All great stories have an emotional appeal. While action thrillers like “Die Hard” or “Terminator 2” might seem to be all about action, the real purpose of that action was to achieve an emotional goal. In “Die Hard,” the hero just wanted to get back with his wife. In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) eventually learns the value of human life and as a result, understands why it’s wrong to kill.
Strip away the emotional appeal and you wind up with meaningless action like all those “Die Hard” or “Terminator” sequels that throw more action on the screen without a logical or emotional reason for any of that action.
When a story starts with a theme (the emotional appeal), then the story structure is easy to follow. In “The Greatest Showman,” the initial emotional goal of the hero (PT Barnum) is to gain respect for who he is. That central theme underlies the entire story from start to finish and drives all the action of not only PT Barnum, but everyone around him.
Because PT Barnum wants respect for who he is, the conflict stems from how he can achieve that respect. One, he can simply be a good person and gain respect from others by being kind and generous to them. Two, he can pursue greater riches and fame and gain respect through superficial appearances. This tug of war between being satisfied with being a good person or winning the respect of others through greater riches and fame is what PT Barnum must choose. Every obstacle he faces pulls him either towards accepting himself as a good person or striving for more money and fame to earn the respect of others.
Once you understand this real conflict, you can see it played out in all physical obstacles throughout the story where it’s doubtful which choice PT Barnum will make until the very end. Will PT Barnum recognize that he already has respect from others by helping them and being a loving person? Or will he succumb to riches and fame and think more money and fame is the answer? Great stories stay focused on constantly bringing up this conflict. Poor stories do not stay focused on this core emotional conflict, which is why those stories falter despite all the explosions, gunfire, and car crashes the director might add.
In PT Barnum’s first obstacle, he’s poor and likes a girl whose father does not like PT Barnum. Despite the girl (Charity) liking him for who he is already (the real emotional goal PT Barnum needs to accept), he’s driven to prove to Charity’s father that he’s worthy by becoming even richer than her father (pushing PT Barnum to get rich).
PT Barnum eventually marries Charity and this put him in conflict with her father once more. Despite Charity loving him despite their lack of money and fame, her father tells PT Barnum that she won’t last long with him and will leave him to go back to the life of luxury she’s used to. Even though PT Barnum already has what he wants (Charity’s love), he’s still determined to get rich by opening a wax museum. PT Barnum still thinks money is the way to gain the respect he craves.
After the wax museum fails to make money, PT Barnum hits upon the idea of turning it into a circus and start collecting “freaks” who don’t fit into society. The goal is to showcase these “freaks” and make money when the public comes to see them. This immediately puts PT Barnum into conflict with a second villain.
Where the first villain was Charity’s father who disapproved of him, this second villain is a prominent newspaper critic who disapproves of PT Barnum’s freak show. Now PT Barnum is getting rich off his freak show but still doesn’t have the respect he craves from either Charity’s father or this newspaper critic. Once again, we can see that every conflict is a tug of war. On one hand, PT Barnum can realize he’s given his wife and family a luxurious life and they love him, but on the other, he still think he needs to gain the respect of this newspaper critic.
While PT Barnum gathers together various “freaks,” these various freaks want the exact same thing that PT Barnum wants, which is respect. Like PT Barnum, they initially feel lonely and depressed because they are shunned by society and don’t have the respect of others. So the emotional goal of these “freaks” is exactly the same as PT Barnum’s emotional goal (respect himself instead of striving to impress others), which demonstrates the focus and structure of the overall story.
To further emphasize this emotional tug of war between accepting yourself vs. striving to gain acceptance from others, the story introduces more conflict between a rich man who falls in love with one of PT Barnum’s acrobats. Although this young man has money, his own parents disapprove of his relationship with an acrobat. So just like PT Barnum, this man is struggling to gain acceptance from others (his parents).
Just in the first half of the story, “The Greatest Showman” focuses on multiple stories that emphasize and focus on the theme about accepting yourself vs. striving to gain the acceptance of others:
- PT Barnum trying to win the respect of Charity’s father who dislikes him because he’s poor
- PT Barnum trying to win the respect of a newspaper critic who dislikes his freak show
- The “freaks” striving to gain acceptance from others and being ashamed of who they are
- The rich young man in love with an acrobat, striving to gain acceptance from his parents
As a musical, “The Greatest Showman” reveals emotions through song, unlike ordinary dramas that reveal emotions through action. So to appreciate any musical, you need to judge it not by the standards of action but by the standards of emotional change in music. Here the song writers for “The Greatest Showman” perfectly match the lyrics to the emotional conflict of each character.
