In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented Christmas, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman. I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t. I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).
The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman). Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all. Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer. In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol. While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life. As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point. The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens. (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.) I wish this movie had received wider release.
The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype. I suppose one would call it a bio-musical. The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy. The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams. But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks. The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers. They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard. They were going to see a bearded lady, period.
For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens. Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers. Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent. Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis. It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus. I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America. I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.
I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned. Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.