It appears a great deal is already known about the Grinch. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904, did some graduate work at Oxford, left school to establish his Zarathustra’s eyrie on Mount Crumpit in Canada—and was fifty-three years old at the time of his conversion to Christianity. I should say his putative conversion.
The book documenting this most famous episode of his life is called How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—not The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It doesn’t matter; Google knows what you meant. The television cartoon, upon which so many people in my generation have based their personalities, aired for the first time in December 1966. Boris Karloff, who did the voice of the Grinch, was nearly eighty at the time. He had less than two years to live.
Other facts about the Grinch. Shoes very tight. Quite spry despite congestive heart disease. Congestive heart disease despite vegetarianism. In many moments of repose, he looks exactly like the Cat in the Hat. And—again like the Cat in the Hat—he was a person of immense enterprise and imagination.
Let me point out three reasons why the cartoon is superior to the book. (Perhaps this is the place to mention that, in the year 2000, a feature-length Grinch movie came out, starring Jim Carrey as a pile of green modeling clay with feathers sticking out of it or something. I have not seen this film.)
First point. In the cartoon, the dog, Max, is essential. His uncomplaining, cringing, all-forgiving personality contributes a great deal to the visual buffoonery of the piece. This is absent in the book, where the dog is only a prop: once the fake antlers are tied to his head, he has hardly a role to play in the book’s narrative.
Second point. In the cartoon, the Grinch’s hyper-competence is everywhere given its due. Recall the segments where “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is being sung, segments that feature the Grinch sometimes proceeding with wicked efficiency (e.g., using a magnet to draw out the tacks holding up the Whos’ stockings, which then fall one by one into his sack) and other times with teasing leisureliness (e.g., winding up individual mechanical toys and marching them into his sack). The Grinch radiates precision and elegance. This is absent in the book.
Third point. Using advanced new technology, it has been determined that the expressiveness of the Grinch’s face in the cartoon is 790 times that of his expressiveness in the book. Consider the variety:
Nothing approaching this occurs in the book.
There are other points that could be mentioned: the dynamic “camera angles” of the cartoon, the songs and orchestration, perhaps even the rigmarole of Seussian toy names. All of these are absent in the book, yet none of them seems dispensable. Anyone who knows the cartoon (i.e., everyone in America under the age of fifty) would howl in indignation at the thought of removing the dog, the songs, the thieving antics, the sleigh-ride antics. All that stuff is gold bullion.
Very well! The cartoon is better. The question is not which is better but how did this happen. How is it that the Grinch, when he sat down to write his conversion narrative—fresh from the experience—produced a comparatively colorless narrative, which he then vastly improved nine years later under pressure of collaboration? One would have thought that collaboration, especially with a visionary like Chuck Jones (who was responsible for all the best-known Warner Brothers cartoons, along with seven-eighths of whatever else you loved as a child), would have been devastating to the project. Imagine John Bunyan rewriting Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, nine years later, in collaboration with John Milton. The mind reels.
Yet here is the solution. It is quite simple. The Grinch’s conversion did not really “take” in 1957. The Grinch, growing old and soft (and fifty-three is the perfect age for this), had allowed himself to be swayed into accepting the Whos’ singing (that is, their singing despite having been robbed of their presents and decorations) as evidence that
Maybe Christmas […] doesn’t come from a store
Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!
He must have suspected, even at the time, that the Whos were merely putting on a show, trying to con themselves into thinking they were above their bourgeois comforts. Yet he made the mistake of going back to Whoville to return their stuff, and to see for himself. He must have observed, in the master’s chambers, as they gathered for their feast, and as they stabbed it with their steely knives, and as he—he himself—carved the roast beast, that it was all hollow pretense. That the Whos had sung, hoping God would return their goodies, and that perhaps he, the Grinch, had returned said goodies only so he could play at being the recovered lamb and Santa Claus. And perhaps even God. Also begann Zarathustras Untergang.
And so, nine years later, all was parody and high spirits once again. The Whos are rendered as a bunch of smiley faces on sticks; the serpent once again the acknowledged hero; and the ground cleared for the only sincere moral work the Grinch ever published—a piece brave in its atheism and in its exposure of his only genuine repentance, toward the earth itself. Of course, I am speaking of The Lorax (1972), a book that means what it seems to mean, and which does not end on a triumphalist note.
“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “that I simply must hear!”
He paused, and the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.