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Film / The Elephant Man

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"I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I... AM... A MAN!"

Madge Kendal: Oh, Mr. Merrick. You're not an elephant man at all.
John Merrick: No?
Madge Kendal: No. You're Romeo.

The Elephant Man is a 1980 historical drama film directed by David Lynch, based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman born with severe bodily deformities and nicknamed "the Elephant Man". It is notable for being a routine choice for one of the saddest films ever, as well as one of the few Lynch films not steeped in Mind Screw and Surreal Horror (although his trademark outré imagery and atmosphere, while kept to a relative minimum, does still appear).

The film depicts Merrick (here called John, and played by John Hurt) and his struggle to leave an abusive circus sideshow. He ends up meeting Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who takes him out of that place and gets him into the London Hospital, where he — being an educated and kind person but still with the outward appearance of a freak — becomes the focus of London's attention, raising the question: is Merrick just moving from one circus to another?

Produced by Mel Brooks's Brooksfilms studio (with Brooks deliberately uncredited to avoid giving audiences the impression that it was a comedy), the film also stars Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, Anne Bancroft, and Hannah Gordon. Don LaFontaine narrated the trailer, using lines he wrote himself, and called it his favorite of his numerous trailer works.

A sizable portion of The Elephant Man's legacy can be attributed to the Academy Awards; although it didn't win any of its eight nominations, the news that the Academy would not be recognizing the film's noteworthy makeup effects elicited such an outcry from the public and members of the industry that the Academy Award for Best Makeup was introduced the following year (although the Academy still refused to honor this film).

Michael Jackson often cited the film as his favorite movie, and a tabloid rumor that it inspired him to acquire the bones of the real Joseph Merrick dogged him for many years. (Jackson eventually lampooned the rumor in the "Leave Me Alone" segment of Moonwalker.)

Tropes present in the film:

