Written by: Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss)
Directed by: Chuck Jones
Narrated by: Boris Karloff
Music by: Albert Hague

Genre: Rites of Passage

‘Tis the season for Christmas Classics, and there are many fine ones: A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc., in addition to the ubiquitous tale most Christmas stories implicitly reference, the story of the Christ. What do most of these classics have in common beyond the Christmas theme? They tend to be stories of spiritual transformation.

In Blake Snyder terminology, they are Rites of Passages where a life problem is attacked in the wrong way and the change necessary to resolve it (acceptance) proves profoundly transforming. No matter how elaborate (or straightforward) the plots may be, what these stories emphasize most is the internal change required by the Hero to receive a powerful life lesson. The ROP genre is the one that most explicitly concerns what Blake called The Transformation Machine.

One of the greatest Christmas stories of all is How the Grinch Stole Christmas (HTGSC), Dr. Seuss’ take on the story of Scrooge, the misanthropic protagonist/antagonist who hates everything — Christmas most of all. Scrooge and The Grinch both are“anti-Christmas” incarnate, making their ultimate change of heart particularly potent.

The impact of the message delivered in HTGSC is aided by the fact that it’s short (just 25 minutes), which gives it remarkable economy and concentration. But just because it’s short doesn’t mean it skips structure steps. Some are combined, sure, but I found them all to be here, which is another necessary ingredient for a classic of any kind no matter what the length. Among its many strengths, HTGSC is a perfectly structured story. Let’s break out the BS2 and take a look.

Opening Image: We follow snowflakes down past a severe mountain landscape to reveal a Christmas tree, all to the sound of a joyous chorus singing the classically Seussian nonsense words “Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays,” the opening lyrics to the “Welcome Christmas” song. A group of happy, eccentric creatures we’ll come to know as ‘Whos’ carry the tree to the center of their perfect little town where they gather hand-in-hand and sing some more. The Whos sing a lot, as evidenced by two songs back-to-back (the second one being “Trim the Tree”) inside of two minutes.

The opening image of any story is about establishing the context and tone of the story, and also providing a snapshot of the main character’s problem. All are done here with expert efficiency, establishing Whoville as the personification of the spirit of Christmas: joy, warmth, inclusion, and good fellowship to all. The Whos keep Christmas well and with a song in their hearts.

Who-ville: the idyllic Christmas town.
Who-ville: the idyllic Christmas town.

Then the narration begins: “Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not!” It turns out this tale is not about the Whos, but the Grinch (as the title indicates). And what exactly is his problem? The Whos, of course. And that’s part of what the opening image/sequence lays out for the audience: the Hero’s problem and/or the opposition.

Set-Up: Immediately the Grinch is revealed, a mean old hermit-like character who lives in a cave high atop a mountain overlooking Who-ville. Just as the Whos personify Christmas, The Grinch personifies its opposite: bad fellowship to all. And who better to voice The Grinch than the actor who put the “monster movie” on the map? None other than Boris Karloff. It is an inspired choice and he pulls double duty as both The Grinch and The Narrator.

And by the way, even though the singing has stopped, the music hasn’t because the narration is in Seussian verse and thus has a decidedly musical quality. In my opinion this is a wall-to-wall musical which contributes substantially to its enormous charm. Structurally the Set-Up concerns detailing what’s wrong in the Hero’s life, the Six Things That Need Fixing. Right now it’s generalized (the Whos) and we’ll get to the details shortly. But first there’s the–

Theme Stated: The Narrator tells us that the reason the Grinch hated the Whos is most likely because “his heart was two sizes too small.” This is said offhandedly, disguising its importance.

A shriveled heart foreshadows the theme.
A shriveled heart foreshadows the theme.

It also subtly suggests a dramatic question: does a character as loathsome as The Grinch have the capacity to experience a ‘change of heart’? As a visual symbol for this particular Theme Stated, a shrunken heart is as literal as you can get. And as Billy Wilder famously said, “Don’t be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”

I propose this obviousness is particularly important with structure steps, even as we try to misdirect the audience away from this importance. It’s a delicate dance. But what I’m trying to say here, sometimes (often!) “literal” is a very good thing indeed.

Set-Up (continued): Once theme is stated and the climax foreshadowed, we return immediately to detailing the Six Things that Need Fixing. The Grinch begins kvetching, describing every aspect of the Whos Christmas celebration that infuriates him. It boils down to this: 1) the noise, 2) the feasting, and 3) the singing. The storytellers luxuriate in the details depicting this, which is done with characteristically Seussian cleverness, my favorite example being:

“And then they’ll make ear-splitting noises galooks, on their great big electro whocarnio flooks!”

See how musical it is? And the inventive visuals at all times mirror the playfulness of the words.

Imageplay follows wordplay: "… on their great big electro whocarnio flooks!”
Imageplay follows wordplay: “… on their great big electro whocarnio flooks!”

