elephant man

The Elephant Man

Provost's Film Series

December 10, 2009


Introduction written by Craig Story


John Merrick

The Elephant Man is a 1980 film directed by David Lynch that tells the true story of Joseph “John” Merrick, a terribly disfigured man who lived in nineteenth-century London. The film, like the story of Merrick’s life, is a sad and moving one. The story begins with Merrick in his twenties, as little is known about his youth other than that he was born with a normal physical appearance. Due to the progressive nature of his affliction, he was eventually unable to work due to his deformities. His life as a freak-show attraction is portrayed as one of humiliation, as he is treated as the half man/half beast. In this context he pretends to be unintelligent, playing this role while the more thoughtful onlookers hope that no thinking, caring and intelligent soul lives within his shocking exterior.


Crowds and Caretakers

While it is certainly true that some of his caretakers treated him unkindly, Merrick's first association with real-life showman Sam Torr (represented in the film by the dastardly fictional character, Bytes) actually made him a reasonably large amount of money. Merrick’s money was later stolen by another unscrupulous showman, who brought him to Belgium, and then abandoned him after discovering the freak-show market in decline there, as in England. Merrick’s lonely and harrowing journey back to London is described in historical accounts. One particular scene in the film that captures the terror and isolation Merrick must have felt is the iconic train station scene where Merrick cries out, “I am not an animal!” While the journey back to London was probably one of the lowest points of Merrick’s life, the remaining story of how Dr. Treves (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) managed to bend the hospital rules and rescue him from this pitiful existence on the coal-stained, shadowy, wet streets of London proved to be a temporarily happy time for Merrick. Yet, he is haunted by the knowledge that his life may be cut short as the disease progresses.

The Elephant Man portrays the cruel attitudes of many in the crowd and certain individuals who were using Merrick as a way to enrich themselves, but it also shows the charity of others toward this man who was utterly unable to help himself. Watching the film, one wonders about the psychological condition of Merrick, and his attitude toward those around him. Throughout the film, Merrick is transformed from a pitiful character to a sort of dignified hero. We feel like the real Merrick is “ok in there,” yet hidden from view in a very real sense.


Faith and Disease

As Christians, we can wonder what degree his child-like faith may have sustained him. If his short autobiography is to be believed, he did not harbor any ill will toward others. Merrick apparently never blamed his deformity on God. He simply and sincerely believed that the deformity was the result of his mother being frightened by a circus elephant while he was in the womb—simply an “unfortunate” accident. It was common belief at the time that bad experiences sustained by pregnant women caused all kinds of physical problems for the child in-utero.  

Merrick’s disease was actually triggered by a genetic disorder that caused excessive growth of bone and skin tissue. As Christians, what are we to make of such genetic diseases? Some simply argue that all disease is the result of the biblical fall. Is it possible that such mutations are simply a part of the way the natural world operates, and allow God’s glory to be displayed in different ways?

Merrick also did not have any unkind words to say about his handler Mr. Torr. (Perhaps Torr played a role in writing his autobiography. One must wonder.) Nonetheless, it does seem that Merrick took his situation as a matter of fate, and did not harbor any lasting bitterness toward God or humanity. He must have lived a life of forgiveness, in a very real sense. He mirrored Jesus’ words “they know not what they do” as he looked on the gawking crowd, thinking, “forgive them, for they do not know that I really am a human.” To what extent Merrick was self-reflective or merely buffeted by the swirling winds of circumstance, we can only imagine. In the film, one sees portrayed a man who retains a vast amount of his dignity in the midst of the worst degradation.


Uneasy Moods

The film was produced by the Hollywood writer/director/actor Mel Brooks, who, upon seeing David Lynch’s dark and disturbing film Eraserhead (1977) sought him to direct the film. Lynch is known for dramatic and unsettling camera angles as well as his use of sound and lighting to create uneasy moods. Many of the historical sites chosen for the film in London no longer exist, according to an interview with Lynch. He was able to capture a sense of the city at the time of the start of the industrial revolution. A number of Lynch’s other films border on the bizarre and are often brutally violent; however many consider The Elephant Man to be one of his best films. It was nominated for a total of eight academy awards, but did not win any. It did win several other awards, including the BAFTA (“British Oscars”) award for best film and several other categories.