  • The Alcoholic: Bytes is continuously seen hitting the bottle and abuses Merrick in a drunken manner.
  • All There in the Manual: The novelization by Christine Sparks fills out a couple of details not disclosed in the film:
    • The film's version of events take place from 1889 to April 1890, a possible explanation for the odd timeline of the film.
    • The night porter's name is Jim Renshaw.
  • Bad Boss / Repulsive Ringmaster: Bytes, Merrick's Bill Sikes-inspired manager who exploits him by taking him to freak shows and beats him up whenever he's going through a drunken breakdown.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Inverted. Merrick doesn't fit any standards of beauty but he's certainly a nice guy, and so are the sideshow artists that help him escape from Bytes.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Treves is a good man who forms a close friendship with Merrick. However, when he learns that Jim, the night porter, has been making a nightly spectacle out of Merrick, he completely loses it.
  • Big Damn Reunion: Downplayed. When Merrick gets returned to Treves, the latter embraces him with relief.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Merrick dies, but on the happiest day of his life, doing what he always wanted to do: sleep like he's normal.
  • Body Horror: Sort of. Merrick's physical anomalies seem ever less repellent as his kindly personality is revealed.
  • Cat Fight: A rare Played for Discomfort version. Bytes manages to sneak into the hospital to go meet Treves and ask him to return Merrick by taking advantage of the hospital staff being too distracted at breaking up the fight between two hysterical and bloodied women.
  • Cigar Chomper: Jim is often puffing away on a cigar.
  • Circus of Fear: They are bad places, especially the second one after Merrick has been spirited to Belgium. Subverted when the freaks of the Belgian circus help Merrick escape and pay for his trip back to London.
  • Come to Gawk: One of the film's themes. Treves has an attack of conscience after realizing that the highborn society people visiting Merrick are gawking in just the same way that the commoners in The Freakshow did.
  • Creator Cameo: David Lynch is part of the mob that chases Merrick around a London train station.
  • Creepy Circus Music: Much of John Morris's score. Though it's not so much "creepy" as it is "heartbreaking."
  • Cruel Elephant: Merrick supposedly got his moniker because his mother was attacked by an elephant when she was pregnant, which people in-universe claim is the reason for his deformities. As we only see the elephant attack happen in Merrick's imagination, it's unclear if there's any truth to it.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: When Treves is summoned to treat Merrick, Bytes claims that Merrick's injuries came from falling down. Treves sees Bytes's heavy walking stick and is not fooled.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Mrs Mothershead and Jim the cruel night porter have their moments.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Interestingly, one of two black-and-white films to get nominated for Best Picture of 1980, the other being Raging Bull.
  • Demonic Head Shake: The Dream Intro has a disturbing scene of the mother on the ground after the elephant attack shaking her head violently in slow motion.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Sort of. While both the real and fictional Merrick died from a broken neck after lying down, the movie strongly implies this was intentional, whereas in real life most people think it was an accident on his part, and that he didn't know lying down without a pillow would snap his neck.
  • Dream Intro: The film begins with a creepy, surreal vision of elephants striking down Merrick's mother, followed by the wailing of a baby. It's very likely that this opening scene is Merrick dreaming the way his deformities were conceived, basing it on Bytes' melodramatic presentation whenever he explains the origins of the Elephant Man during freak shows. The movie has more Dream Sequences that showcase Lynch's signature Mind Screw tones.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The onlookers in Belgium are very disgusted by Merrick's treatment. Despite being Bytes' assistant, even the little boy feels Bytes has gone too far with his bullying towards Merrick.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Dr Frederick Treves is seen at the start of film entering a freak show and is intrigued by Bytes' Elephant Man and decides to have a look after getting information from a messenger boy where he is located. Had Treves not entered the freak show or gone to Bytes' lair, he may never have met John Merrick and the rest of the film wouldn't have happened.
    • Had Merrick not surprised both Treves and the chairman of the board Mr Carr Gomm by reciting the third psalm, he may have been sent elsewhere.
  • The Freakshow: Where Merrick is exhibited by Bytes.
  • Gainax Ending: After lying down normally and breaking his neck (which may or may have not been an intentional suicide), we cut to a starfield with Merrick's mother reciting Tennyson's poem "Nothing Will Die", in what may be just a Dying Dream, or possibly a vision of the afterlife, and then the movie just ends.
  • Good is Not Nice: Mrs Mothershead, the head nurse, is stern and unsmiling. However, she cares deeply about her work and the well-being of the patients, and is even willing to stand up to the doctors when she thinks they don't have the patients' best interests in mind.
    • She earns additional points for knocking out the thuggish night porter.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Occurs when Merrick is being exhibited in the squalid Belgian freak show.
  • The Grotesque: Merrick, naturally.
