Ugly Truths Behind Lovely Films

Sophie discusses the issues with glossing over the darker details in blockbuster films...

I watched The Greatest Showman at The Savoy for the third time this weekend (yes, you heard that right, I’ve watched it three times) and it got me thinking. YES it’s a great film, YES it has a fab cast, and YES it has an even better soundtrack, but the film is very problematic for a number of reasons.

P.T. Barnum was, in fact, a horrible person, and the very charming Hugh Jackman does a highly convincing job of turning him into a much more likeable character. Okay, I’ll admit he is a bit of a dick in the film. SPOILER ALERT, he kisses another woman on stage in front of thousands of people (not totally his fault, but still), then returns back to his wife with his tail between his legs, who takes him back almost immediately. He also treats the vast majority of his circus cast terribly, particularly in the scene with the celebratory party of Jenny Lind’s performance, and never apologises for his behaviour. Despite these character flaws, the real P.T. Barnum was much, much worse.

“a prime example of portraying someone through rose-tinted glasses”

Not only was he a con-artist who exploited minority groups, he was hugely racist and wasn’t opposed to buying slaves to use as acts, even after slavery was abolished in New York. He also horrifically abused his animals, creating a legacy of animal cruelty and violence in the circus. Thank God they used CGI animals in the film.

The Greatest Showman is a prime example of portraying someone through rose-tinted glasses to make a profit. I love both Hugh Jackman and this musical as much as the next person, and it does a good job of portraying an important message about inclusion and equality, but we must not forget the historical truth behind the story.

There are many other examples of films that have glossed over the details of controversial stories, including the Disney hit Saving Mr Banks, which depicts the production of the classic musical Mary Poppins. There’s not many people who don’t love Mary Poppins; for me, it was a huge part of my childhood and sparked my love of musicals. But this film is very different from the original novels by P.L. Travers for numerous reasons. And an entertaining watch though it may be, Saving Mr Banks doesn’t tell us the whole story.

Whereas The Greatest Showman omits some key historical details, in Saving Mr Banks, studio lies destroy Travers’ true artistry. At the end of the movie it makes out that author Travers was content with the film’s portrayal of the adored Poppins, however this is far from the truth. Disney overruled her objections to the softening of Poppins’ character, the use of music and the use of animation. As shown in the film, she particularly despised the decision to cast Dick van Dyke, as well as the romantic storyline between his character, Bert, and Poppins.

Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers looks less than impressed as Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney shows her around his theme park.

Travers felt that the film totally contradicted the artistic vision of her stories, and was hugely disappointed with the end result – she cried after the premiere, and not the happy tears that the film shows. So now, with Saving Mr Banks, Disney have screwed poor old Travers over not once, but twice.

The portrayal of Walt Disney himself is a whole different kettle of fish. Although we would all hate to think of Disney as anything but the king of our childhoods and a cinematic genius, Disney has been accused of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism. Although the truth of these claims is unclear, maybe we should take the depiction of Disney as an untouchable figure with a pinch of salt.

Hollywood can romanticise these stories and glorify their characters as much as they want, but they’ll never fully convince us. As viewers we must not take everything we watch at face value, but constantly question and critique our cinematic experience so that it doesn’t brainwash us entirely.

Sophie Hunt

Featured image courtesy of Chernin Entertainment via IMDb.

Article image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures via IMDb.

Image use license here.

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