Could HBO Ruin Sesame Street? Grover’s New Special Points to Yes
The new 'Monster at the End of this Story' adapts a classic Sesame Street book into something truly monstrous.
In 1996, at the height of Elmomania, when Tickle Me Elmo was the hottest toy around, Sesame Street foolishly decided to mess with perfection by releasing an Elmo-focussed sequel to its all-time best-selling and most beloved book, 1971’s The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover.
The enduring genius of The Monster at the End of the Book lies in its loneliness, claustrophobia, and a beautifully cultivated sense of existential terror. In this pretty much perfect exercise in gleeful post-modernism for kiddies, Grover discovers that there is a monster at the end of the book he finds himself starring in.
This fills him with all-consuming fear and a desperate desire to escape destiny by any means necessary by preventing the reader from finishing the book and confronting the eponymous monster in all of his horror. The twist, of course, is that Grover himself is the monster at the end of the book. In that respect, this beloved piece of Americana is quietly philosophical and profound as well as laugh out loud funny, inventive, and playful. After trying desperately to prevent the inevitable Grover comes to discover that what he fears most is himself. With that knowledge comes wisdom and self-acceptance.
There are two primary components to The Monster at the End of This Book: Grover’s all-too-human fear that he is on a collision course with something truly terrifying and the catharsis that comes with Grover realizing just how foolish and myopic he’s been all along.
Another Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover, and Equally Lovable, Furry Little Elmo, the 1996 sequel, removed much of that fear by injecting happy, smiling, confident, disgustingly non-neurotic Elmo into the mix as a cheerful optimist who is, if anything, excessively excited about reaching the end of the book.
Without that sense of fear, the catharsis of Grover discovering that the monster that he’s been afraid of all along is himself fails to register, and a story once characterized by bleak fatalism and claustrophobia has become something much sunnier and less affecting.
HBO Max’s new half-hour musical animated adaptation of The Monster at the End of the Book multiplies all of the mistakes of Another Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover, and Equally Lovable, Furry Little Elmo and adds plenty more, like inexplicably giving Grover’s mother a Karen hairstyle that made me wonder if she was going to climactically ask to speak to the Monster at the End of the Book’s manager.
If Another Monster at the End of This Book Elmofied the story by 200 percent, The Monster at the End of This Story Elmofies it exponentially by transforming a bracingly non-sentimental story about a terrified and lonely figure overcoming his deepest fears into a sappy, saccharine yarn about how the support of good friends can help you get through anything. That’s a nice message, of course, but it most assuredly is not the message of the 1971 masterpiece.
The thoroughly underwhelming special is titled There’s a Monster at the End of This Story in recognition that it has been cruelly and fatally removed from its literary roots as a book very much about reading, books, and the nature of literary storytelling. But it could just as easily have been called Several Additional Monsters at the End of This Story. That’s because Elmo isn’t the only Sesame Street monster to lend Grover moral support. Rosita and Cookie Monster are on hand offering songs and encouragement as well. Hell, even Abby Cadabby shows up and she’s not even a monster, as she points out several times.
The Monster at the End of the Book establishes very early on that Grover has nothing to fear. Before the special is even half over Elmo tells him that he’s a monster and Grover is a monster and monsters are nothing to be afraid of. This happens roughly thirteen minutes into the story, which leaves eighteen very long minutes left to fill.
Elmo breezily assuring Grover that he’s a monster and there’s no reason to be scared of monsters ruins and spoils the ending, of course, but just in case there’s any doubt that Grover won’t be fine there’s also a magical fairy on hand to act as a Deus ex machina should one prove necessary.
But before The Monster at the End of the Story goes thoroughly awry, it at least begins in roughly the same place as its literary inspiration, with Grover overcome with dread after learning that the story that he is starring in will have a monster at the very end.
How do you transform an elegantly minimalist 32 page classic of children’s literature into a thirty-one-minute long special? By padding the holy living shit out of it, of course. Grover doesn’t just talk about his anxiety and fear: he sings about it as well in songs that are passable but undistinguished. The same is true of the animation, which is smooth and round and bland. It desperately lacks the personality, grit, and expressiveness of Michael Smollin’s illustrations from the original book, which captured the pure, vulnerable, endlessly lovable essence of furry old Grover as beautifully as Frank Oz did the character’s original voice and puppeteer.
In the original book, Grover was, like all of us non-Muppets, fundamentally alone before life’s randomness and cruelty. This time around damn near the whole gang shows up for moral support so they can sing a song about overcoming their fears and assure Grover yet again that the monster at the end of the book is nothing to be afraid of, because, and the special cannot seem to establish this often enough, he is in fact a monster.
Normally I find Grover’s desperate need to be loved and fear that he is unworthy of such validation almost painfully relatable. Here, however, I found myself identifying with Oscar the Grouch, who shows up just long enough to grouse, “Enough of all this yucky friendliness.”
In its bid to turn a perfect, self-contained story into thirty-one minutes of streaming entertainment, The Monster at the End of This Story resorts to time-travel. In his quest to avoid his destiny, Grover gets control of a video bar that allows him to rewind back to a place before the story began. With Elmo in tow, Grover travels back in time to several key moments in his past where he faced his fears and overcame them.
The Monster at the End of This Story is so leisurely paced and aimless that at times it feels like the eponymous ending will ever happen, that they’ll just keep on adding characters and contrivances that only highlight how ferociously unnecessary this very loose adaptation really is. To be fair, The Monster at the End of the Story is far from an abomination. It’s a Sesame Street production, after all, so there is a certain baseline of professionalism and quality. But where adults were liable to love The Monster at the End of This Book as much, if not more, than their children, this is the kind of acceptable time-waster that kids will enjoy and parents will be able to tolerate as long as they don’t think too much about the rather massive gulf in quality between The Monster at the End of This Book and The Monster at the End of This Story.
In the end, The Monster at the End of the Story ends up teaching children the unintentional but sturdy and useful lesson that regardless of the context, the book is almost invariably better.
You can watch The Monster at the End of the Story on HBO Max.