“We bring classic elements within the work to life in ways that we hope are fresh, but above all we tried to put ourselves into Theodor Geisel’s mind, and we tried to look for the storytelling that’s between the pages.”
No one, it’s fair to say, was better equipped to adapt the The Grinch into an animated film than Illumination’s founder and CEO Chris Meledandri.
Not only had he successfully adapted two other Seuss books into feature films – 2008’s Horton Hears a Who! and 2012’s The Lorax – but his company, Illumination, has dominated the world of animation for more than a decade with sweet and subversive characters and unexpected stories, including The Secret Life of Pets, Sing, and most notably Gru and his Minions in the Despicable Me franchise, which has grossed more than $3.7 billion worldwide.
The beloved book by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) that became a holiday classic, is now brought to the big screen by Illumination and Universal Pictures, telling the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas, only to have his heart changed by a young girl’s generous holiday spirit. Funny, inspiring and visually stunning, The Grinch tells a universal story about the redemptive power of kindness and the true spirit of Christmas.
The Grinch reimagines the 1957 book How The Grinch Stole Christmas! for a new generation, while remaining true to the vision and intent of its author.
Deeply relevant to our modern times, The Grinch is a tale about the transformative power of forgiveness and is a film that empowers people of all ages to be hopeful, compassionate and generous of heart, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.
Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the Grinch, who lives on Mt. Crumpet with only his loyal dog, Max, for company. Isolated inside a cave he has rigged with inventions and contraptions to meet his day-to-day needs, the Grinch only sees his neighbors when he must venture into Whoville for groceries.
But each year at Christmas the Whos disrupt his solitude with their increasingly bigger, brighter and louder celebrations. So when the Whos — including the Grinch’s ever-cheerful neighbor Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson) — declare they are going to make Christmas three times bigger this year, the Grinch realizes there is only one way for him to gain some peace and quiet: he must steal Christmas. To do so, he decides he will pose as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, even going so far as to trap a lackadaisical reindeer named Fred to pull his sleigh.
Meanwhile, down in Whoville, Cindy-Lou Who (The Greatest Showman’s Cameron Seely)—a young girl overflowing with holiday cheer—plots with her gang of friends to trap Santa Claus as he makes his Christmas Eve rounds so that she can ask him for help for her overworked single mother, Donna Who (Rashida Jones). As Christmas approaches, however, Cindy-Lou’s altruistic plan threatens to collide with the Grinch’s more nefarious one. Will joy and optimism win out over grumpiness and cynicism?
The Grinch is directed by Scott Mosier (producer, Clerks, Chasing Amy and Yarrow Cheney (co-director, The Secret Life of Pets), and is written by Michael Lesieur (Keeping Up with the Jonses) and Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings), based on the book by Dr. Seuss.
Meledandri can trace his attraction to delightfully flawed characters back to the Grinch.
“From a very early age I found myself attracted to characters that had a wicked side to them, especially characters that you enjoyed watching be wicked, but I also like seeing their redemption,” Meledandri says. “In a lot of Illumination films, there’s definitely a recurring theme of characters who have a real edge or a bite to them. So How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was formative for me. I grew up in a household where Dr. Seuss books were plentiful.”
But it was the famed CBS TV special — which first began airing in 1966 and was directed by Chuck Jones, starring the voice of Boris Karloff — that had the biggest impact on Meledandri. “That Chuck Jones special was one of the clear signs each year that Christmas was coming,” he says. “It became a Christmas tradition in my household.”
Meledandri later extended that tradition to his own family when he became a parent. “Stories like The Grinch, you share them with your child, but you actually enjoy them yourself because of that subversive side, that rebellious side. It never grows old. There’s something about that humor that I find satisfying, no matter how many times I’ve read it before, no matter how many times I’ve seen the character.”
