Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957. Nine years later, it was adapted into a half-hour, animated special for television and it’s been running ever since. In 2000, Ron Howard teamed up with Jim Carrey to create a live-action version of the story, a big, colorful, noisy adaptation that ran for 104 minutes and made nearly $350 million worldwide. It was a huge success and yet… I prefer the original.
Here are five reasons why:
- Boris Karloff. Not only was he the voice of the animated Grinch, he also provided the narration. It was like having your grandfather read the story to you, a grandfather who was gifted at doing voices and whose own deep and resonant voice belied his age. (Karloff would die three years later at 81.) All due respect to Carrey, but an awful lot of the time, his Grinch sounded like Richard Nixon.
- The songs. Dr. Seuss wrote the lyrics for the songs and they were in rhyme, just like the rest of the tale. In the original animated adaptation, nothing was added to Seuss’ words because nothing needed to be added. And who can forget the signature song, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch?” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft.
- Thurl Ravenscroft is not credited on Grinch, a mistake that horrified Seuss and co-producer/director Chuck Jones, who took out an ad in Variety to publicize his performance. Thurl did a lot of work for Disney but he’s probably best known for being the voice of Tony the Tiger in Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercials. His voice was as indelibly imprinted on the material as Karloff’s.
- The simplicity. Ron Howard created his own version of Seuss’ classic story but it was very much his version and not Seuss’ version. Everything about the original version had to do with the meaning of Christmas and the simplicity of the message that Christmas is in our hearts and not about the presents. Howard’s version has the same message but it’s overblown and overdone and not simple.
- The subtlety and sweetness. In the animated version, little Cindy Lou Who is an adorable two-year-old with wide blue eyes. In the Howard version, she’s an annoying sitcom moppet played by Taylor Momsen, who would make a splash as Jenny in Gossip Girl seven years later. It was a whole different vibe.
Animated or live action—no Christmas season is complete without a viewing of one or the other. My choice is the original.
Once Upon a Classic
In the late 70s, PBS ram a series called Once Upon a Classic that was, essentially, Masterpiece Theatre for kids. Hosted by Bill Bixby (whose Incredible Hulk series wouldn’t begin airing until 1978), the series featured adaptations of classic novels like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s historical novel Lorna Doone, and The Talisman, by Sir Walter Scott.
Many of the shows were BBC or ITV-produced miniseries that featured a who’s who of British actors, many of them stage veterans, who brought a touch of gravitas to every production.
The Talisman was one of the best of these productions.
Set at the time of the Third Crusade, The Talisman starred Patrick Ryecart as an idealistic young knight named Sir Kenneth who interacts with both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.
Now a respected theater director and producer as well as actor with an imdb entry several screens long, Ryecart’s biggest credit up to that time was playing the title role in Romeo and Juliet, part of the Time-Life/BBC series that dramatized all the Shakespeare plays. (He was also in the same series’ version of Pericles.) He’d also done a segment of the mini-series Lillie, starring as one of Lillie Langtry’s lovers, Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria.
With his fair hair, blue eyes and earnest manner, he was like Luke Skywalker’s curly-haired English cousin, a knight with a sense of honor beyond his years. In the 30 years since The Talisman was made, Ryecart has starred in other adaptations of classic novels (including Silas Marner) but he’s also showed off a supremely silly side of himself in shows like the short-lived The High Life, a raucous comedy starring Alan Cumming. In the show, set at a struggling Scottish airline, Ryecart played the wifty, Star Trek-loving airline captain Hilary Duff (no relation to the actress/singer). That show’s not available on dvd either, but you can catch episodes of it on YouTube.
For awhile there in the 80s, you could not get away from Max Headroom, an animated talking head created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton and sold as the first computer-generated artificial intelligence. Max, portrayed and voiced by a then-unknown actor named Matt Frewer, became a cultural phenomenon, going viral in a way unprecedented in the pre-Internet age. His image and his stuttering delivery of one-liners made him one of the most instantly recognizable icons of the era.
Max segued from doing interstitials on a music video show to being an uber-pitchman and finally, he got his own television movie in England, a pilot called “Twenty minutes into the future.” The show was then retooled for American television and premiered on ABC in 1987.
The show was set in the kind of dystopian world familiar to readers of modern YA fiction; a world run and ruled by television networks where technology is omnipresent and often sinister and ratings wars were deadly.
Stories revolved around crusading reporter Edison Carter (Frewer) and his digital doppelganger Max, created when young genius Bryce Lynch rebooted Carter’s consciousness inside a computer in the aftermath of an accident that left the reporter in a coma. (The last thing Carter saw before blacking out was a barrier that said “max. headroom.”)
Max Headroom was a cult hit for the network but couldn’t get traction against its competition (Dallas on CBS; Miami Vice on NBC) and it only ran for 14 episodes. The series was unavailable for years, although several episodes eventually showed up on YouTube.
Last August, a dvd (with extras) finally appeared. It’s not cheap, but it’s filled with the kind of behind-the-scenes goodies fans love.
What stands out when watching the show again is how much it’s held up. The trenchant observations on media and celebrity culture feel even more relevant today than they did 20-some years ago.
The look of the show is contemporary as well. Sure some of the computer stuff is a little old school, but everything from the low-rez bits on the credit sequences to the timeless wardrobe would look perfectly fine on a show produced today. Not many shows from the 80s can say that. (Or even the 90s. Check out those massive mobile phones in any Friends rerun.) Read the rest of this entry »