As PT Barnum gathers his “freaks,” he sings the song “Come Alive,” which encourages them to stop being ashamed of who they are and live life regardless of what others may think. Ironically, this is a lesson PT Barnum himself still hasn’t fully grasped yet.
Only until PT Barnum hires Jenny, an extraordinary singer, for his show does he finally reach everything he’s dreamed for.
- He’s rich and famous, and now Charity’s father can no longer look down upon him for being poor
- The newspaper critic is actually impressed by Jenny’s singing and now PT Barnum has won his respect
- The “freaks” are happy together, making money, and earning the respect of some (not all) of the public
- The rich young man is in love with the acrobat
The midpoint is where everything seems to be working. Then it all falls apart. If you watch the song “Never Enough,” you’ll see everything starting to change:
- PT Barnum is now being tempted by Jenny’s beauty and her singing ability which has given him respectability in the eyes of others
- The “freaks” are starting to feel less important in the shadow of Jenny’s singing ability
- The rich young man, still seeking approval from his parents, lets go of the acrobat’s hand to gain his parent’s respect that he’s still striving for
The song “Never Enough” highlights PT Barnum’s quest for money and fame and emphasizes that no matter what he has, it will never be enough. Notice that “The Greatest Showman” not only stays focused on this singular theme, but constantly reminds us about it through different songs and conflicts among the different characters. This singular focus is the foundation of every good story. Just watch a bad movie like “Jaws 4” or “Terminator 3” to see how lots of physical action can never make up for the lack of this singular focus on the theme.
From this point on, life starts falling apart for everyone. The rich young man’s relationship with the acrobat is in jeopardy just as PT Barnum’s relationship with his wife is in jeopardy as he’s tempted more and more by Jenny, who represents the respectability he’s craved his whole life.
After thugs torch the circus, attack the “freaks”, and threaten to bankrupt PT Barnum as Jenny leaves him and PT Barnum’s relationship with his wife is in danger, that’s when PT Barnum finally understands this constant emotional tug of war he’s being struggling with since the start.
Will he realize he doesn’t need the money and fame and that he’s perfect the way he already is?
Or will he continue pursuing money and fame to gain the respectability of others?
Notice that this is exactly the conflict the “freaks” feel and the exact same conflict the rich young man feels with his relationship with his parents. Near the end is where PT Barnum feels he’s lost his wife and family, and lost his circus and his means to make money and be famous. If the circus is gone, the “freaks” feel they no longer have a home. The rich young man feels he’s lost his chance for love with the acrobat. That’s the Rock Bottom moment where all appears lost to everyone.
Once again, all the different stories are unified and focused, emphasizing the exact same theme. This is when PT Barnum realizes that the newspaper critic finally respects him for what he has done. Then PT Barnum realizes that by bringing the “freaks” together, he’s given them a family and a home. Now he realizes he still has a chance to win back his wife and family as well.
When PT Barnum reunites with his family and realizes that he’s had what he wanted all this time (respect), he turns the circus over to the rich young man, who finally acknowledges his love for the acrobat. This brings all the stories together, resolves the emotional conflict of everyone who was torn between the same emotional tug of war between accepting themselves or striving for acceptance from others, and satisfies the story theme introduced in the beginning.
In the beginning, PT Barnum wanted respect from others. In the end, he realizes he doesn’t need respect from others if he respects himself.
PT Barnum learns this, the “Freaks” learn this, and the rich young man in love with the acrobat learns this. This unified, focus of the story shows how well-structured “The Greatest Showman” is with its script and songs perfectly matching the emotions at each point of the story.
Now watch a poorly structured story that fails to stay focused on a singular theme with multiple stories that emphasize this same theme, and you can see the vast difference between a well-structured story like “The Greatest Showman” and a lousy movie that actually scored higher in Rotten Tomatoes (69%) that lacks any structure whatsoever, the 2019 film “Cold Pursuit,” which just shows endless senes of a man seeking revenge on others, lacking any semblance of structure, emotion, or logic.
Structure is vitally important in any story. Once you see how a theme gets re-emphasized and repeated multiple times through different characters, you can better understand the difference between a well-structured story (“The Greatest Showman”) and a movie that simply substitutes structure, logic, and emotional goals for mindless action (“Cold Pursuit”).