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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2000 / 29 Kislev, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Sometimes, it's good to be a Grinch -- "Dr. Suess' How The Grinch Stole Christmas" has just surpassed "Mission: Impossible 2" as the highest-grossing movie of 2000, earning about $220 million in slightly more than a month. This, in itself, is something of an impossible mission considering that Ron Howard's remake of the classic storybook and cartoon is such awful drek.

It takes serious effort to ruin one of the greatest children's stories of all time, by taking mean old Mr. Grinch and turning him into a poor, misunderstood misfit. The fact that the effort paid off says something about Hollywood and America and our reluctance to admit that people are fully responsible for their actions.

In the original Dr. Seuss book and follow-up cartoon there was a crotchety creature with "termites in his smile" and "garlic in his soul." "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch," went the song. Meanwhile, the Whovilleans were kind and sweet folk - sort of like an entire town comprised of Tiny Tims. The Grinch sets out to ruin Christmas for the Whos and has a Scrooge-like epiphany at the end.

One would have thought that kind of story would be immune to even Hollywood's tinkering. But one would be wrong.

In the film, we discover that the Grinch wanted to be loved all along. It was those mean Whovilleans who picked on him as a child because he was different. After all, it's not the Grinch's fault that he's vomit-green, obnoxious, hairy and eats dishware. It was those awful "normal" children who couldn't resist being cruel to someone who looked different than them.

Obviously, it's not hard to overanalyze a silly movie. But isn't it telling that even the Grinch - once a figure synonymous with killjoy - is a victim now? This is just latest in a long trend in the popular culture, where calling someone evil is just too judgmental - unless of course they're conservative. In today's culture, everyone's a victim.

Consider Hannibal Lecter, the famed cannibalistic serial killer from "The Silence of the Lambs" (played by Anthony Hopkins who coincidentally narrates "Grinch"). Guess what? He's a victim, too. In "Hannibal," the sequel novel (the film is due to be released in February), we discover the poor, confused serial killer had a really rough childhood, so it's understandable he eats people. In fact, we are expected to applaud when he gets the girl and lives happily ever after.

A few years ago, Andrew Delbanco wrote a wonderful book called "The Death of Satan" in which he argued that American culture has lost its ability to speak in terms of evil. He declared the demise of the devil "a tragedy for the imagination." And he was right. In our determination to explain away evil we sanitize it.

When historians psychoanalyze Hitler, or networks make movies of the week about terrorists and serial killers, we learn to sympathize with the bad guy's point of view. Even in our "I feel your pain" political culture, we have come to accept that all sides have merit. But the truth is that some things are bad or wrong and some things are good or true - and it's not judgmental to say so. In fact, it may be healthy for us to see a few more things in black and white for a change.

I think Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor S. Geisel ) understood this implicitly. He knew the story of the Grinch's transformation would only work if there was something the Grinch could transform from.

"The Grinch hated Christmas - the whole Christmas season. Oh, please don't ask why, no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or maybe his head wasn't screwed on just right. But I think that the best reason of all, may have been that his heart was two sizes too small."

Unfortunately, Hollywood and American audiences were unsatisfied with Dr. Seuss' lack of an explanation.

We wanted the whole story. These days, we even want to feel the Grinch's pain.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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