How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Dr. Seuss Classic Comes to Television

Updated on December 23, 2015
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) wrote the original book in 1957, basing the Grinch partly on himself.
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) wrote the original book in 1957, basing the Grinch partly on himself.

At the start of 1957, Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name “Dr. Seuss”, began work on a Christmas story about a grouchy creature called the Grinch who hates Christmas. According to Seuss in the December 1957 edition of Redbook magazine, the inspiration for this story came when he noticed how sour he looked in the mirror the day after Christmas. He decided to write the story as a way of trying to reclaim some part of Christmas he had lost himself, basing the Grinch on his grumpier moods.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, as he would later reflect, was the easiest story to write of his career, the only struggle coming with the conclusion, which took three months to come up with. By mid-May, the book was finished, and in November it was published by Random House, just in time for Christmas. The book was a hit with critics and children.

Animator Chuck Jones, a friend of Geisel's, directed the special.
Animator Chuck Jones, a friend of Geisel's, directed the special.

Fast forward to nearly a decade later, MGM approached Dr. Seuss to make an animated adaptation for television. Geisel was initially highly reluctant about the idea, until Chuck Jones was brought on board; Geisel and Jones were friends, having previously worked together on Private Snafu, a series of instructional shorts produced by Warner Bros for the US military during World War II. Having someone he trusted working on it warmed him up to the idea, and he let MGM move forward with production, producing it with an unheard of $300,000 budget (approximately $2.2 Million now).

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Airdate
Channel
Studio
December 18, 1966
CBS
MGM

In the village of Whoville, the Whos are cheerfully celebrating the arrival of Christmas. The trees are decorated, the wreaths are hung up, and everyone is joining in song.

But atop the mountain north of Whoville, the creature known as the Grinch is angry at the Whos for being so joyous, hating all the noise they make and the cheer they spread. He vows that he will find a way to prevent this year’s Christmas from happening.

Along with his dog Max, the Grinch hatches his plot to pose as Santa Claus. Heading out at nightfall, the Grinch breaks into the homes of the Whos, stealing their gifts and stripping their decorations bare.

The Grinch is only noticed once, by a small girl named Cindy Lou Who. The Grinch tricks her into believing he is Santa, taking her tree to fix a “light that won’t light on one side”. He sends her off to bed with some warm milk, before continuing his scheme.

With every gift and decoration stolen and packed up on his sleigh, the Grinch makes his way to the top of a mountain. Overlooking a chasm, he prepares to drive everything over the edge, but stops a moment to listen to the noises coming from Whoville, expecting to hear all the Whos crying that Christmas has been lost.

However, he doesn’t hear crying but instead singing. The Whos didn’t care about their material possessions, they were happy simply having each other. The Grinch, who had never thought such a thing were possible, is moved and has a (quite literal) change of heart. At the last second, he saves the gifts and brings them back to Whoville, joining in the festivities.

"And he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast."
"And he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast."

As mentioned before, production nearly didn’t happen on the special due to Geisel’s unease at having his work adapted. Production nearly stopped again when the special was unable to get ahold of a sponsor, but at the eleventh hour, it was sponsored by the Foundation for Commercial Banks, a bit ironic considering the anti-commercialism message.

Chuck Jones modeled the TV Grinch after himself
Chuck Jones modeled the TV Grinch after himself

The Grinch’s design in the special was slightly modified from the book, where he was (perhaps due to the limitations of the art style) a black and white creature with pink eyes. He was given his green color by Chuck Jones, inspired by a rental car he once had that was a horrid shade of green. As for his trademark grin, this was not the first Jones character to have these same facial expressions; Tom in the Jones directed Tom & Jerry shorts looked very much the same to the Grinch. In fact, both characters were modeled after Jones himself, an observation that Geisel himself noted to which Jones responded “Well, it happens."

Boris Karloff played double roles as the narrator and the Grinch.
Boris Karloff played double roles as the narrator and the Grinch.

The voice of the narrator, as well as the Grinch, was provided by well-known actor Boris Karloff. Around this time, towards the end of Karloff’s career, he was starring in several children’s features, such as “The Daydreamer” earlier that year and “Mad Monster Party” a few months later. Cindy Lou Who was voiced by June Foray, a go-to voice for female characters at this time. For the brief noises that Max has, these were done by Dallas McKennon, voice of such characters as Buzz Buzzard from the Woody Woodpecker shorts and Gumby.

Theodor Geisel himself wrote the lyrics for the songs in the special, including “Welcome Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”. The latter song in particular has become perhaps the most memorable part of the special, being a series of increasingly grotesque descriptions of the Grinch himself. According to some sources, this song had some input from Chuck Jones, the writing session between the two basically amount to the two friends playfully flinging insults at each other. The line “You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch” was, for the longest time, cut out of many TV airings due to censors feeling this line went too far.

Thurl Ravenscroft sings the iconic "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".
Thurl Ravenscroft sings the iconic "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".

Singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was Thurl Ravenscroft, perhaps best known as the voice of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger from 1953 to 2005. Unfortunately he was not credited for his work in the special, leading many people at the time to think it was Karloff singing; Geisel quickly apologized to Ravenscroft and sent out letters to newspapers across the nation telling them who the real singer was. Ravenscroft would go on to win a Grammy award for his work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

In 2000, a live-action adaptation with Jim Carrey as the Grinch was made, using elements created for the animated special.
In 2000, a live-action adaptation with Jim Carrey as the Grinch was made, using elements created for the animated special.

This would be only the beginning of Dr. Seuss on television, with many more specials to come throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Even the Grinch himself would reappear in two specials, including a crossover with another Dr. Seuss character, the Cat in the Hat. In 2000, a live-action film adaptation starring Jim Carrey was released in theaters, drawing more from the cartoon than the original book. Additionally, The Grinch is set to return to animation in 2017, with a CG animated film by Illumination Entertainment.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, like the book that spawned it, has become a beloved classic, one of the few non-Rankin/Bass Christmas specials from before 2000 that still regularly airs on television, and one of the few still airing on broadcast television.

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