How 'Grinch' leaped off the pages and onto the screen

It's a twist on the old laugh line - how do you update a classic? "Very carefully," says Ron Howard, director of the feature adaptation of the Dr. Seuss tale "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

Bada-boom.

And add painstakingly. Before Howard, the director of such previous hits as "Splash" and "Cocoon," and his creative team, including producer Brian Grazer and Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, could put the first eyelash on a Who, they had to get the rights to the book. That involved wooing the widow of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, who died in 1991 but whose distaste for Hollywood is still well known. His widow, Audrey, is legendary for her dedication to protecting the Seuss legacy.

"The first story line I came in with had all the Seussian characters," says producer Grazer, who adds that idea did not pass muster. "She only wanted Grinch characters," he says.

"I kept begging her to let me have one more day in court with her, and she finally agreed," Grazer says. She agreed to let the slender book be expanded on. In the end, it was the combined power of the right story and the right star that clinched the deal.

Mrs. Geisel visited star Jim Carrey, who was still in production on another film. "He really wanted the role, so he ... smile[d] the Grinch smile," Howard says. "She saw we had a shared sensibility."

That vision involves an understanding of the Seuss canon.

"He's a modern fabulist," Howard says. "He wrote lots of contemporary fables, usually with an innocent child in the center as a truth teller." "The Grinch," he says, is about a child who looks at how crazy people get at Christmas.

Perhaps the most significant contribution the creative team made to the story was to flesh out the Grinch's personal history.

In fact, events from the book take up less than the final third of the movie. Most of the film follows an entire village of Whos not heard from in the Seuss original.

"The story is about prejudice and fear of the other," says Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the mayor of Whoville, a petty bureaucrat whose days are dedicated to forwarding his political career. "I know the book well, and I was very taken with what they are trying to do."

"He's the outcast," says Carrey of his character, the Grinch. "He didn't feel like he was part of the club." Though the book gave few if any hints about the Grinch's past, Carrey says it was this desire to round out the character that attracted him to the film.

The Grinch "tried to fit in and he gave up, but he still wants to be part of the show," Carrey says. This theme underlies the entire Grinch mystique for the actor.

"He's part of the disenfranchised," Carrey says. "In the end, his heart changes because it's ready to change. All it takes is someone who loves you to say, 'Come on in.' "

The book has been put on film once before, an animated version now nearly 35 years old. Geisel's widow was moved to approve a live-action version in part because technology is finally able to re-create the fantastic Seuss landscape.

Whoville occupied 11 sets - the single biggest set ever built on a Universal lot - and it's created out of nearly 2 million linear feet of Styrofoam. During production, approximately 8,000 makeup appliances were created by some 45 makeup artists. More than 8,200 ornaments and 1,938 candy canes were used.

"The special effects are secondary, but they are still crucial to make a parallel universe," director Howard says.

Carrey spent some three hours daily transforming into the hairy Grinch, a process that involved yellow contact lenses, a full body suit with yak hair dyed green, and a full rubber face mask with special breathing holes. At times, the days inside the uncomfortable makeup seems to last "for an eternity," says Carrey, who tried not to lose sight of what the film is about.

"Everyone has a reason to be irascible at Christmas," says the actor. "But if you're only thinking about the presents, your heart is in the wrong place."

This classic tale, he says, is about how to capture the true spirit of the season: "It's about love and change of heart."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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