First they came for the museums and the art houses, and we did nothing. Then they came for the universities, and, again, we did nothing. Then they took the publishing houses and newspapers. But then, then, they came for Dr. Seuss — and it was too late.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas recently became the most successful film of 2000. It earned about $220 million in slightly over a month, and could easily end up bringing in $300 million.
Why? It can’t be the reviews: Grinch was almost universally panned. Clever marketing deserves some of the credit, along with Jim Carrey’s marquee value. But a major factor in the movie’s success is the story it tells — one that is significantly different from that told in the original 1957 book and its faithful TV-cartoon adaptation of 1966.
The original tale featured a Scrooge-like creature with “termites in his smile” and “garlic in his soul.” “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” went the song, and that was all we needed to know about him. The neighboring town of Whoville consisted almost entirely of Tiny Tim-like folk who embodied the Christmas spirit. The Grinch hates Christmas, tries to steal Christmas, realizes the error of his ways, loves Christmas: not the most original character arc, but it rhymed well and had its desired effect on two generations of viewers.
Now comes this movie. In the new telling, the Grinch was horribly wronged by mean-spirited Whovilleans. He was a misunderstood child, raised in an alternative-lifestyle family, and was cast out from the snowy Eden by petty, jealous meanies. It turns out the monochromatic Whovilleans couldn’t stomach a child who was green, hairy, and — well — different. The Grinch grew to hate Christmas largely, it seems, because the Whovilleans treated it as an opportunity to show off, with crass light displays, politically motivated festivals, and rank materialism. In this account, the most despicable character is not the Grinch but the vain mayor of Whoville. And while the Grinch does learn quite a bit about Christmas, it turns out the misguided Whovilleans also have much to learn.
But did we really need to know that the Grinch was the victim of a cruel childhood? Did we need a debunking of the “myths” of Whovillean virtue? Did the black-and-white story have to be smudged into shades of gray? Of course: That’s what Hollywood does. Indeed, what better vehicle could there be for the exaltation of the individual, the fetishization of the victim, the deconstruction of the “mainstream,” than a beloved family entertainment? Grinch director Ron Howard is hardly a campus radical, but even he isn’t immune to the culture industry’s endemic shortcomings — in this case, Hollywood’s ingrained inability to understand villainy.
A few years ago, a mild-mannered Columbia professor named Andrew Delbanco wrote a very good book called The Death of Satan. His Nietzschean-sounding thesis was that Americans had lost the ability to imagine real evil. We see it all around us, but because of our creative community’s intense opposition to religious metaphors, “we feel something that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express.” Delbanco called this a “tragedy of the imagination.”
How much the average American suffers from this defect of the imagination is debatable, but Delbanco is surely correct that the culture industry has lost the blueprints for straightforward evil: Films are filled with bad guys, but it is almost impossible for the audience to get to know them before learning they’re really not that bad after all. Consider, for example, the narrator of the Grinch story: In the 1966 cartoon, it was Boris Karloff. In the film, the responsibility falls to Anthony Hopkins — Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. While it may be a nice bit of torch-passing to have one famed horror actor replaced by another, Hannibal Lecter is no old-fashioned bad guy: The serial-killing cannibal is nasty, but also something of an antihero. In Hannibal, the sequel novel to Silence of the Lambs, we learn that Lecter is the product of a terrible childhood, just like the Grinch, and it’s really not his fault that he eats people. And — hooray! — at the end of the book, he gets the girl and lives happily ever after.
Actors and directors, like psychologists and social workers, search for the “motivation” of characters. This search for understanding can segue quickly into explanation, and from there to excuse-making and even sympathetic absolution. This is precisely the phenomenon Delbanco identifies in the larger culture. Consider the seemingly endless supply of books trying to “explain” Hitler, justify Communism, humanize pedophilia, and generally debunk assorted evils or, rather, “evils.” Delbanco bemoans this tendency because such efforts rely on radically insufficient, clinical language that falls far short of the religious metaphors we were once free to use in popular discourse. There are few faster ways to identify yourself as a rube in intellectual circles than to use words like “Satanic” or “evil.”
Once Hollywood and academia were done overturning our popular history about Indians, the Japanese, Vietnam, etc., is it any wonder that they turned their debunking energies toward fictional villains? We’ve now seen witches and vampires equated with persecuted feminists, sexual minorities, and brave nonconformists. Today, if you say witchcraft is evil, you can expect your faculty-room privileges to be revoked.
The revisionism has reached the Devil himself. Starting around 1997 — with The Devil’s Advocate starring Al Pacino — Hollywood has issued an un precedented stream of Devil movies. In just the last year, there have been over a dozen, including Stigmata, The Ninth Gate, and Bedazzled. But virtually all of these films make Lucifer either very cool or profoundly mechanical. In several of the movies — End of Days and Bless the Child, for example — the protagonists fight, and even defeat, the Dark Prince with handguns. As The American Spectator’s James Bowman wrote recently, “It seems hardly worth the trouble to bring the Enemy of Mankind onto the stage at all if he is to be disposed of like a clumsy burglar.”
In almost all of these movies, the Devil is less the Prince of Lies than just a villain with superpowers. There’s one glaring exception: the recent rerelease of 1973’s The Exorcist. No popular film in the last two decades treats the Devil with more seriousness or subtlety; indeed, it is stunning to watch the film today. We all remember the vomiting and head-spinning, but what stands out now in an age of special effects is the dialogue about the nature of good and evil, the Devil’s aim to confuse the two, and the unreliability of modern science in clarifying the issue. Satan is not treated as someone or something that can be reduced to petty human motivations or simplistic ambitions or explanations. He is what he is: a mystery, the omnipresent tempter. He is the Devil — without quotation marks.
It is this willingness to take an evil phenomenon seriously, and to refrain from facile debunking, that is sorely missing in today’s culture. If we overrationalize a tradition, it will lose the sentiment that sustains it; if we explain why the Grinch is a Grinch, so that we can “feel his pain,” the moral of the story will dissipate like a Who’s breath on a cold day.
Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) understood implicitly. He gave the Grinch his motivation but stopped short of overexplaining it. “The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! / Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.”
Unfortunately, Hollywood felt it knew better than Dr. Seuss, and chose to explain away the Grinch; even more unfortunately, American audiences are falling for it.