And speaking of cleverness, it’s time for a sidebar about ‘Fun & Games’: Blake used the term to refer to a specific structure step, the lively promise of the premise sequence following Break into Two but preceding the Midpoint. This is one of my favorite of all his invaluable insights into stories. It’s so important, in fact, that it pushed me to think further about ‘F&G’ in a larger sense, and I have come to embrace it as a synonym for “panache.” But not just any panache (though any is better than none), but panache that it is story specific, consistent with the spirit and tone of the tale.

Any aspect of a story can exhibit this kind of ‘F&G,’ from the big picture down to the smallest detail. They say “The devil is in the details.” I would say that the artistry — at least insofar as audience engagement is concerned — is in the F&G. To me it is literally the “there there.” So when I use the term ‘Fun & Games’ I will be referring to the specific structure step, but when I use the term ‘F&G’ I’m referring to story-congruent-panache in whatever form it takes.

In my opinion, every rhyme of Dr. Seuss’ story overflows with the F&G of Ted Geisel, and every frame of the film overflows with the F&G of Chuck Jones. This is a perfect blend of their artistic sensibilities, an exceptional creative synthesis. Here is just one example: on the left is Dr. Seuss’ original depiction of The Grinch in the book. On the right is Chuck Jones’ version.







Chuck Jones has made The Grinch meaner, uglier, more intense, and more exaggerated on every level — something you might expect from the maestro of the Looney Tune. Chuck Jones was a master at comic characterization and design and his talents are on full display here, “plussing” the original work wherever possible. End of sidebar.

So, once The Grinch finishes torturing himself with the Six Things that Need Fixing (three categories, yes, but a far greater number if you factor in the details), he finally finds the motivation to do something about it: “Why for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop Christmas from coming! But how?” Which brings us to the–

Catalyst: For a structure step this is also quite literal (and immediate), the Chuck Jones equivalent of a light bulb appearing above the Grinch’s head as his usual “sour, Grinchy frown” curls into a hideous grimace that splits his top knot.

Visual F&G: Boris Karloff morphs into Chuck Jones.
Visual F&G: Boris Karloff morphs into…
... Chuck Jones.
… Chuck Jones.








The plan is simple: to disguise himself as Santa Claus and steal Christmas from the Whos. This involves a disguise (a false transformation). The Christmas hater will pretend to be the spirit of Christmas itself. The before world is no more and change — in this case, malicious mischief — is afoot. As we shall see, the Grinch’s plot to attack his life problem is the wrong way even as it leads surprisingly (but inevitably) to a sublime outcome. ROP at its finest.

Max burdened with a conscience (the internal Debate).
Max burdened with a conscience (the internal Debate).

Debate: There is no debate from the Grinch. He is fully committed to his dastardly plan. But the beat is not skipped because there’s another character that is hesitant: The Grinch’s loyal dog Max. But poor Max, being a dog, is limited in his ability to express it. The hesitancy is carried by his woebegone expression as he reluctantly assists The Grinch in his preparations, which include being forced into the role of reindeer himself.

Max is a comic surrogate for the audience’s conscience. There is another audience surrogate, as well, in the form of an omniscient voice singing the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” who underscores Max’s better instincts. The Debate is here, bursting with multi-dimensional F&G from the song lyrics (by Ted Geisel), the vocal performance (by Thurl Ravenscroft), the comic business mostly coming from Max (by Chuck Jones and his team).

Break into Two: When the song ends, The Grinch’s preparations are complete. What follows is a sequence that’s not in the book but invented for the film: a high-energy sleigh ride that functions as a passage from the thesis world of the Grinch’s eyrie into the antithesis world of Who-ville and the Grinch’s caper. The transition from Act I to Act II is usually a physical journey, and expanding this sequence affords a chance to inject some energy and spectacle into the story. There is copious humor, too (thank you, Max). F&G!

B Story: There’s no B Story. Not all stories have them (they are particularly rare in shorts). But it isn’t necessary and it isn’t missed because the theme is carried by the action and narration, as we shall see.

Fun and Games/The Promise of the Premise: HTGSC is a perfect expression of this concept. Here we enjoy watching the Grinch at his Grinchiest: stealing Christmas with relish. This sequence exhibits a plentitude of F&G, from Ted Geisel’s words, Chuck Jones’ characters and action, and a reprise of the song “Mr. Grinch.” It’s done in montage that shows The Grinch’s enjoyment in stealing everything from the stockings to the tree… and everything in between.

“You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch!”
“You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch!”

Midpoint: If one considers the end of the first song reprise where everything is going according to plan as a (false high) Midpoint, then that puts us just past the actual midpoint of the film’s duration — the 15:30 mark out of a total running time of 25:35. Notice up until now that every structure step has come just where it’s supposed to, and in proper proportion to the overall length. But from this point forward (since it’s a short), structure steps will be combined to increase the pace and make up for the lack of plot. So what happens next?

Bad Guys Close In/All is Lost (combined): The Grinch encounters only one setback during his heist: he “hears a sound like the coo of a dove.” Enter Cindy-Lou Who, the ultimate manifestation of ‘Whoness’ — a toddler that represents the Whos at their most pure and vulnerable. When it comes to choosing an oppositional force, this is ingenious. She is the perfect foil. She asks him why he’s stealing the tree, and he’s caught in a serious pickle. This is the only time we see him in any way other than in complete control (or merely annoyed) as he sweats and gnaws on his shaky fingers.