The decision to make The Grinch into a feature film seemed an organic one, both for Meledandri and for Geisel’s widow, Audrey. “Audrey Geisel has been the executive producer not only on The Grinch but on the prior two films that we made,” Meledandri says. “The decision to adapt The Grinch was made in concert with Audrey. We talked about all the other possibilities, and felt like this was the best story, and the best time, for our third collaboration.”
So when it came to adapt Geisel’s 69-page book – essentially a one-act play – into a three-act structure for a feature-length film, Meledandri, along with his fellow producer Janet Healy and their creative team, decided to delve deeper into character — and into the character of the Grinch in particular — while also remaining loyal to the narrative and emotional intent of the book.
“When we set out to expand Grinch, we made it an absolute mandate for ourselves that we respected what we believe is the core intention of the work,” he says. “We bring classic elements within the work to life in ways that we hope are fresh, but above all we tried to put ourselves into Theodor Geisel’s mind, and we tried to look for the storytelling that’s between the pages.”
At the emotional center of that intention was a question they decided to explore: How did the Grinch become the way he his? “That became very organic, to our minds,” Meledandri says.
“At the core of this story is a character who was emotionally wounded as a child. He has placed himself on a quest to eliminate the joy of others because he himself has been left out of feeling that joy. And while that’s not a part of the original text, it was, to my mind, an underlying intention of Theodor Geisel’s. The manifestation of that emotional pain is a character who has gone into seclusion, who has given up on the society around him. And it takes the most innocent and optimistic character imaginable — in this case, Cindy-Lou Who — to reengage him to life, to an openness to connecting with other characters, to believing in good.”
So they began an earnest psychological journey into the potential causes for how a character would become self-isolating and resistant – or hostile – to the joy of others. “The most important thing was to identify the emotional injury,” Meledandri says. “Most of us carry around emotional suffering from our childhood, and often, that suffering lead to coping mechanisms.”
“Now, our coping mechanisms may not be as extreme as putting ourselves into exile to protect ourselves from being hurt again, but growth means being able to eventually transcend those coping mechanisms so that you can open yourself up to all of the expansive experiences that life has to offer, one of which, at its core, is connecting with others. That’s the trajectory of the Grinch, and what we discovered in the telling of the story: We find him as a child, convey an emotional wound, watch him react to that, connect that reaction to who we meet as an adult, and give the audience an understanding of how he got that way. It makes the Grinch relatable. We have a depth of insight into why he is that way. And it opens up an opportunity for us to heal him through the course of the story.”
Just as important, however, was that the other characters in the film know nothing of the Grinch’s past. Because this is a story of forgiveness and redemption, the Whos need to ultimately forgive the Grinch not because they understand his emotional pain, but for a much more generous reason.
“They forgive him, basically, because he asks for it,” Meledandri says. “They don’t have to have a deep explanation of how he became this to feel like he’s earned their forgiveness.”
The result, Meledandri says, is a film with a message that touches the heart and resonates long after people leave the theater. “As I’ve watched the film as we’ve been making it, I really love this hopeful feeling that the movie leaves you with. And getting to this place means that the character has transcended many of the things that have held him back: this desire to protect himself from feeling hurt, from being rejected. He actually wrecks this wall of meanness that he’s erected.”Central to Illumination’s goal was to protect the indelible elements of the story while making a six-decade-old story relevant to our current age. “One of our early challenges was looking at the story through the eyes of a modern world,” Meledandri says. “On the one hand, we wanted the storytelling to remain timeless. But Geisel was always aware of his own modern society. It wasn’t as if he was stuck in some historic period that he never deviated from. As the culture evolved, so did the visual references in his work. So we’ve tried to strike this balance between making the themes modern and relevant and touching on aspects of contemporary life without compromising the classic nature of the settings.”
