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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!"
Mrs. Kendel: Why, Mr. Merrick, you're not an elephant man at all.
Merrick: Oh no?
Mrs. Kendel: Oh no... no... you're a Romeo.

The Very Loosely Based on a True Story saga of Joseph Merrick, a man born with severe body difformities nicknamed "the Elephant Man", released in 1980.

Basically, one of the saddest films ever, and one of David Lynch's few non-Mind Screw Surreal Horror movies, depicting Joseph (here called John, and played by John Hurt) Merrick's struggle to leave an abusive circus sideshow, while 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?

Also starring Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, and Anne Bancroft. Don LaFontaine narrated the trailer, using lines he wrote himself, and called it his favorite of his numerous trailer works. Michael Jackson often cited it as his favorite movie.


Tropes present in the film:

  • 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.
  • Bald of Awesome: Dr. Carr-Gome grows into this role as he becomes more supportive of John.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Inverted. Merrick doesn't fit any standards of beauty but he's certainly a nice guy.
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Merrick dies. But he dies on the happiest day of his life, and dies doing what he wants to do: to sleep like he's normal. It does not count as a Downer Ending.
  • Body Horror: Sort of. Merrick's physical anomalies become ever less-repellent as his kindly personality is revealed.
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  • 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.
  • 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 in the mob chasing 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."
  • 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.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Interestingly, one of two black-and-white films to get nominated for Best Picture of 1980, the other being Raging Bull.
  • Dream Sequence: Provides the surreallism, since most of the film avoids the Mind Screw Lynch is known for.
  • Driven to Suicide: John sleeping in a normal human position instead of sleeping sitting up.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The onlookers in Belgium were very disgusted by Merrick's treatment.
  • The Freakshow: Where Merrick was exhibited.
  • 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 include 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 John 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.
  • 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, at the very least Bytes' boy also leaves him after the freaks help John escape, implying he's gonna be all alone with no attraction or even a helper.
  • 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, if not anyone's ever made.
  • Little People Are Surreal: Invoked but 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.
  • Monstrosity Equals Weakness: Truth in Television for the real Merrick, sadly.
  • Not So Different: Bytes accuses Treves of being just as exploitative of John. Treves is troubled by the fact that Bytes may have a point, however disgusted he may be by Bytes himself.
  • 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 on his face that greatly disfigured his face and causes him to be mistreated by the public. When he finally tries to go to sleep like a normal person (laying down instead of upright) he ends up dislocating his neck as he sleeps and dying.
  • 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 give him a coin from the proceeds.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: That old standard, "Adagio for Strings", as John lays down to die.
  • 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?"
  • Promotion 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Carr Gomm, Treves' boss.
  • 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!).
  • Shaming the Mob: "I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!" does the trick.
  • 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 normal 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.
  • Spot of Tea: Merrick breaks down weeping at the Treves house, unused to people being nice to him. What does Mrs. Treves do to help him feel at ease? Offer him some tea, of course.
  • Suicide Is Painless: It almost seems pleasant.
  • Take Our Word for It: 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.
  • 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…!
  • 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 about 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 never beat him like Bytes does. In addition, it was Merrick's own decision to join the sideshow.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: After returning to the hospital, Merrick is revealed to be dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


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