Is The Greatest Showman a true story? The movie musical is many things - but historically accurate isn’t exactly one of them. It’s necessary to look beyond the film in order to get to know the real P.T. Barnum and the circus he created.
The musical claims to tell the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s rise from rags to riches in antebellum America. According to the film, Barnum was an orphaned child whose head was full of dreams. As an adult, he married his childhood sweetheart and did all that he could to give her the life he thought she deserved. After losing a boring, uninspiring office job, Barnum decides to take the plunge and pursue an extraordinary career: he purchases a museum and recruits outcasts to be a part of his show. It becomes wildly popular, and he fulfills his dream of living a life of success, wonder, and entertainment.
To be fair, it gets some basic details correct. Barnum was born in Connecticut in 1810, and he spent much of his life chasing down the American dream. In his case, that meant establishing an entertainment network through his American Museum - which included a so-called “freak show” that exhibited actual human beings as objects of curiosity, oddity, and terror - and, eventually, his famous circus. By the time he died in 1891 at the age of 80, he had been many things: promoter, entertainer, businessman, politician, abolitionist, teetotaler, and writer.
But Barnum’s larger-than-life story, in all its complex glory, doesn’t completely make it into the film. The Greatest Showman's accuracy is mediocre at best, and the film ignores his sins, manipulates his relationships, and simplifies the long trajectory of his rich life. Among the many errors is the film's depiction of the relationship between P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind and its unwillingness to engage with the undeniable racism in Barnum's past. The film may be good entertainment, but it’s also bad history.