Whoville, for starters, got a major upgrade, evolving from a sleepy hamlet into a fully realized, modern, three-dimensional small city, complete with its own Who Foods grocery store, buses and other automated transport (and with Whos running to catch them). Shops and businesses of all types operate amid the magic and mania of the holiday season. Lights blaze and dazzle like never before. Carolers have become aggressive acapella groups. The Whos now have real jobs and sometimes struggle to make ends meet, including single mom Donna Who, who’s raising her twin toddlers and her daughter Cindy-Lou, while working long hours, including night shifts.
But amid all the bustle, Meledandri and team were determined to keep their ears trained on the story’s emotional heartbeat, which, in many ways, is even more relevant today than it was 60 years ago. “I believe we’re living in times with more present challenges than at any time in my lifetime, challenges that could easily make you cynical or give you a sense of hopelessness,” Meledandri says. “Yet the key to facing these challenges is to somehow remain optimistic, connected, and to seek out and embrace joy. That happens when you really embrace those around you. I am drawn to telling stories that empower you to be hopeful in spite of what your immediate circumstances may be. So, the film will, I hope, connect with audiences and somehow encourage those feelings inside of themselves.”
That hope is echoed by his fellow producer, Janet Healy. “I hope that people feel inspired and hopeful when they see this film,” she says. “I think it speaks strongly to us all about the importance of our families, of communities, of inclusion, and of embracing the diversity amongst us. With acts of compassion and kindness we can vastly improve the lives of others, and we can change our world for the better. The message that forgiveness has redemptive power and that generosity is transformative resonates not just for the holiday season, but for us all, all year round.”
For Mosier and Cheney, The Grinch proved to be a dream job, on multiple levels. “To watch this character of the Grinch find joy and togetherness and family, all these things he rejected, that’s a very powerful story,” Cheney says. “And then you wrap that in Christmas and snow and all of the joy of Whoville, the design of this whole world, and it comes together in this just magical package. I love Christmas, so spending years making a Christmas movie was, for me, just a pleasure. It has been a joy to work on.”
Mosier found that the process gave him a renewed appreciation for Seuss’s original creation. “The world is just so amazing — not just the world of The Grinch but the world of Seuss: the rhyming and the strange creatures and the invented words and all of that,” Mosier says. “So to have an opportunity to build our world out of all that material, and to be able to immerse myself in that … it was something I couldn’t pass up.”
It’s that collaborative team spirit, Healy says, that makes the years of hard work on a film like The Grinch so deeply satisfying. “It takes a community of so many top creatives and technical wizards to bring these movies to the screen,” she says. “Every work day we see the astonishing results of the talents of hundreds of people on the crew who make the performances and the images more than we could ever imagine. Each artist adds something uniquely special and the cumulative effect is a gift to behold, unfolding before our eyes every day throughout the production.”
“We also make these films for ourselves, as well as for children and adults in countries all over the world,” she says. “We see the images thousands of times, over and over, and even after so many viewings we still laugh at the jokes, we are moved by the performances, and we are astonished by images. It is fabulous to work on these films with so many great artists involved, and is a huge privilege every day to have a job that makes films that make kids smile as they fondly remember the imaginary worlds we all created.”
Michael Lesieur (Screenplay by) is a Southern California based screenwriter and producer, who first came to prominence by writing the comedy You, Me and Dupree. LeSieur next wrote Maiden Heist, and later wrote Keeping Up with the Joneses. Currently, LeSieur is developing several animated and live action feature projects in the studio, television and independent spaces, including writing Muttnik for WB Animation and adapting The New York Times bestseller Timeless for 20th Century Fox, Scott Free Productions and director Carlos Saldanha. He lives in Newport Beach, California, with his wife, two children and multiple pets.
