By Rachel Mann
When my publisher asked me to consider writing a Lent book based on The Greatest Showman, a musical film about Phineas T Barnum’s Circus, my instinct was to give a flat ‘No!’ As someone who keeps an eye on reviews of new film releases, I was aware that none of the film’s reviews had been especially flattering. Experienced critics, for both quality and tabloid newspapers, calledThe Greatest Showman derivative, clichéd and – curse of all wannabe classic musicals – lacking in decent tunes.
Ultimately, I was persuaded to go and judge the musical for myself and thank goodness I did.
I, like millions of others, was blown-away by its story of an underdog Barnum and his rag-tag family of circus performers and dreamers. The spectacle, the songs and, crucially, the story-arc of the film is fun, engaging and delightful; it is an ‘underdog’ tale that leaves the viewer cheering for Barnum and his troupe.
I am not one of those people who thinks we can dispense with experts. However, in the case of The Greatest Showman, the critics got it wrong. If it was undoubtedly the biggest hit in British cinemas in 2018 – it outstripped the much-fancied Star Wars franchise movie The Last Jedi by a considerable distance – it also deserves its ongoing success.
Some readers of this newspaper, however, may still consider this musical a curious choice for a Lent study book. The great themes of Lent – the longing for justice and mercy, the invitation to sober reflection on sin, and, most of all, the call to repentance – might strike us as very far away from those found in The Greatest Showman.
Where the weeks of Lent traditionally represent a time of preparation for the joy of Easter, it might be suggested that The Greatest Showman wants to skip that reflection and leap too readily to the joy.
It is certainly the case that, at first sight, The Greatest Showman takes place in a major rather than a minor key. Barnum’s struggles to establish himself in show-business are played out, but it is done to the accompaniment of bold and brassy tunes; it is, ultimately a feel-good movie. The Greatest Showman’s power lies in contrast, however.
When Barnum loses sight of what has made him a success and begins to stray from the path of faithfulness (to his family and beliefs), the film very much enters a register shaped around doubt, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption.
Furthermore, if the mood of the film is ‘joy’, it is one tempered by the ups-and-downs of Barnum, and his friends’ and his family’s lives. In short, the film is not so much about mindless pleasure or happiness, but deep joy. This is closer to the joy we find in the Christian faith – the joy shaped through the Cross and God’s truth – than a fleeting happiness often offered by the world.
The film’s version of events chime with people’s desire for belonging and love
Perhaps the elements that have chimed most powerfully with the film’s audiences is its representations of ‘outsiders’. The film constructs Barnum’s circus as a place that offers home and family to those who have been rejected by society because of their difference from the norm. In Barnum’s circus, a ‘bearded lady’ and a giant find affirmation and are treated as ordinary people.
If this version of events may strike historians as very far from representing historical truth – Barnum was a businessman who was not above exploiting his workforce – the film’s version of events chime with people’s desire for belonging and love.
A story shaped around such longing is surely one that deserves closer attention during our fasting and preparation during Lent. As people of faith, we rightly (in my view), want to offer Church and membership of the Body of Christ as the place where people can find their deepest lives; as followers of Jesus Christ, we claim that our fullest lives are found in his community. Alas, so often we fall short in modelling God’s abundant grace and love.
The circus in The Greatest Showman presents a fascinating analogue of the Church at both its best and in its failings. It offers many opportunities for us to reflect on how God calls us into richer, truer communion.
Phineas T Barnum is at the very heart of The Greatest Showman. What makes the film so appealing, and so helpful as the basis for a Lent Book, is that he is a flawed character. When using films as a basis for Lent courses it’s tempting to treat a protagonist like Barnum as a surrogate Jesus figure, and use that as a point of departure to discuss the Gospel. At points, Barnum does come across as a saviour figure – for the members of his circus and for his business colleague Carlyle – but he’s actually more like Peter.
Barnum is by turns full of faith and insight, and yet denies what he values most – his extended circus family – when he has the opportunity to gain access to high society. Not only does this ‘weakness’ make him relatable, but provides space to explore one’s own ‘sin’ and place it in the light of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, The Greatest Showman is shaped around the power of dreaming and hope. Barnum wants – through the magic of the circus – to bring joy and hope to a world hungry for deep fulfilment. Above all, it is a film that brings delight to the forefront and is unafraid of dreams. In a scary world, shaped by aggressive regimes and authoritarian leaders, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Greatest Showman has generated such a devoted following.
Indeed, though it is a highly fictionalised account of Barnum’s life, it manages to offer a powerful echo of God’s original delight in the world and his ongoing desire for us to celebrate his creation.