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Is ‘The Greatest Showman’ Based on a True Story?

December 22, 2019
5 min read

“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else,” Hugh Jackman utters the line as P.T. Barnum in the musical biopic ‘The Greatest Showman.’ The statement holds true as the unique tone of the film has led it to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

The film marks the directorial debut of Australian VFX artist Michael Gracey, who is also working on an upcoming manga adaptation, Naruto.

Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, ‘The Greatest Showman’ follows the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a visionary who rises from ashes to bring together ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ However, the hunger for fame gets the better of him as he goes down the path of self-destruction, risking everything from his family to the circus he spent his blood, sweat and tears on.

The film released across the US on December 20, 2017, and opened up to big numbers at the box office, thus becoming the fifth-highest grossing musical of all time. Although the critics lauded the power packed performances, magnificent set design and outstanding music, it garnered mixed reviews, with many blaming the film for whitewashing the evil deeds of P. T. Barnum.

Which brings us to the question: Is it based on a true story? Are the characters portrayed in the film actually a part of the real P. T. Barnum’s history? Let’s find out!

The Greatest Showman: True Story or Not?

It is, and no points for guessing that as the makers themselves have advanced this film as a musical biography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the brain behind the world-renowned circus that went on to be become “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Now, that we have established the fact that ‘The Greatest Showman’ is based on a true story, let’s talk in detail about the accuracy and inaccuracies in the depiction of P. T. Barnum’s life story.

‘The Greatest Showman’ showcases the burning down of Barnum’s American Museum in a fire. Well, that actually happened. On July 13, 1865, the fire was started because of Barnum’s involvement in pro-Unionist lectures, dramas, etc. and not because of an outrage over the sideshows he conducted at his museum.

He relocated the Museum, following the fire, but that too was burned down in 1868, thus forcing him to enter the world of circus.

Although Barnum is widely known as a circus organizer, he got into the show business when he was 60-years-old. The film depicts the scene where Jackman’s character decides to become a showman after losing his museum to a massive fire, but Jackman is only 35 in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ when that happens.

Barnum is believed by many, to have gained financially by making false claims about the people with oddities for the public’s amusement. Even though Barnum possessed anti-slavery beliefs, both his actions as an organizer and the shows he set up, defied the claims. It has been reported that he put up an elderly African-American slave on display at his shows, stating that she was 161-years-old. He cooked up false stories about the blind and physically immobile woman, asserting she served as George Washington’s nurse. She passed away a year after he brought her under his care. It was then revealed that the poor woman was just 80 and the bio that he provided was false. So much for a few gasps from the public.

‘The Greatest Showman’ hints at Barnum having a fling with Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). There’s a sequence where Barnum rejects Lind’s advances, causing her to quit the tour in a jiffy. That is absolutely untrue. Well, the true story is that Lind agreed to accompany Barnum on the American tour only because he offered her a princely sum. However, the whole sum of $350,000 was donated by her to various charities. Also, Lind actually left the tour annoyed with Barnum’s obsessive marketing of her talent.

There is also a scene where Barnum’s wife Charity (Michelle Williams) leaves him temporarily, enraged at seeing the photos in a newspaper, of Lind and Barnum kissing. In reality, Barnum never had a romance with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Barnum has professed his love for his wife in his autobiographies. He has written, “The day I married her, I became the husband of one of the best women in the world.” They were together until her demise in the year, 1873. The film also shies away from demonstrating the fact that Barnum remarried just a year after his wife’s death. In 1874, Barnum married singer Nancy Fish, who was his bedrock until he passed away in 1891.

General Tom Thumb (real name Charles Sherwood Stratton) was actually a distant cousin of Barnum and was enrolled when he was 4-yrs-old, the movie shows him to be 22-yrs-old and skips the cousin part.

In the film, Barnum finds a partner in Zac Efron’s Phillip Carlyle, who is also in an interracial relationship with Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler. Well, both the characters are born from fiction and there’s no truth to this arc.

Final Takeaway:

In conclusion, the film’s treatment of Barnum’s life may not be an honest to god truth but it certainly offers a feel-good factor of accepting what makes you unique and urges you to follow your dreams no matter what. Although it lacks historical accuracy, the film does entertain you and inspire your very being.

Read More: Upcoming Hugh Jackman Movies

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