Tommy Swerdlow (Screenplay by) is best known for the Disney comedy Cool Runnings. As the “writing” half of the team Swerdlow and Michael Goldberg, he was a “go-to” writer for studio family comedies including Little Giants, Bushwhacked and Snow Dogs. He also was the first writer on Shrek. His television credits are highlighted by the WB series Brutally Normal, which he created and executive produced. As a solo entity, Swerdlow has written numerous pilots and screenplays for producers and executives, such as Chris Meledandri, Jon Avnet and John Landgraf. His movie A Thousand Junkies, which he directed, co-wrote and co-starred in had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Over his career, Swerdlow has worked with some of the most well-known names in Hollywood, including hands-on writing for Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dawn Steel, Meledandri, Jon Turteltaub, Jordan Kerner and both Greer Shepard and Michael Robin for TV.
A Brief History
Theodor Seuss Geisel (Based on the Book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by) (March 2, 1904 to September 24, 1991), better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss, was a writer and cartoonist who published over 60 books. He published his first children’s book “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” under the name of Dr. Seuss in 1937. Next came a string of best sellers, including “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham.” His rhymes and characters are beloved by generations.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, who published under the name Dr. Seuss, first created the Grinch for “The Hoobub and The Grinch,” a 32-line illustrated poem that debuted in Redbook magazine in May 1955. In that poem, the Grinch is a con man who persuades The Hoobub, who’s happily drowsing in the sun, to trade the sun for a piece of green string.
By that point in 1955, Geisel, at 51, had written, with his then-wife Helen, the 1947 Oscar®-winning documentary, Design for Death, about the history of Japan that lead to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, had become a successful illustrator for magazines and had published fifteen books, including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, and Horton Hears a Who! But his most productive years, resulting in the most acclaimed work of his career, were still ahead of him.
In early 1957 he had just completed The Cat in the Hat, and had begun work on what became How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Geisel’s inspiration for the character had come from a surprising place that previous Christmas: himself. “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noticed a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror,” he later told Redbook. “It was Seuss! So I wrote about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! tells the story of a grumpy misanthrope who lives in a cave on Mt. Crumpet with his dog, Max. He generally avoids the people of Whoville in the valley below, but every year their massive Christmas celebrations, where all the “noise, noise, noise, noise,” especially their singing, drives him to distraction. He decides to steal Christmas, and, posing as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, he strips the town of every toy, trinket, tree and trace of tinsel. But, as he teeters with his towering sleigh above Whoville on Christmas morning, he hears not the sound of crying, but the sound of singing. His realization that Christmas means more than just presents and decorations makes his heart grow “three sizes that day,” and he trumpets his way back into town to return all their presents and holiday trappings and to join the festivities.
Geisel wrote the book quickly, in a matter of weeks. According to the 1995 biography, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, by Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan, Geisel said it was the easiest book of his career to write, but he struggled with how to end it in a way that felt universal and secular. “I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess,” Geisel said. “I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher. Finally, in desperation, without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the ‘roast beast.’ I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.”
Published by Random House in 1957, the same year as The Cat and the Hat, Grinch was the first Seuss book with a seeming villain as its protagonist, and it became an instant critical darling. “Even if you prefer Dr. Seuss in a purely antic mood, you must admit that if there’s a moral to be pointed out, no one can do it more gaily,” The New York Times wrote in its review. “The reader is swept along by the ebullient rhymes and the weirdly zany pictures until he is limp with relief when the Grinch reforms and, like the latter, mellow with good feelings.” Kirkus Review declared the Grinch character, “easily the best Christmas-cad since Scrooge.”
Almost a decade later, the book was adapted into a TV special directed by Chuck Jones, starring the voice of Boris Karloff as both the Grinch and The Narrator. For the special, Geisel himself wrote the lyrics to the now iconic Christmas song, “Welcome Christmas,” and the classic, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
The special first aired on CBS on December 18, 1966, and would go on to be broadcast on the network each December for the next 22 years, embedding How the Grinch Stole Christmas! into the national consciousness. In 2004, TV Guide ranked it at the top of its list of the 10 Best Family Holiday Specials. Over the years, it would become an annual viewing event for generations of families, a joyous new holiday tradition that also served as a poignant reminder of the true meaning of the Christmas season: love, forgiveness and kindness.