In the eighteen-eighties, a surgeon named Frederick Treves happens across a freak show in a run-down district of London. Amongst its attractions is the “Elephant Man”, illustrated on a poster as a bizarre part-man, part-animal creature and introduced by the showman with a lurid story about a pregnant woman attacked by a wild elephant in Africa. Treves gazes, tears running from his eyes, as the deformed figure of John Merrick is paraded in front of him.
Treves rescues Merrick from the brutal showman and takes him to hospital. Gradually, the former freak show attraction begins to adapt to polite society. But will he ever be viewed as anything other than a novelty? First he is treated as a freak on display, then he is pointed to as a medical marvel, and eventually he becomes a social curiosity. Is there truly a place in the world for John Merrick to be accepted as a human being, and not merely as an Elephant Man?
Starting out as a screenplay adapted partly from the memoirs of the real-life Frederick Treves (and repeating Treves’ error of referring to Joseph Merrick as “John“), The Elephant Man was picked up by director David Lynch. It was the second feature made by this remarkable filmmaker, who made his debut three years previously with the surrealist independent film Eraserhead. The demanding role of Merrick, meanwhile, fell to John Hurt.
Lynch was initially keen that the make-up used to recreate the Elephant Man’s appearance should be put on screen as soon as possible. However, Hurt successfully argued that Merrick’s deformities should not be shown to the audience until later on in the film. As a result of this reticence, The Elephant Man avoids exploiting Merrick’s appearance and so ending up as a freak show itself. At the beginning, when Merrick is unable to communicate with the people around him, he is shown only indistinctly: in heavy shadow, in silhouette, or garbed in a crude disguise with a hood over his head. He is not shown in full until around the point at which Treves begins teaching him to speak – the moment when John Merrick enters the film as a character, rather than as a spectacle.
Although John Hurt is smothered beneath Christopher Tucker’s impressive make-up for the duration of the film, he performs his role with clear enthusiasm. He succeeds in showing the character transform from a shuddering, gasping wreck to a confident young man; his Merrick is ultimately revealed as a childlike figure, responding with wide-eyed innocence to the most trivial elements of his new surroundings. Starring alongside Hurt is Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Treves as a troubled and uncertain individual, clearly unable to answer any of the moral questions that are raised by his case.
Hurt has mentioned, with utter bemusement, how a studio boss told him shortly after the film’s completion that “it’s always difficult to sell a monster movie”. There have been films which attempt to adapt the lives of historical figures, such as Jack the Ripper or Rasputin, into conventional Gothic horror narratives; these tend to be unsatisfying as either horror films or historical dramas. The script for The Elephant Man, thankfully, avoids any temptation to shoehorn Merrick’s life into a horror story.
However, The Elephant Man does indeed have something in common with many great horror films – and this is to its advantage. The direction of David Lynch and astute black-and-white photography of Freddie Francis succeed in turning certain locations in the film into Gothic visions worthy of F.W. Murnau or James Whale: the freak show set up in a squalid and foggy London back alley; the train station in which the fictionalised Merrick, shoved against the wall by a crowd of gawpers, makes his famous declaration that he is a human being and not an animal.
The Elephant Man has a script which weaves a compelling and nuanced narrative out of Merrick’s life, while Hurt, Hopkins and the rest of the cast give performances worthy of this fascinating story. In purely stylistic terms, however, the true genius of the film lies in its ability to take the visual flare of classic Hollywood horror and adapt it for the purposes of a sophisticated historical drama.