is mutual here, because he’s known for pulling harmful pranks on them. Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) believes her fellow Whos emphasize the material aspect of Christmas too much. She also encounters the Grinch one day and learns that he has a tragic past.

As a child, the Grinch was adopted by two sisters. He grew up shy and with a crush on Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski). Her friendship with the Grinch led to jealousy from Augustus Maywho (Jeffrey Tambor), who began to pick on the Grinch. The other kids, save Martha, laughed at the Grinch when he attempted to shave off his beard. This led to him shouting that he hates Christmas and running off to live on Mount Crumpit.

This story prompts Cindy to nominate the Grinch for Whoville’s “Holiday Cheermeister”. This displeases Maywho, who’s become mayor of Whoville, but the Grinch accepts the offer when Cindy climbs Mount Crumpit to invite him. However, just as the Grinch is beginning to have fun, Maywho reminds him of his past bullying by giving him an electric shaver and even proposes to Martha in front of him. This angers the Grinch, who lashes out at the Whos and returns to Mount Crumpit.

It’s at this point that the Grinch begins plotting to make Christmas miserable for the Whos by stealing all their things as they’re sleeping. Disguised as Santa and with Max disguised as a reindeer, the Grinch returns to Whoville and breaks into Cindy’s house first. She catches him stealing the tree, but he lies to her in order to get away. The Grinch hits the other houses before returning to Mt. Crumpit.

That morning, the Whos are horrified by the massive theft. Maywho blames Cindy for allowing this to happen, but her father Lou Lou Who (Bill Irwin) defends her by repeating her stance that Christmas is not about gifts or possessions but love and family. The other Whos agree and begin singing.

Hearing the joyous caroling, the Grinch has his epiphany. This gives him the strength to prevent his massive bag of stolen goods from falling down the mountain, saving Cindy as well, who had stowed herself away in the bag in order to spend Christmas with the Grinch. They ride back down to Whoville, where the Grinch apologizes and surrenders himself to the police. His apology is accepted, overriding Maywho’s orders to arrest and pepper spray him. Martha rejects Maywho as the Grinch joins in the Whos’ feast.

The Grinch (2018)

This third version of the book is both a feature film and animated. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the title role here, and as with the previous version, there were additions made in order to make this feature length.

Christmas is coming and the Whos are excited while the Grinch is not, but Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) is noting how stressed her mom (Rashida Jones) is from taking care of her and her brothers. En route to mailing a letter to Santa Claus (with a wish to help her mom), Cindy meets the Grinch, who snidely says that she’d have to personally chat with Kris Kringle in order to help her mother. Cindy decides to trap Santa after her mother says it would take too long for her to travel to the North Pole.

The Grinch, meanwhile, unsuccessfully tries to ruin a tree-lighting ceremony, which leads to him remembering his lonely childhood in an orphanage. He decides to deal with this pain by ruining the Whos’ Christmas. He buys a big reindeer he names Fred and steals a sleigh from his neighbor. But the Grinch lets Fred go after learning that he has a family. This prompts the Grinch to draft Max into taking his place.

But upon arriving in Whoville on Christmas Eve, the Grinch falls into Cindy’s trap. Although he’s touched by Cindy’s request to help her mom, the Grinch carries on with his task. After his massive theft, the Grinch returns to Mt. Crumpit with Max. The Whos awake and are shocked that all their things are gone. Cindy blames herself because of her Santa trap, but Cindy’s mom reassures her that Christmas is not about presents but about love, which she has so much of for Cindy.

The Grinch is puzzled at hearing joyful singing from the Whos, but listening to it makes his own heart soar and prompts him to save his massive bag of stolen goods, with the help of Fred and his family, before it falls off the mountain. The Grinch returns the stolen goods, and after apologizing, returns to his home, ashamed of himself. Sympathizing with the Grinch, Cindy invites him to celebrate Christmas with her family. He accepts, saying that it wasn’t Christmas he hated, but being lonely.

Which is best?

This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but the original 1966 version remains the most famous version of the book, not to mention the most faithful to its source material. Karloff, who was already known and loved for his roles in such classic films as Frankenstein and The Mummy was the perfect choice to voice the Grinch. He would even win a Grammy for his voice work on the album of the special. Likewise, Jones’s animated work here is every bit as great as his Looney Tunes work.

Ironically, Thurl Ravenscroft was not credited in the closing credits of the special, which may be why many attributed the singing to Karloff. This led Seuss to call Ravenscroft to apologize, as well as to write letters to reporters across the country to ensure that Ravenscroft’s contribution would not be overlooked. Ravenscroft would go on to voice the later Seuss TV specials Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax.

The 2000 film has its moments (having Sir Anthony Hopkins narrate the story was a nice touch), and that may actually be its problem as well: it stuffs way too much into what should be a simple story. Carrey certainly has the control over his facial expressions needed for such a role as the Grinch, and the legendary Rick Baker does his usual great job with the Grinch makeup (it even won Baker another of his many Oscars). But the unnecessary backstory of the film, along with the innuendos (although this proved to be nothing compared to those in the later big-screen version of The Cat in the Hat) fail to make the film as enjoyable as the earlier version.

Fortunately, last year’s version of the story delivered something more enjoyable. Like the previous version, it had unnecessary backstory added to make it longer. The Grinch worked perfectly fine as a character whose backstory unknown; all that was important was how he finds reason to smile. The good news is that Cumberbatch delivers (as with Doctor Strange, he utilizes an American accent) as does the rest of the voice cast, which includes Angela Lansbury as the mayor of Whoville.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

Tag: Franchise Evolution

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  • Kradeiz

    I had never seen the 2018 Grinch movie but I checked it out after reading this article. I was pleasantly surprised by it (since both Seuss movies and Illumination have a less than stellar track record). Enough of the original’s spirit is there while being enough of its own thing that you could watch the 60’s special and this close together with no problem. Thanks for the recommendation!