The Greatest Showman Is What Happens When a Real Person's Story Becomes Fantasy

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Admittedly, The Greatest Showman does not look like typical io9 material. It’s a musical adaptation of P.T. Barnum’s life starring X-Men alum Hugh Jackman, only with one major twist: It’s a fantasy. This movie might be about a real person, but it’s such an elaborate ruse, so detached from reality, it’s actually fan fiction.

I saw The Greatest Showman on Christmas Day with my husband and in-laws. Glass of Pinot Grigio in my cup holder, I was ready to hate-love this movie so hard. And I did. I’m a sucker for cheesy movie musicals, like Mamma Mia and Moulin Rouge, but only when they don’t take themselves too seriously, like La La Land did. (Makes sense that I’d see the songs as the weakest part, given how they were written by La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A parade of Fun! ripoffs obscurely talking about acceptance and dreams.)


The movie tells the story of P.T. Barnum’s rise to infamy, from his early days of running a museum of oddities to opening what later became Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Barnum was a fascinating person with a long career in exposing and exploiting what was considered culturally bizarre at the time, but The Greatest Showman turned his career into a metaphor for diversity and acceptance (and also dreams, those are really important). For example, the Bearded Lady becomes such a strawwoman for “believing in yourself” to the point where just having her and her fellow circus freaks walk into a room was cause for an inspirational song.


But it’s not just that—the movie does some truly weird shit that, in the words of Barnum himself, has to be seen to be believed. Here are just a few of the things that turned The Greatest Showman into one of the greatest fantasies ever shown:

  • His children were immortal. The main events in the story took place over almost 30 years, yet his preteen daughters never aged a day. You heard it here first, folks: P.T. Barnum’s kids were secretly vampires.
  • The film magically skips past Barnum’s first foray into life as a showman. In 1835, he bought a slave woman name Joice Heth who was rumored to be the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington (she wasn’t). Even though she was nearly paralyzed, he worked her 10 to 12 hours per day. After she died a year later, he held a live autopsy of her body. There are other examples of racism and erasure left out of the movie, which can be found here.
  • The movie didn’t include the Fiji mermaid, one of Barnum’s most famous hoaxes. Barnum claimed he was in possession of the body of a mummified mermaid, when in fact it was a monkey’s body sewn onto a fish tail. Weirdly, all the hoaxes presented in the movie are little more than tiny fibs, like lying about one’s weight or height. However, Barnum didn’t just stretch the truth, he actively deceived people.
  • Almost everything about the Jenny Lind story was totally skewed. Jenny Lind was a famous opera singer in Europe who Barnum brought to the United States for a US tour. In the movie, she’s presented as a scarlet-lipsticked jezebel lusting over the sexy Hugh Jackman, who proceeds to try and ruin his life with a public kiss because he wouldn’t bone her. In real life, she was much more subdued than seducing; she reportedly didn’t care for Barnum much, apart from their business relationship, and was even the one who persuaded him to sell lower-cost tickets so more people could see her shows.
  • The final shot with the happy-go-lucky CGI circus elephants is the ultimate fantasy—because, as we all know, those elephants were anything but happy. And in truth, the elephants were part of what led Barnum & Bailey’s circus to shut down in 2017.

After seeing the movie, with all of its glaring issues, I was left puzzled. The Greatest Showman was a weird one. It bastardized history, put rose-colored glasses over its ugliest parts, and glorified ideals that the real Barnum would’ve never professed to—for example, I’m pretty sure Hugh Jackman’s Barnum wouldn’t have sponsored a Connecticut law banning all contraception, like the real guy did in 1879. But, does that make it secretly genius? By turning The Greatest Showman into a fantasy flick, with immortal children and conveniently overlooked slave leasing, did this movie follow in its inspiration’s footsteps?

Probably not. Most likely, they just wanted to make a happy musical and figured adding the problems of the real world would’ve killed the mood. If you’re willing to accept that it’s a fantasy, and nowhere close to reality, there are a few enjoyable things to pull out of this film (like Jackman and Zac Efron’s totally there sexual tension). This might make it unappealing for fans of history, but it does make for an entertaining movie—though you might have to explain a few awkward truths to the in-laws afterward.


Still, there’s something eerily appropriate about The Greatest Showman allowing P.T. Barnum to pull one last con over audiences.