What Does The Greatest Showman Tell Us About Our Desires?

The Greatest Showman is a musical film that tells the story of P. T. Barnum’s rise to fame. In our house, the movie and soundtrack have played countless times. I have a hunch that ours is not the only family that has sung and danced with the score. 

Why has the film been such a success? Critics have pointed out that it doesn’t accurately portray Barnum’s complex life. Audiences the world over have ignored the critics and have approved the production. (One gets the sense that the film wasn’t made for the critics anyway. They have unwittingly played the role of the film’s snobbish New York class.) 

Those wanting a detailed biopic have missed the point. The film does not intend to tell us about Barnum. It intends to use Barnum as the vehicle for another purpose. The Greatest Showman employs powerful music and choreography to touch upon deep universal human desires. We find ourselves saying, “Yes, that is what I feel! That is what I want!” 

These desires are God-given. They are part of what it means to be human because they rouse the hunger for fulfilled humanity. For the next few posts, I want to talk about three of these human desires. The first desire is the hunger for more than what we have known.

Looking for More

Read the lyrics to the film’s opening rock ballad, “The Greatest Show.”

Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for 
Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor
And buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore
Taking your breath, stealing your mind
And all that was real is left behind.

With this foot-stomping rock anthem, Barnum and his players challenge us to dare to experience a show that goes beyond our version of reality. We physically feel the pounding cadence and hear the choir vocals before we see anything or hear lyrical text. It’s as if the music is pulling us into experiencing something that can’t be seen or put into words. Later Barnum serenades his wife-to-be and tells her he imagines everything “the world could be.” He is convinced he can “build a world that we design

The promise of something “more” is the bait Barnum uses to recruit elitist playwright Phillip Carlyle as a partner in the show: 

You run with me
And I can cut you free
Out of the drudgery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful...
Don’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play?

These songs resonate with us because they touch on shared desires: we all want something more than the dull-grey routine of fitting into what the world commands. We want to think that the world can be different. We want to go beyond ourselves and the beyond the script handed to us.

The movie is not wrong to affirm and rouse a desire for “more.” To yearn for something more is to be human. It’s also dangerous.

More Is Not What You Think

There’s a bit of irony in Barnum trying to recruit Carlyle by calling him out of cage of the “same old part.” Barnum wants Carlyle because he thinks it will help him break into the very aristocracy he says Carlyle is bored of. Barnum thinks his “more” is the power of wealth and the respect of the powerful. As we sing, dance, and falter with Barnum, we find out that the “something more” is not what we think it is.

The world in which we live tries to tell us what the “more” is: You need this new car to make you feel special. You need that new sexy body to be worthy of love. You need someone from the “in-crowd” to tell you that you’re finally accepted and respected. So we madly chase every chance to heal the ache inside. It’s why Barnum risked everything to get a standing ovation from the elite who had rejected him. It’s the allure in the temptation to the affair with singer Jenny Lind. It’s the same old empty promise that the serpent offered to Eve. It’s a mirage.

This is why the very hunger God gave us can be dangerous. We can be tricked into thinking that heatwaves in the desert are the shimmering surface of water. We chase those elusive glimmers and only grow thirstier. It’s a never-ending chase because there is always someone sexier, someone wealthier, and someone more talented. If we don’t stop, the unfulfilled chase will kill us. 

So what do we do? The Christian teachers have told us that we need to view the desire for “more” as a sign of something more than this world. The world only offers more of the same things we’ve already had. However, if we chase the glimmer and still want something different, then what the world offers must not be what we really want. We want real water not glimmers in the desert. We want real significance not temporary applause. We want real love not lustful titillations. When we realize this, we realize the hunger pulls us to our homeland, to our Maker. 

When we find Him, we find the source of life and drink deeply. At that point we also find a paradox of contentment and desire: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). 

“Give us more of Yourself,” we say to God. However, the difference from this quest for “more” in God and the search “more” in the desert is the difference between quantity and kind. In the desert, we are looking for “more” as in a different kind. We say, “Not this, but that.” When we find God, we ask for more of Him. Here we say, “Yes, this is it! More of it please!” We no longer look for a different kind. He is all we ever wanted. As long as we can have more of Him, we are contented forever.We answer the movies questions in the affirmative: “Yes, we want more.” This “more,” however, we know is not found in the acceptance of the elite, the applause of the crowd, or the garish tents of entertainment. Above and beyond all this is the One in whose presence is the fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

Dr. Daniel Davis
Dr. Daniel Davishttp://collective.tku.edu
Dr. Daniel Davis is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Bachelor of Christian Ministry at The King's University.