  • Hate Sink: Bytes, the main antagonist, is a vile and loathsome human being who abuses John Merrick physically and emotionally and exploits him for entertainment. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities and most of the other characters loathe his guts.
    • Jim, the night porter, is an almost equally vile secondary antagonist.
  • Heel Realization: Dr Treves is shaken by the Head Nurse's observation that the arrangement he set up for John Merrick, which includes receiving respectable callers, means he is still being treated as a freak on display, albeit in a high-class cushy style.
    "Why did I do it? Am I a good man or a bad man?"
  • Heroic BSoD: Merrick in the train station. See below for Punctuated! For! Emphasis!
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: While Bytes was a Composite Character, the real-world Merrick's managers for most of his life were not bad people, and he was generally grateful to them.
  • Humans Are Bastards/Humans Are Special: The whole movie questions "What does it mean to be human?"
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Merrick is disappointed when Treves admits that he can't cure him. And he eventually dies after deciding to lay down and sleep like a normal person.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: An Unbuilt Trope here, and it could easily be read as a deconstruction since a big part of the movie's point is that he's still being exploited. As Mothershead the nurse points out, "he's just being stared at all over again." In Real Life, Treves himself was in fact accused of exploiting Merrick for this reason.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Despite Bytes being the main antagonist (abusing Merrick physically and emotionally), he was essentially correct in pointing out that Dr. Treves was also using Merrick as an "exhibit" to make a name for himself. In one scene, Treves can't sleep at night because he's concerned that Bytes may have a point.
    • Bytes is also correct in telling the police officers shutting down his freak show that there's no other way for someone like Merrick to earn money and make a living of any kind.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mothershead. She's stern, strict and humorless, but clearly comes to like Merrick, even giving Treves a What the Hell, Hero? speech for exploiting him.
  • Karma Houdini: Sadly, we never get to see Bytes get any kind of ass-kicking for his treatment (and eventual abduction) of Merrick, other than a loss of income from not having Merrick as a freak show. In the original script, however, Bytes' boy also leaves him after the freaks help John escape, implying he's going to be all alone, with no attraction or even a helper.
  • Kids Are Cruel: When Merrick returns to London, he immediately gets teased by children at the train station.
  • Lighter and Softer: Played with in regards to the rest of Lynch's repertoire. There's no violent crime, murders, Nightmare Fuel, general mindfuckery or swearing in The Elephant Man, but it's also by far the saddest film that Lynch has ever made, perhaps one of saddest ever made period.
  • Little People Are Surreal: Averted, with a pair of little people (one of whom is Kenny Baker) working at the Belgian circus who help John escape. They're portrayed as very normal, good people. Lynch would later play this one famously straight, though.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Jim and the people he brings into John's room.
  • Maniac Monkeys: The big mean baboons at the circus.
  • Milking the Monster: Bytes makes money from people's fascination with the grotesque.
  • Monstrosity Equals Weakness: Truth in Television for the real Merrick, sadly.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: For the first chunk of the movie, we never get a good look at John. It helps build the suspense as we only see the reactions of others to poor Merrick's physical deformities. To make it even more effective, the film averts Trailers Always Spoil- both the posters and the trailer only show Merrick with his head covered or in a position where you can't clearly see him. You have to watch the movie in full to find out what the main character actually looks like.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Bytes accuses Treves of being just as exploitative of John. Treves is troubled by the fact that Bytes may have a point after he gets a similar remark from Mother Shead, who has noticed that the other people that visit John barely mask the fact that they've really Come to Gawk.
  • Oscar Bait: A downplayed version. It was a tragic biopic about a physically disabled man shot in black and white, which certainly covers several typical Oscar Bait traits, and was nominated for seven different Oscars. However, it won none of them.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: The title character has a large tumor that greatly disfigures his face and causes him to be mistreated by the public. When he finally decides to go to sleep like a normal person (laying down instead of upright,) he ends up dislocating his neck as he sleeps and dying.
  • People Jars: One of the displays at the sideshow where Treves first sees Bytes is a cobra-headed baby kept in a jar with a bitten apple called "The Fruit Of The Original Sin".
  • Pet the Dog: Despite the horrific abuse Jim and the people he brings in subject Merrick to, once they've left, Jim does straighten him up a bit gently, then gives him a coin from the proceeds.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: That old standard, "Adagio for Strings", as John lays down to die.
