The Worst Show – A Historian’s Account of The Greatest Showman’s Problematic Retelling of History

I didn’t think I could hate anything as much as I hated Death Note, but here we are.

Team, I don’t know what to tell you…

I really hated The Greatest Showman.

Greatest Showman Hate

Usually, I watch the movies that I’m about to review and take notes and carefully craft what I want to say. Not this time. I’m considering this to be a novelty piece so I’m angrily bashing at my keyboard in a rage of whatever comes out of my head.

For starters, hello! I’ve crossed over to the other side (not a reference to one of the awful songs in this terrible film, though apparently it has already embedded in me) and I’m writing about an actual film. For one night, and one night only, I’m ditching my usual live-action anime adaptions for something even more blood boiling for me. An historical adaption.

Let me first establish something important…

I am an historian who focuses on the public display of the human anatomy through different time periods (usually during the nineteenth-century, but currently focusing on the French Revolution). For my dissertation last year, my research gently touched upon the likes of P.T. Barnum, mostly because he had wax figures and an Anatomical Venus, both of which featured heavily in my work.

Naturally, this meant that I already had a startling amount of knowledge about him and his freak show heading into this film.

When ‘The Greatest Show’ (referred to from here on out as “TGS”) was announced, I was so excited. The aesthetic looked fun, Zendaya was in it, and from the trailer alone I could already name almost all of the ‘freaks’ in the cast. But once the film was out, I never got around to seeing it. Pretty much everyone I knew was raving about it, and a few of my friends went to see it more than once, but it passed me by.

Then I found out that it was glorifying Barnum and playing fast and loose with history.

I actively boycotted it.

Unfortunately, Friday night was my night to lose whatever dignity I still have and watch TGS with my mother who told me to turn off my historian’s brain and enjoy it.

It wasn’t that easy.

It’s not hard in this day and age to get your facts right and do some research. A quick Wikipedia search will immediately tell you that P.T. Barnum was not a cool dude. In keeping with the time period and the nature of his business, he was a con man who exploited weaker individuals for his own gain and popularity. I’m not going to bore you with facts here, because you can literally go and read them for yourself. (Go. Read them.) But, I will say this: when dealing with a subject matter of this nature, it’s important to see the film through a historically appropriate perspective. This should be understandable. However, the weird morality trip that the writers and producers send themselves on by attempting to justify Barnum is akin to stepping into the Twilight Zone.

Hugh Jackman PT Barnum

I have to talk about the historical side of it. I sit here, taking a preparatory breath because the way I feel about this film is about to give me an aneurysm. The life of Barnum that is portrayed in the film is pretty much completely unfaithful to his actual life, so why bother calling this character P.T. Barnum? What’s the point of using an actual real life person’s name and mild events if you’re not going to be true to the source material? I understand artistic license, I do, but his real life was strange enough to not have to use it. Barnum’s first person of attraction was an old woman whom he exploited even in death, selling tickets to her public dissection. See why I feel TGS is so far removed from Barnum’s real life that I didn’t see the point of the character even being given his name? If they wanted to set something in mid-nineteenth century America with public displays and entertainment shows, they could have done this without pinning a real historical figure to the posters. ‘Downton Abbey’ does this spectacularly – a fictional family set in the midst of real historical events. TGS should have taken a leaf out of their books.

Was there even a consulting historian on set? Were they allowed to speak?

My issue of the ‘freaks’ also falls under the issue of history. There’s an audition scene where you meet a handful of them, and then there are multiple scenes with all of them in shot. Here is where I got progressively more annoyed. The conjoined twins I immediately recognised as Chang and Eng (these two have an incredible life unto themselves. They both got married to separate women and fathered 22 kids between them), but in the film they are never referred to. They are never even named on screen.

Yet, in the credits, they are named as ‘Chang and Eng’. So why bother to so obviously put them in and give them their correct names and ethnicity if it’s not even going to be utilised? Again, this corroborates my point about Barnum. Why try to force historical figures on us if it’s poorly executed?

The bearded lady character in the film was given the name ‘Lettie Lutz’ but was actually called Annie Jones in real life, and both Annie and Tom Thumb started their careers with Barnum as children – the real Tom Thumb was only four years old. Obviously these things would have been hard to do in the film, but it would have been a much more morally questioning experience if they had dared to make that leap. Barnum is already established in the movie as a con man, so get the four year old, and a teenage girl actress, and really sell it.

They played it safe with this film and I can’t forgive them for it. It is underpinning of a political leaning dangerously intentioned to manipulate the course of history into a celebration of exploitation because of the success and legend of the historical figure himself. Even a shred of honesty would have sufficed, but no.

The music was an aspect of the film I found so incredibly boring – it seems like most were distracted by the dancing and the colourful visuals on screen. It felt like there were only about four songs in there which were ceaselessly flogged and sporadically repeated as a manner of torture to force you into liking them; like a form of musical Stockholm Syndrome. There was absolutely no escaping the same few phrases and lines which were either tearfully mumbled in scenes of self-reflection, or brazenly announced in a gesture of acceptance and defiance!

Because fuck society, right?

The love story with Zac Efron and Zendaya can also, quite frankly, be entirely dismissed. I refuse to give their character names here because they don’t exist, and thus, they do not exist to me either in the context of a film rewriting history to suit modern agendas. The shining star in this whole shit-show of a film was Zendaya’s upper body strength because that girl has got some core muscles, but the two of them (Zac and Zendaya, not her muscles) had spoken one line to each other before we were expected to believe that they were madly in love and that we should care about them.

I don’t think so.

There was no spark, chemistry, or any attempt to establish them as characters or undercover lovers. The film felt so broken it didn’t know who or what it was trying to focus on.

I also laughed out loud at a comment near the end of something about Barnum being an advocate for equality etc.

What a joke.

What an insult.

I’m too angry to expand on this. I don’t even think I need to.

Don’t lie about history. Some people do and will take Hollywood as gospel, and to either not bother to do any research or fact checking of their own, or to simply dismiss the problematic facts in pursuit of a more ideal narrative (and therefore take on history) is repulsive. It is dangerous and, quite frankly, frightens me.

Take the TV show ‘The Tudors’ into account for fabrication. Every time someone claims to know things that they learned from ‘The Tudors’, I lose five years of my life. The Greatest Showman was an amalgamation of flashy production (though hardly the pinnacle of filmmaking in any aspect – though that’s a conversation for another day) and had a somewhat appealing aesthetic, but with a non-existent understanding of the history they were working with and the problems that entailed, I believe TGS to be truly as awful as my trepidatious self had feared.

Don’t watch it.

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