The Grinch's Gatekeeper

Producer Brian Grazer had spent more than two fruitless years pursuing movie rights to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and when he finally made his case to author Dr. Seuss's widow, Audrey Geisel, he quickly realized she was wholly unimpressed. With only 15 minutes left to change her mind, Grazer did what any self-respecting producer would do. He begged. "And she left us an opening," Grazer says.

That small opening, a chance to go back two days later to try to sell Geisel on another approach, eventually resulted in the $123 million comedy that opens Nov. 17. With Jim Carrey playing the holiday thief who tries to ruin Christmas by stealing all of Whoville's toys and trimmings, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is certain to be one of the season's biggest hits, and may touch even jaded adults. "This movie has reduced me to a child," Carrey says. "It feels like my first Christmas." The movie is accompanied by a marketing and promotional onslaught that includes the mean one's fingers on as many as 10 billion U. S. Postal Service-canceled stamps, and hundreds of Grinch-related products, down to green Oreos. But underneath all the hype and merchandise lies an occasionally non-Yuletide tale of headstrong people simultaneously trying to preserve and exploit one of the nation's most loved literary figures.

Now a spry 79, the publicly gracious Geisel privately guards her late husband Theodor's estate of nearly four dozen books and their fanciful creatures with such vigilance that she recently reclaimed a planned film adaptation of "The Cat in the Hat" from Steven Spielberg. "They just couldn't get it right," she told NEWSWEEK matter-of-factly. To auction off film rights to "Grinch" in 1998, Geisel and her agents and lawyers summoned A-list Hollywood supplicants to a Beverly Hills conference room. Tom Shadyac ("Liar, Liar") pitched his version, as did the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary") and John Hughes ("Home Alone"). On that visit, Grazer ("Apollo 13") was accompanied by writer-director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville"), who wanted to take the holiday scoundrel into the Seussian worlds of "Green Eggs and Ham," "McElligott's Pool" and other books. But Geisel insisted the Grinch stay in his Mount Crumpit cavern. "The other books would be in other productions," she says.

As soon as they left Geisel, Grazer and Ross politely parted ways and Grazer called his longtime collaborator, director Ron Howard, who was in Connecticut preparing a movie version of Jack London's "The Sea Wolf." Howard wasn't interested in making "Grinch," but Grazer talked Howard into jumping on a plane to California to discuss it with Geisel. On the flight to Geisel's La Jolla home, Howard hatched a plot that owed as much to Sta-nislavsky as to Seuss: what was the Grinch's motivation?

The 1957 book offers scant clues, except that "his heart was two sizes too small." That conceit can sustain a cartoon, but not a feature film. As he flew over the heartland, Howard decided Cindy Lou Who, the book's innocent child who stumbles upon a gift-raiding Grinch, would be the movie's central narrative wedge. Cindy became the anti-material girl, someone who saw the season as a time to boost spirits, not sales revenues. And the one soul needing the most cheer was this hairy recluse. He had exiled himself from Whoville, she discovered, following childhood humiliation over his appearance. By the time Howard's plane touched down, he wanted to make the movie. "A lot of themes Seuss dealt with are very modern," Howard says of the author, who died in 1991. "I thought this story of disenfranchisement was interesting." In Grazer's second meeting with her, so did Geisel.

As long as Carrey would star, Geisel gave Howard and Grazer her approval, reserving the right to oversee the production. Universal initially resisted the rich deal for those four principals, who will split nearly 35 percent of the film's profits, yet money wasn't the sole worry. Why should the studio pay Carrey $20 million when he wasn't even recognizable under all the furry green makeup and prosthetics? "We called Ron and said, 'Are you sure? Do we need the yellow contact lenses?' " says Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures. But Howard says a test in which Carrey wore basic green face makeup made him look like an extra from "Cats." To convince the studio that more was not less, Howard showed a videotape of Carrey and other actors in full Grinch makeup to his high-school daughter and her friends. Whenever it's Carrey, he instructed the teen audience, raise your hands. Even with the sound off, "The minute he started moving, they all said, 'That's Jim'."

Carrey's transformation into the Grinch wasn't as easy. On a good day, it took Carrey three hours to get into his makeup. On a bad day, he didn't want to get into it at all, especially the painful contact lenses. The filmmakers went so far as to bring in a former Navy SEAL to offer torture survival tips. Digital Domain's special effects were not limited to computer-generated townspeople or even a digital stunt double for the Grinch's dog, Max. The effects house also digitally inserted Carrey's contacts when his eyes rebelled.

The movie sprawled over 11 sound stages, and there were nearly as many screenplay rewrites. Geisel objected to a joke about a home with neither Christmas tree nor presents ("The Who-steins!" the Grinch concludes after spying a menorah) and a stuffed trophy of the Cat in the Hat on the Grinch's wall. She also didn't like a teenage Grinch as a "who-venile delinquent." "There were too many bathroom jokes," Geisel says. "That's not the Seuss world, not at all."

In the end, Geisel, Howard, Grazer and Carrey got Seuss to sound like Seuss (although Carrey's demeanor at times reminds you of Richard Nixon). The film has taken a simple two-dimensional, red and black setting and turned it into a three-dimensional fantasyland of vibrant colors, Gaudi-like buildings and an entire culture of oddly misshapen revelers. Once derided for its exorbitant cost, the film now has competitors in a panic.

But what of the book and movie's message decrying the holiday's commercialization? "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store," Seuss wrote. "Well," says Geisel, who will collect 50 percent of Grinch merchandise revenues, "there you have a paradox to end all paradoxes."