His own despicable cleverness saves the day: “But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!”

Bad Guys Close In: But which is which? Depends on your pov.
Bad Guys Close In: But which is which? Depends on your pov.

He tells her that he’s taking the tree to fix some broken lights, and she accepts it and goes back to bed. Crisis averted. Whew. Now the Grinch can get back to unbridled Grinchification.

More Fun and Games/Promise of the Premise: I’ve found that in many stories there’s a sequence after BGCI but before Break into Three where the Hero is on the rise again, doing what he or she does best. This tends to involve an escalation of some kind, and here it’s the escalation of the Grinch’s thievery to a comically absurd degree: in another montage during the second “Mr. Grinch” reprise, he proceeds to steal candy canes out of kids’ sleeping hands, ice cubes from ice trays, the leaves from the plants, and “crumbs too small for mouses.” And he’s never been more pleased with himself. It’s wonderfully cringeworthy.

“You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch, with a nauseous super 'naus!"
“You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch, with a nauseous super ‘naus!”

Dark Night of the Soul (postponed): This beat is put off till the Finale. It’s a slight adjustment in sequence order to accommodate the short form. It works perfectly and demonstrates the malleability of structure steps.

Break into Three: Comic extremes escalate still more as the Grinch leaves the antithesis world of Who-ville on his impossibly overstuffed sleigh and makes his way (in another physical journey) to the synthesis world high above… “Ten thousand feet up, up the side of Mount Crumpit, He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it!” And more impossibly still, somehow poor little Max gets them there all on his own!

Not even Chuck Jones could improve on Ted Geisel's original conception. This is almost exactly how it appears in the film.
Not even Chuck Jones could improve on Ted Geisel’s original conception. This is almost exactly how it appears in the film.

Finale: On top of Mt. Crumpit, with the sleigh teetering across the pointed summit (a brilliant visual metaphor for the story tension as the Grinch’s entire way of being — his very soul — is poised in the balance), he eagerly awaits the sound of disappointment and hysteria rising from Who-ville, the expected confirmation of his foul success.

“Pooh-pooh to the Whos! he was grinchily humming. They’re finding out now that no Christmas is coming!” “That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “that I simply must hear!” He paused, and the Grinch put a hand to his ear.”

But the sound he hears confounds him: the Whos gather hands around the missing Christmas Tree in the center of town and sing “Welcome, Christmas” as if Who-ville had not been pillaged at all. From The Grinch’s perspective, this is an inconceivable turn of events.

Dark Night of the Soul: The Grinch’s old world view shatters as he “puzzled and puzzed till his puzzler was sore.” The Narrator explains:

“He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!”

And this leads him to a striking conclusion, which is the Theme Stated in fact, once again stated by the Narrator:

“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

The Grinch has perceived the Theme Stated and has changed his mind. But before he can change his heart, the sleigh begins slipping off the mountainside. The Grinch grabs hold with all his might, but loses the battle against gravity. Until–

Theme Revisited/The Transformation Machine: This structure step — the raison d’etre of the whole story — pronounces itself with angelic fanfare. It answers the dramatic question inferred at the beginning (can the Grinch change?) and is done in a powerfully visual, literal, and immediate way:

“And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”

By accepting a new perception of reality, The Grinch is empowered beyond his wildest dreams. His change of heart is profound and we literally get to see it happen visually and with a nice sound effect as the measuring frame shatters: Boing! (Nice touch, Chuck!)






“And then the true meaning of Christmas came through,
And the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”


Complete spiritual transformation has rarely been so satisfying. Like A Christmas Carol, this story is all about character arc, the internal story. The external story, robbing Who-ville, is the plot and the way the promise of the premise is delivered through maximum F&G. But the primal stakes for the Grinch concern whether or not he is redeemable, and this story answers that with a resounding YES.

And if the Grinch, like Scrooge, is redeemable, then there’s hope for us all. The power of the moment is magnified by the mythic imagery: placing the action on a mountaintop (a traditional location for enlightenment), and having everything poised in precarious balance, and also the way the changing backgrounds emphasize the moment of transformation — it’s all orchestrated with a superb sense of F&G.

Final Image: Here we have true proof of transformation and a demonstration of synthesis: The Grinch is no longer an outcast. In fact, he has earned and been bestowed a place of honor among the Whos, at the head of the table.

“And he, he himself, the Grinch carved the roast beast!”

His Santa Claus outfit is no longer a disguise. He wears it sincerely and without irony. Brilliant.

A final comment: the composer, Albert Hague, deserves a special shout out. He wrote the music to what amounts to three Christmas standards that create a perfect musical tone for the film and is at the same level of perfection as Geisel and Jones. His work is the third leg of the stool, or in this case, skyscraper. Everybody’s work is an essential contribution to the whole and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s pretty much the definition of an enduring work of art. Merry Christmas to us all.

“Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand.”