Hollywoodising History: The Greatest Con Man

debates the limits of artistic license when depicting problematic figures from the past

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Greatest Showman would have you believe that, while flawed, P.T. Barnum was a man who championed those with differences, celebrating them and teaching tolerance to the masses through his travelling show. It would have you believe that Barnum’s ‘greatest travelling show on earth’ was not due to spectacle, but because it gave those who had previously been branded ‘freaks’ a stage to show off their uniqueness, giving them a place in the world which before had only shunned them. The truth, however, is far less liberal than that. Barnum was not an enabler of the beauty of diversity, but instead was an exploitative purveyor of ‘freak shows’. Barnum made profit by mocking his ‘freaks’ and ‘oddities’. He was a violent racist. Above all, he was certainly not the lovable family man who, while may have got slightly lost on the way, just wanted to provide for his wife, and in the end proved himself to be a good person.

One of Barnum’s first ‘successes’ was conveniently absent from the film. Joice Heth was a blind and partially paralysed black slave, who Barnum bought and exhibited, encouraging his paying public to mock her racial ‘inferiority’. She was 80 years old, but Barnum promoted her as 161 and the mammy (read: nursing maid) of George Washington, which needless to say was entirely untrue. She was an alcoholic, which Barnum exploited, getting her drunk so to extract her teeth, all to make her into more of an ‘oddity’. And, after a life of slavery, Barnum even denied Heth the dignity of death, instead performing an autopsy of her body, charging the public to come and watch.

Image: 20th Century Fox

So, while The Greatest Showman chose to completely ignore Barnum’s racism, events from his life that it does feature are heavily glossed over. In the film, Charles Stratton, or his stage name of General Tom Thumb, is an adult little person who agrees to become part of Barnum’s act, who, while hated by the bigoted public, is given a place of belonging by Barnum. The real Stratton however was a five year old boy, who Barnum got hooked on booze and cigarettes, to the delight of his paying public.

I hope I have summarised that Barnum was a bad man. The Greatest Showman does attempt to show some shades to his character – he’s fairly clearly shown to be a conman, and also shuns his ‘freaks’ as he begins to climb the social ladder – but, to be frank, this is a fairly standard character arc, where the protagonist does everything with the best of intentions yet begins to get high on their own self-importance, before a setback causes them to realise what’s truly important. It’s by the numbers.

The dilemma here comes from the wrestling match between fidelity, marketability, and storytelling. The producers were targeted with creating an original four quadrant movie musical, which is no mean feat. And largely, although The Greatest Showman was plagued with some middling critical reviews, they succeeded, becoming a box office climber, which still had legs four months after release, a phenomenon almost unheard of. Its music, from the lyricists of La La Land, is catchy, and its story (despite my criticisms of Barnum’s character arc), is largely engaging . The producers have crafted a ‘good’ movie.

The problem is that it bears so little resemblance to real life that it’s almost laughable. Some may argue that this doesn’t matter, and I agree that first and foremost storytellers need to put creating a captivating story above all other concerns. When telling a true story, they should not be tied to following every event verbatim; after all, most things in real life don’t exactly fit a Todorovian narrative structure. But, fidelity to the truth should not be forgotten entirely.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Greatest Showman may be an extreme example of the dangers of taking creative licence too far – I’m sure not too many would take issue with Stephen Frears’ The Queen depicting the wrong personal private secretary for example – but The Greatest Showman turns an exploitative racist into a loving celebrator of difference. It whitewashes history into a feel-good story, and tries to sell what was abuse and bigotry as a modern celebration of diversity.

When doing press for the flick, Barnum actor Hugh Jackman proclaimed that “[Barnum’s] belief was what makes you different makes you special… you can be discriminated for that but if you own up to it and we start to embrace everybody then it can be what makes life special and fantastic.” This proclamation is, unfortunately, ludicrous. Barnum may have later in life entered politics and eventually left the Democratic Party over its support of slavery, but he spent most of his life and earned his fortune discriminating, not embracing.

As a movie, The Greatest Showman is good, something which its 88 per cent Rotten Tomatoes audience rating attests to. But as a depiction of real events, it is problematic and irresponsible. There is a reason freak shows no longer exist, and that circuses which exploit humans and animals have all but died out. Late in the movie, Jackman sings that “from now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the light”. And as such, we shouldn’t let the light of The Greatest Showman blind our eyes to the horror which lies underneath.