What the Grinch movies get wrong about the Grinch

December 12, 2021

Recently, writer Jesse Spector surfaced one of the most cursed tweets of this, or any, Christmas season. Behold: police “arresting” the Grinch.

As Jesse correctly noted — with appropriate profanity — the biggest point of the Grinch story is that he learns the spirit of Christmas and redeems himself. Having police arrest the Grinch is bitter irony for those of us who believe the American carceral state holds too much sway in the popular imagination, because arresting and jailing the Grinch mostly forecloses upon his opportunities for redemption and improvement, and it's deeply dispiriting to see that display lauded as some kind of happy conclusion.

Jesse’s tweet inspired me to revisit Dr. Seuss’s book, and a few things occurred to me while reading. It’s very good as these things go — in the Seuss canon, I put How the Grinch Stole Christmas! behind only Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and Green Eggs and Ham — but I also think the two major movies that have been made based on it fall short in specific ways that may be contributing to people thinking of the Grinch as merely an antisocial asshole.

To start, the book isn’t that long, and the 1960s TV special is less than a half hour long, so to stretch it out to feature length, the Grinch movies have had to create new material to pad it out. I’ll start with the Illumination animated feature that stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, titled The Grinch. Perhaps in an ill-considered effort to make the story more “family-friendly”, this Grinch isn’t evil so much as he’s a whiner who thinks the jolly Whos are lame-o for celebrating Christmas so enthusiastically. There’s no real menace to this villain, and so while the animation is bright and jangly, the story falls flat.

The 2000 Ron Howard live-action film How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey, has a polarizing reputation (and a worse Metacritic score than the 2018 animated version), but I think that with the passage of time we can see where that movie could have gone in much more interesting directions. Positing that the Grinch is actually a Who and was bullied in childhood for his appearance by a ring of classmates led by the future mayor of Whoville is a choice that could have led to more explicit interrogation of Christmas spirit, or forgiveness.

Ultimately, while Carrey does his Jim Carrey thing to great effect, giving the Grinch a concrete reason to be bitter toward the Whos is a little weird, right? The second line of the book is: “The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.” I’d suggest that having a reason the Grinch wants to hurt the Whos by stealing their Christmas presents detracts from the Grinch’s villainy and undercuts the kindness the Whos show to him by later welcoming him into their community.

I think both productions go wrong because, perhaps counterintuitively, they’re too focused on the Grinch, himself. Imagine, instead, a movie that’s centered on a teenaged Cindy Lou Who, and the Grinch is a supporting character.

Give Cindy an arc. Act I can be establishing Whoville as a place where people do Christmas traditions, like singing in the town square together, out of obligation. Establish that the Grinch is truly bad — not just a miscreant, but someone dangerous and threatening. There isn’t anything the Whos can do about him living outside town, and they warn all the children about him. As with the other movies, have Cindy encounter the Grinch, but compress what makes him evil and his threat to ruin Christmas for Whoville — again, not just a grouch! — into very little screen time.

Act II can be Cindy worrying about the Grinch, talking to her family about it, and people trying to decide if they should take the threat seriously or carry on as before. Someone suggests cancelling the festivities so the Grinch can’t ruin them. That sort of thing. Maybe the B plot is a romantic interest so Cindy has a sidekick with a complicated relationship. Keep it simple! Act II ends with the Grinch stealing all the presents, and Cindy sees him heading out of town with the giant bag and sleigh. Maybe she has a word with him on the way out. I don’t know.

Act III is about what the Whos should do. Some want to form a posse. Some want to leave Whoville. Et cetera. Cindy eventually rallies everyone to embrace the Christmas spirit and carry on, because presents aren’t what Christmas is about. Everyone starts singing in the town square, and when the Grinch returns and explains himself, there’s a whole bunch of tension where the Whos’ commitment to Christmas spirit is tested, but it’s resolved when they extend the Grinch forgiveness, he accepts, and he begins making amends.

Arresting the Grinch and locking him in a cage is understandable for the Whos; they’d be defending themselves from a proven danger to them. However, that logic supposes there isn’t a better way, and what is the Christmas spirit if not believing that peace, love, and joy can take even the most shriveled, sour, and broken heart and start healing it so it may one day be as whole as possible?

(Photo: "How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Your Daughter" by John Loo. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)