Everyone loves the circus, or…everyone loves the idea of the circus. The Greatest Showman is all about the idea of the circus. Everyone knows part of the show involves deception, but enough of it is real enough that we don’t mind being hoodwinked every once in a while. Watching The Greatest Showman, I felt the same way.
This fun, colorful, and feel-good musical is only loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Only a thousand page novel or several seasons long television show could fully tell Barnum’s insane life story. But for a two-hour musical released around Christmas, The Greatest Showman fits the bill, even if it plays it too safe for my taste. The energetic and memorable musical numbers carry the film along, distracting you from the generic and cliché-ridden screenplay. Most of the characters are barely given a personality, but the actors try to overcome the weak script with charm and panache.
Everyone is trying very hard to convince you that this film is better than it is—the actors, the cinematography, the choreographer—however, the script is to blame for most of the film’s faults. Part of the reason this film succeeds as a crowd pleaser is the same reason why the film fails as a biography or as a “serious” film: it is every generic Hollywood “let’s put on a show” musical ever made. All we’re missing are some dancing nuns, three sailors, and talking animals.
Still, for most of the film’s runtime, the history-lover in me couldn’t help but wonder how the film stacked up against the real story. Answer: The film deviates from the truth and condenses a lot of Barnum’s life, but the changes are befitting the film’s genre and target audience.
Obviously many characters and events are condensed and embellished, if not made up entirely:
- Zac Efron’s character, Philip Carlyle, is clearly based off of James Anthony Bailey.
- Keala Settle’s scene-stealing bearded lady, Lettie, is a composite of other bearded women such as Josephine Clofullia and Annie Jones.
- Charles Stratton aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) is one of the most famous dwarves in history, even if his character is sadly pushed aside to make room for more musical numbers. Stratton also had a fascinating life. He was actually Barnum’s distant relative, which explains how Barnum found him. Stratton started preforming at the age of five, as opposed to the film’s version who doesn’t join show business until later in life. Stratton was also one of the most famous and recognizable actors in the world during his life. He married Lavinia Warren (born Mercy Lavinia Bumpus) a fellow dwarf and performer.
- The film also features some of Barnum’s famous sideshow performers in supporting roles such as: conjoined twins based off of Chang and Eng Bunker (who inspired the term Siamese twins due to their birthplace) and Jo-Jo The Dog Faced Boy Fedor Jeftichew (the film leaves out his feline counterpart, the Lion-faced Man, Stephan Bibrowski). Even George Constentenus, The Tattooed Prince and Colonel Routh Goshen, the “Largest Man In America” make an appearance. Even some of the background dancers are inspired by real sideshow performs.
- Zendya’s character is clearly a Hollywood addition. While her character is reduced to being a spunky love interest and obligatory reference to period-accurate racism, seeing her swing around on a rope during a romantic duet nearly redeems this character’s nearly pointless existence.
The film’s timeline in relation to history is also all over the place. Barnum had a very long career in many different fields. The film condenses much of Barnum’s early career into four phases: child laborer, unsatisfied office worker, museum owner, and ringleader.
The real Barnum even dabbled in politics, becoming a Republican on the eve of the Civil War, disapproving of slavery. He even delivered this stirring speech on slavery before the Connecticut legislature:
A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.
– P. T. Barnum
While the film doesn’t include this wonderful quote (or its context during the American Civil War), the film follows its spirit, celebrating people of all races, genders, and apperances. Though, I have to say, for a film that constantly tells us appearances don’t matter it sure does spend most of the runtime focusing on the beautiful “normal” people.
The Greatest Showman is earnest, passionate, big-hearted, a bit shallow and very predictable, but as the title suggest, we all came to see the show, not the truth, which makes this a fitting tribute to Barnum and the circus itself.