Why ‘The Greatest Showman’ Captured the American Imagination

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Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise. Used with permission of Twentieth Century Fox.

The success of The Greatest Showman is nothing short of astonishing. The movie musical starring Hugh Jackman brought in a paltry $8.8 million when it opened a few days before Christmas. The next week, it earned nearly twice that amount, a rare feat for Hollywood today. Propelled by word of mouth and by repeat viewings, the movie is still performing well, and the soundtrack now sits on top of the U.S. music charts.

The Greatest Showman tells the story of P. T. Barnum and the beginning of the circus, with its death-defying stunts, exotic animals, and parade of human “oddities” and “freaks.” The story of Barnum’s career and his desire to care for his family is carried along by one catchy song after another, with lyrics from the team that contributed to La La Land.

In the case of La La Land, both critics and audiences agreed the movie was worthy of acclaim. On The Greatest Showman, critics and audiences have parted ways, with critics offering tepid reviews and audiences responding with passionate praise. It’s possible that the makers of The Greatest Showman anticipated its critical reception and decided to celebrate popular success over against the disdain it would receive from the elites. In the film, Barnum takes pity on his harshest critic, who is unable to find any joy in the shows he reviews.

Why The Greatest Showman Resonates

Why has a movie about the circus struck such a chord with American viewers? After all, Barnum and Bailey’s circus ended its 146-year run last May, after the number of American circus-goers had fallen to record lows. The secret of The Greatest Showman lies in the storytelling and songwriting that taps into several longings at the heart of the American imagination.

First, The Greatest Showman celebrates the American Dream. Barnum’s rise from the lowest class to the higher echelons of New York society appeals to the American idea that anyone, no matter their background, can rise up and find success if only they combine enough imagination, determination, and grit. The movie also appeals to the populist sentiment that stands against the sneers of the elites.

Second, The Greatest Showman celebrates the centrality of the nuclear family. There’s a Chestertonian element running through the film—a man who doesn’t realize the happiness he knows with his wife and daughters until he travels the world, experiences success on top of success, loses his reputation and acclaim, and then winds up back in the arms of those he loves the most. “From now on these eyes won’t be blinded by the lights,” a repentant Barnum sings after discovering how easy it is to gain the world and lose your soul. “If all is lost, there’s more I gained,” he says. The film’s closing scene leaves us with a beautiful portrait of familial love radiating from a faithful husband and father.

Third, The Greatest Showman is a “celebration of humanity,” as one of the newspaper critics in the film reluctantly admits. By employing a company of human “oddities” and “freaks” (the Bearded Lady, Tom Thumb, Siamese twins, Dog Boy, and so on), Barnum bestows dignity on people who bear the scars of their families’ rejection. He brings people out of the shadows and celebrates their uniqueness.

Of course, the true story is darker than this film would have you think, especially in matters related to race. The movie hints at the uncomfortable truth that Barnum’s pursuit of wealth may have crossed the line into exploitation, but then pulls back in favor of hagiography. The real Barnum profited from the racism of his day, whether it was his “renting” of a black woman or his embrace of sensationalism through racial stereotyping.

An Appreciation

From a Christian perspective, there’s much we can appreciate in this film even while we remain discerning about the overall message.

First, it’s not hard to spot redemptive themes throughout the storyline. When Barnum and his future wife are children, they explore an abandoned mansion and imagine what the world might be like if it were to be restored. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a child’s innocence—finding beauty in the remains of Eden while longing for a new and better world.

Likewise, we can appreciate the seriousness with which the film treats the marriage covenant. When the potential for an adulterous affair arrives, you root for Barnum to be faithful, not give in to temptation.

We can also celebrate the film’s emphasis on treating all human beings, no matter how different they may seem, with respect and dignity. I’ve seen several reviews that mention how this company of eccentric people illustrates the church in all its glorious diversity—the “fellowship of differents” in Scot McKnight’s memorable phrase. Different people are brought together into one family, united around one mission.

Expressive Individualism and the Gospel

The biggest weakness in The Greatest Showman is its unabashed promotion of expressive individualism. According to this way of thinking, the goal of life is to discover and express your unique sense of self, no matter what others may say or do to challenge your freedom of personality. The narrative arc of your life is finding your personal route to happiness by following your heart, expressing your true self, and then fighting whoever would oppose you—your society, your family, your past, or your church.

The movie’s breakout song, “This Is Me” (by the Bearded Lady), sings the praises of being true to yourself and breaking free from the sharp words of criticism that may come from people around you. “I’m marching to the beat I drum!” The song is about coming to terms with who you are and then defiantly expressing that identity to the world. “We are glorious,” Barnum’s chorus sings, exulting in the power of expressing one’s uniqueness.

The song “Come Alive” is an invitation, an overt call to convert to the expressive individualism of the film. The first verse lays out the problem (“you’re asleep inside”) and solution (“come alive, go and light your light, let it burn so bright”). Don’t walk through life “like a zombie,” but find the spark inside yourself, “break free” from society’s expectations and “prove there’s more to you” by expressing yourself to the world.

As Christians, we find longings here we can identify with, especially in the main characters as they pursue happiness and ache for Eden. But the solution offered in the film is that we “run away to a world that we design.” Another song encourages the listener to “take the world and redefine it” as you “leave behind your narrow mind” until the fantasy world becomes reality. In a few online interviews with the actors and singers, it’s clear that one of the ways they think we can design a future world of our own making is through the embrace of recent gender theories (and the transgender movement in particular).

As Christians, we know the true gospel isn’t about finding and expressing yourself, but finding Christ and expressing your newfound identity in him. And yes, there is a sense in which we as humans are “glorious,” but this is true not because of how we see ourselves but because we reflect the image of a truly glorious God. Furthermore, it’s not our own understanding (“This is me”) that matters most, but God’s declaration over us—“This is who I made you to be.” Salvation comes through Christ redeeming us, and then placing us into a community where our individuality is neither idolized nor squashed, where we are not to become clones of each other but instead conformed into the image of Christ.

The Greatest Showman taps into several themes that resonate powerfully in American culture. Some of those messages line up with Christian teaching, and some do not. If you see this movie, enjoy the story and the songs. Just don’t fall prey to the “be true to yourself” message. The church’s call to “come alive” is much better than that.

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