Fig. 1. The Elephant Man poster.
The Elephant Man is a touching discussion by David Lynch of the nature of deformity and societal prejudice. Based loosely on the true story of Joseph Merrick (renamed John in the film, possibly in honour of his actor, John Hurt), a hideously deformed gentleman brought out of a miserable life of freak shows by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), the film endeavours to show Merrick as a human being, refined and gentle despite his monstrous appearance.
Shot in rich, stark black-and-white, the film evokes the atmosphere of a Victorian hospital, not just visually but socially as well. The hospital staff are initially either terrified of or disgusted by Merrick, as they would be in a society in which deformity is paraded around as ‘the fruit of the original sin’. Merrick faces this society with dignity and aplomb, never succumbing to self-pity or self-loathing. This may, however, have cut out potential for character development – even from the beginning Merrick is “a beacon of humanity… despite his hideous disfigurement” (Haflidason, 2001), and we are not offered any views into his psyche to see how Victorian London’s darker side had affected him. He seems to accept his fate without complaint, bar a handful of well-aimed remarks at London’s high society.
Fig. 2. Merrick concealed still.
The film makes clever use of horror movie clichés – Merrick is kept hidden during the early part of the film, to build tension as to what he actually looks like and to give the impression to the audience that he is a monster, allowing this preconception to later be broken down. “The Elephant Man uses some of the devices of the horror film, including ominous music, sudden cuts that shock, and hints of dark things to come, but it's a very benign horror film, one in which "the creature" is the pursued instead of the pursuer.” (Canby, 1980). We are initially encouraged to be frightened of what this person could be, but once Merrick is actually introduced the audience is shown very quickly that he is not a person to be feared.
Fig. 3. Merrick still.
Roger Ebert notes that the film seems to celebrate Merrick for his bravery despite the fact that he never chose his fate. “True courage… requires a degree of choice.” (Ebert, 1980). Ebert summarises the movie’ philosophy thusly; “(1) Wow, the Elephant Man sure looked hideous, and (2) gosh, isn't it wonderful how he kept on in spite of everything?” (Ebert, 1980). To be described as courageous simply for living with and getting by despite one’s disabilities is patronising and suggests that the disabled individual is somehow a lesser being, a child, deserving of being celebrated for the most mundane of successes. While this is unequivocally correct of society at large, the film is less about Merrick and more about the cruelty of humanity. At no point is Merrick actually described as brave, and the viewer is invited to see Merrick as a sympathetic human being rather than a martyr, a statue to raise as an ‘inspiration’.
Ebert also notes that the film romanticises Merrick’s life. He is shown moving in high society, making scale models of cathedrals and reciting psalms. Ebert argues that the film would have been better executed had it focused on Merrick’s physical travails, citing the real Joseph Merrick’s need to undergo surgery before he could even speak. However, it could also be argued that these romanticised actions make the film’s Merrick more accessible, making him more than just his physical deformities and emphasizing his dignified, delicate nature. A story of Merrick’s physical disabilities would still be a story, and would thus require some sort of emotional hook on which the audience may hang their coat.
The Elephant Man is an emotional tour de force, treating the viewer’s emotions somewhat like a rat being shaken by an overenthusiastic terrier. The misery heaped on Merrick by Victorian society hits hard, and while in contemporary society it is no grand feat for a disabled person to simply get on with their life, in Victorian England it was a very different story. For Merrick to not only have, at least briefly, a decent life and to enter England’s higher social circles is indeed an achievement. Public acceptance of disability is a very recent thing; even at the time The Elephant Man was made there was still no legislature in effect to protect the disabled. To look at the film through contemporary, politically correct eyes is to do both the film and Merrick himself a disservice.
Figure 1. Lynch, D. (1980) The Elephant Man poster. http://www.moviegoods.com/Assets/product_images/1020/214158.1020.A.jpg (Accessed on: 25/10/11)
Figure 2. Lynch, D. Merrick concealed still. (1980) http://melissasmedicinema.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/the-elephant-man.jpg (Accessed on: 25/10/11)
Figure 3. Lynch, D. Merrick still. (1980) http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_TRju1TnYfxU/TLipqmqYJQI/AAAAAAAAAMg/ZPZ_ImJIJrY/s1600/elephant+man+stills+%282%29.png (Accessed on: 25/10/11)
Haflidason, A. (2001). BBC Film Reviews. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2001/05/24/the_elephant_man_1980_review.shtml (Accessed on: 25/10/11)
Canby, V. (1980) New York Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF1731B32CA0484CC0B7799C836896 (Accessed on: 25/10/11)
Ebert, R. (1980) Rogerebert.com. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19800101/REVIEWS/1010313/1023 (Accessed on: 25/10/11)