The Grinch - Why do we keep retelling the same stories?

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

What’s your favourite Christmas film? Are you thinking of it now? Got it? Good. I’m sure many of you will be thinking of Elf. A good choice. Other’s will be remembering the magical scenes of 'The Polar Express' or 'A Christmas Carol'. Some of our older readers may be thinking of the classics like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘It's a Wonderful Life’. How many of you thought of 'The Grinch?' (I imagine quite a few seeing as an animated picture of the little guy is plastered all over this blog post). Nonetheless, ‘The Grinch’ (Or, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas') is a favourite of many when it comes to classic Christmas comfort movies. And for those Grinch fans out there, Christmas 2018 has been a very exciting one; a brand new Grinch film has exploded into cinemas. For a long time, the early Noughties film starring Jim Carrey as the title role, has been the most popular telling of the Grinch story. But, as is always the case, there are always newer and younger audiences to reach and re-boots are an inevitability. Often these can be disappointing renditions of a beloved story and can almost ruin the original for us all. But 'The Grinch' was widely received as a critical success and an honest, well made retelling. The film, directed by both Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, delivers. Right from the beginning with it’s incredible swooping camera sequence, that truly makes you feel as though you are flying over the snowy hills of Whoville. Something is also to be said for the up to date, ‘body poppin’ sountrack, largely arranged by the one and only Pharrell Williams who also narrates the picture (quite a difference from Anthony Hopkins’ narration of the 2000 classic).

Ron Howard’s Grinch, however, has much to be said for it’s creativity in the telling of the story. Aside from providing great entertainment and a heart warming story for children, it depicts a candid representation of the capitalist creed and corruption that seems to have swept Whoville in a way that Dr. Seuss might never have imagined when writing the original children’s picture book. The opening scene of Howard’s picture shows the citizens of Whoville in a state of panic and chaos as they all try to simultaneously purchase as many Christmas gifts as is possible. We see multiple cuts between barging shoulders, ringing tills and dollar bills being flung every which way. As a viewer in 2018, it is hard not to be reminded of the ludicrous pandemonium that is ‘Black Friday’ and the chaos that is caused by the prospect of ‘deals’ to purchase technology that promises to enhance our lives indefinitely for the better. This provides a stark contrast to the latest cinematic depiction of The Grinch. The opening scene of Cheney/Mosier's film shows wild geese swooping through the trees, leading us into the town of Whoville where the shops shut their doors and the town’s people head on home to spend time with their beloved family. The first time The Grinch enters the town to buy groceries he is greeted by a bombardment of carol singers. This isn’t the last instance of some kind of direct difference between Howard’s film and Cheney/Mosier's. Take the citizens of Whoville for example, and the town itself. Whoville, in the latest film, is shown as, what can only be described as, a utopia. The people are constantly joyous and are in full swing of the true Christmas spirit throughout the picture. However, take a closer look at the people of the town in Howard’s film; from the corruption of power that we see in ‘Mayor Augustus Maywho’, to the underlying sexual promiscuity that seems to ravage the town. Some of you may be frowning at that last one and trying to remember at what point in the movie this occurs. It’s subtle, but it’s there. While Cindy Lou Who is researching around the town, asking about The Grinch's past, we see a flash back from the two ladies who brought him up. During this sequence, numerous babies fall through the air and land on the doorsteps of their new family homes. One man opens the door to find his new child and shouts to his wife, “Hey honey, our babies here! He looks just like your boss…” After this, we see through the window of the house that our baby Grinch lands outside of and Ron shows us a clear shot of a male ‘Who’ putting his keys into an already full glass jar… (If you still aren’t sure at what they are getting at, urban dictionary is always here to help). All this is to say that Howard is clearly trying to give adult viewers a picture of the people of Whoville – to expose their corruption, deviance and hedonism.

The next question, then, is why? Well, it could be argued that perhaps the latest Grinch instalment is just supposed to be more child friendly, and this is certainly true. Its glossy, vibrant animation and up-to-date soundtrack all add up to make this film more appealing to a younger audience; but what if there is something else going on in this new portrayal of The Grinch. In the original film, The Grinch can almost be excused for hating Christmas - why wouldn’t he? All the people of the town are hedonistic, self-gratifying bullies that want nothing more from the Christmas festivities than to be the Christmas Whobilation ‘Holiday Cheermeister’, or to have the best Christmas lights, or to have purchased the best Christmas gift. When the Grinch preaches that all they care about is presents, he is right. And after he succeeds in stealing their Christmas, the town is devastated. In contrast, the people of Whoville in Cheney/Mosier's version immediately recognise that the spirit of Christmas is not held in material goods and start to rejoice in song as soon as the sun rises over a Whoville with no decorations. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Grinch preaches of the greed and corruption that surrounds Christmas, the audience is left wondering what he is talking about. After-all, everyone in the town of Whoville seems to be a perfectly carved saintly angel.

I think it is safe to say that Ron Howard was commenting on the society at the time when he made ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. He wanted audiences to recognise themselves in the people of Whoville. We were never meant to relate to The Grinch himself – he represented the other, the thing we have to work hard to show love and compassion towards because, when it all comes down to it, it’s what every one of us deserves. So why is this message not repeated in Cheney/Mosier's film? Well, as an adult viewer, it has to be said that it’s hard to find a self-relflective message in the people of the 2018 Whoville. But this does not mean that a lesson is not learned from the film. It is, in fact, The Grinch himself who the audience sees as a reflection of themselves. The towns’ people are merely a soft and fluffy buffer to lull us into a sense of security. In this film, we learn that The Grinch is the way he is, not through having been bullied at school as a child, but from being abandoned in a seemingly empty orphanage by parents that we never even see. It is this childhood trauma that fuels the Grinchs' unreasonable hatred for the people of Whoville. There is a love within the Grinch, trying to emanate itself, to find an outlet and when it can’t find a platform, it releases itself in moments of anger and selfishness towards others. Maybe this is something that is true for us all and was certainly true for the people of Whoville 2000. But maybe it is not so easy in this modern world to shove that message down people’s throats. What was once subtle in Howard’s movie, now becomes an obvious exposé of our true nature. Perhaps what Cheney and Mosier are trying to do is offer a new insight into the workings of our modern society. Maybe Howard’s message has lost its potency. Most of us are aware of our destructive shopping habits, obsessions with material goods and the chaos this can bring. How many of us are aware of our own childhood trauma and the impact it still has on the way we operate in our current adult relationships?

Cinema has always been a platform for both populist escapism and the self-reflecting morality tale and great film balances both. What both Grinch movies do well is provide a wonderland for us all to escape into – the rhymes, the characters, the world of Whoville. What both films also do is teach the audience a lesson about how to be better people. Maybe Howard’s original instalment did so well at teaching us that particular lesson, that it is nnow so firmly placed in our collective consciousness that to try and re-tell it in 2018 would come across as obsessive and uninteresting. What Cheney and Mosier have managed to do is find a new message in the same old story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They have managed to enlighten a whole new audience, young and old, about how to live their lives in a way that spreads as much love and as much joy as possible. And maybe, in a world that seems so fuelled by greed and fear, that is just the message we need over this holiday season.

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