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“The Greatest Showman”, and Why I Won’t Politicize My Books

I didn’t hear about The Greatest Showman until at least February.

Truth is, I don’t pay much attention to movies in the theatres anymore. When I was a kid, going to the movies was a special event. I have vivid memories of how special it felt: the giant cardboard cutouts in the lobby hyping the new movies you didn’t know were coming… the unmistakable smell of the popcorn popping behind the concessions counter… and the excitement building in the pit of your stomach as the first scene of the new movie unfolds in front of your eyes.

It was an experience. And back in the ’90s and early 2000s, you could have that experience for less than ten bucks.

But gradually, the movie industry changed. The average movie ticket jumped up to $12 in the theaters we go to. Ninety percent of movies in the theaters now are superhero movies and so-called “blockbusters”: movies largely overloaded with hype and buried in a sea of CGI special effects.

And the movies themselves – if they look any good – have been disappointing, lately, too. I’ve seen the last six Star Wars movies in the theaters and maybe 1-2 of them have been any good. The big budget movies have been all eye candy with little story. The smaller movies have been completely lacking in coherent storytelling in the name of “art”. Anything else was there to push some kind of “message” that we’re all supposed to be on board with. That’s not even mentioning the fact that every film now feels like it has to run two-and-a-half hours long even if there isn’t enough story to support it.

So why risk $12, and likely a lot more depending on who I’m seeing the movie with, to be disappointed? I’d rather stay home and build a library of movies that I know I will enjoy – especially classics that I never got the chance to enjoy when I was a kid.

Then I saw a few people post on Facebook about The Greatest Showman. The film stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in a musical about Barnum’s creation of the circus that bore his name. It had been in the theaters since Christmas to little fanfare. I never bothered to look into it. Then a few more people posted about it. Then we had friends over, and they were raving about it, saying they had seen it twice in the theaters already.

My wife and I took the movie theater gift card we got for Christmas and scheduled a date night. And we did it on a Tuesday night, when movies are only $5 a ticket. I’m not spending more than I have to, even if it’s free money, dang it.

Of course, the first 10-15 minutes were reminders of why I don’t go to movies much. The concessions prices were out of control. Since it was $5 Night, the place was crawling with loud, obnoxious people. The previews were a mix of animated movies with crude jokes, CGI epics that might as well have been animated movies, and “message” movies with stories that served no purpose other than to make the movie makers feel good about themselves.

Then, the opening number kicked off the movie.

It was full of energy. It was different. It was… fun.

For the next hour and a half, my wife and I got lost in the film. We love music, and the music in the movie is top notch. The movie had almost no filler, clocking in at around 90 minutes with a blisteringly fast-paced story. There was humor. There was drama. There was emotion.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that The Greatest Showman should have been up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year or anything. But doggone it, the movie was a great, fun experience. I wound taking my mom to see it a couple weeks later (again on $5 Tuesdays, because why pay full price for something you’ve already seen?).

When I watch a movie, I like to look up all the trivia about it and read up on the behind-the-scenes details. The Greatest Showman is a sleeper hit that most movie critics can’t understand. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 55%, meaning about half of movie critics gave it a negative review. Most reviews I glanced at talked about how the movie didn’t tell the “true” story of P.T. Barnum, and could have painted a “more complex” picture of the man.

By contrast, the moviegoers have rated it a 95%. The movie ranks alongside such classics as Back to the Future and Titanic in terms of repeat business and overall sustainability in the theaters. It had a terrible opening weekend, and then the audience started to grow. It’s a huge success, and it continues to be a success. Just last weekend, audiences in the UK brought it back up to #2 with a 27% increase in ticket sales – completely unheard of for a movie in its eleventh week.

But while nobody can understand why a relatively-average movie is so loved (the New York Times even asked readers to tell them why they liked it because they couldn’t figure it out), the answer is pretty simple.

It’s fun.

These days, every movie has a message that they are trying to promote, and they’ll beat you over the head with it. Look at the Academy Awards nominees and you see it: it’s all messages about society and politics and social issues… and none of it is very fun.

Movies are no longer an escape.

We live in a world where everything is politics: jump on Facebook to chat with your friends, and you’ll see posts about gun control and the latest thing Trump did or said. Turn on the TV, and every TV show has something to say about the politics around sex and the way we live our lives. Late night TV is just a big dogpile of people making grand speeches about issues they know very little about.

Shoot, turn on football and you’ll see players protesting and commercials pushing you to have conversations about bullying and violence and sexual conduct.

Just… enough.

There is a place for all of these things, but there needs to be a place without these things.

Many people today will have you believe that these conversations are the most important conversations in the world to have. Sure. But you can have these conversations and then, you know, not have them.

What we’ve forgotten in this world is how to have discussions and debates, and then put them to rest and find what brings us together again. We’ve stopped having fun. We’ve stopped escaping from all of this and giving ourselves a break.

We’ve allowed political arguments to seep into literally everything we do from kindergarten on… and it’s making us angry and divided as a culture. With no common ground, these arguments turn into hatred for other people, and nothing gets accomplished.

I write books based on police procedural TV shows. Even those shows – about people being murdered and then people finding the killers and bringing them to justice – are being overblown with political rhetoric to make you “think”.

And you know what? I’m done with that nonsense.

In my stories, I avoid making statements about religion or politics or any one group of people. I’m not interested in having those debates. That’s not because those conversations aren’t important, but because me writing about them is not a “conversation”. It’s me preaching to you about my viewpoints. Unless you write a book in response, there is no conversation being had.

And why alienate any group of people? Johnny Carson – the long-revered host of The Tonight Show in its heyday – used to say that he didn’t talk about his political beliefs on the air because why alienate half his audience?

The Greatest Showman is a success because it is not offensive. Because it is middle-of-the-road. Because it’s not beating you over the head with its political message, even when it clearly has a message to share.

This is not a bad thing. There’s a place for message movies. But there is also a place – and a need – for media that doesn’t offend, that doesn’t play to the lowest common denominator, that doesn’t try to spark “conversations”.

That’s what The Greatest Showman does to great success. It’s what I hope will be accomplished with my stories as well. Let’s come together for some inoffensive escape from the world. We can have those conversations anytime. Right now, we just want to have a little fun. I think we are all owed a little fun in our lives, and we need more of it.