  • Precious Photo: Merrick carries a photo of his mother and expresses the hope to find her someday.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Mrs. Kendall is treated as a love interest for John, in a very chaste sort of way. In real life, it's doubtful they ever met, and his autographed photo of her was actually delivered by her husband.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "I! AM NOT! AN ELEPHANT! I AM NOT! AN ANIMAL! I! AM A HUMAN! BEING! I! AM! ...a man." This exclamation works; the mob immediately becomes more sympathetic.
    • "Where - is - he?"
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Carr Gomm, Treves' boss, who - once convinced - is in full support of Merrick being housed at the hospital.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: After Merrick's abduction, Treves is absolutely livid, tossing the Jerkass night porter responsible around like a rag doll (and actually trying to kill him in the novelization).
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: During Treves's presentation of Merrick to his colleagues, Merrick is only seen by the audience from behind a curtain.
  • Shaming the Mob: "I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!" does the trick.
  • Shout-Out: The portrayal of the drunks, prostitutes, and pimps at the bar Jim the night porter frequents reminds one of some of William Hogarth's satirical drawings of the squalid side of London.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Mrs. Kendall and John together read a scene from Romeo and Juliet.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Treve delivers one to Jim once he learns that he's been making "late-night" showings of Merrick.
    Jim: I ain't done nothin' wrong! People pay money to see your monster, Mr. Treves. I collect it!
    Treves: You're the monster! You're the… FREAK!
  • Single Tear: Treves's reaction upon first seeing Merrick.
  • Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Executive producer Mel Brooks deliberately kept his name off the film, for fear people would expect it to be a comedy. He did the same with The Fly (1986), among other films in the '80s.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Merrick is initially assumed by Treves and the other hospital staff to be an imbecile only capable of understanding basic instructions; the slow revelation that he is a gentle, under-socalized man of above-average intelligence comes as a shock. As Treves admits to Fox early on, part of him wanted to believe the assumption, because he didn't want to imagine what it would feel like to be cognizant but trapped in such a body.
  • Suicide Is Painless: It almost seems pleasant.
  • Tap on the Head: The headmother knocks out Jim after he threatens Treves with a metal bar.
  • Tender Tears: When Merrick is introduced to Treves' wife, who greets him politely, Merrick is so touched he cries.
    Merrick: I'm not used to being treated so well by… so beautiful a woman…!
  • Time Skip: There is a time skip of a couple of months after which Merrick is accustomed to his new life.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • For starters, the man's name was Joseph. The name "John" here is probably due to Frederick Treves, who for some unknown reason changed Merrick's name to "John" in his memoir.
    • Bytes is a Composite Character, with evidence indicating that Merrick was actually well-treated in the British sideshow. The Belgian one was probably almost as bad as the movie suggests.
    • Mrs. Kendall probably never met Merrick.
    • The freak show where Merrick earned his living was (fortunately) most likely much better in real life than in the movie. He was actually good friends with his owner, who paid him reasonably well, and never beat him like Bytes does. In addition, it was Merrick's own decision to join the sideshow, since he realized there was no other way to earn any money.
    • The cruel porter is an invention, and the kidnapping of Merrick never happened. In Real Life the unfortunate Belgian tour (which was bad, with Merrick being robbed and abandoned, but not locked in a cage with baboons) happened before Merrick was permanently admitted to Treves' hospital.
    • The speech impediment caused by Merrick's facial deformities was even worse than in the film. Visitors generally could not understand him, although Treves and the hospital staff learned to understand Merrick's speech. This didn't stop Merrick from sitting at his hospital window, as he became less shy, and hailing passersby and engaging them in conversation.
    • Merrick really did build a lot of cardboard model churches, houses, etc. However, he was buying these as kits from local toy shops and not usually dumpstering boxes. He also wove baskets and sent them to friends. His model of Mainz Cathedral still existsnote .
  • Victorian London: The setting for most of the film.
  • Wham Line: In-universe; after being dismissed by Carr-Gome as a simpleton who is simply repeating what he's been told to say, Merrick proceeds to recite the 23rd Psalm by memory with a stunned Treves revealing that he did not teach that to Merrick, thus proving that while Merrick may be deformed, he is far from illiterate.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn what happened to Bytes and the young boy after the loss of their Elephant Man.
  • Wretched Hive: This side of Victorian London is shown in the scenes involving Bytes and the freakshow, as well as the bar scenes with Jim the night porter.
  • You Bastard!: The second half of the movie makes you feel bad for wanting to get a good look at him in the first half.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: After Merrick collapses during Bytes' latest freak show in Belgium, Bytes, in a drunken rage, punishes Merrick by leaving him to rot in a cage next to some baboons after accepting he is no longer any use to him.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: After returning to the hospital, Merrick is revealed to be dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.