Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Elephant Man (1980)

Fig. 1
David Lynch's 1980 masterpiece, The Elephant Man, is based on true events and life of Joseph Merrick. Named 'John' Merrick (John Hurt) in the film, it portrays the discrimination one man faces throughout his life due to the extensity of his deformity. John starts his life in a 'freak show' at a circus, being ridiculed and screamed at. Frederick Treves (Sir Anthony Hopkins), a doctor, rescues him, but in doing so makes him into a different kind of fascination. It is thought at first that Merrick is an idiot, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that he is anything but an idiot. With his genteel manner, intelligence and dignity Merrick becomes a beloved member of the hospital and for the first time feels a part of something. The film has numerous scenes of torturing discrimination that evokes the audience to feel close to tears.

Fig. 2
Lynch is known for his distressing horror scenes, which is conveyed subtly within the film - not through gore or murders, but through the screams of women and the abuse Merrick faces. The film is not a horror, yet the unkindness thrown upon this man is portrayed a living nightmare. Vincent Canby states, "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) Canby suggests that in this film horror is not depicted in the conventional way, but is shown through the treatment of Merrick. The music is a vital component and without it the film will still be powerful, yet lacking the underlying emotion of the piece. John Morris' music is evoking and makes the audience feel personally effected, engaged with what's happening on screen. The compositions relate in certain parts to the circus, as if you're on a constant merry-go-round, representing the constant abuse Merrick is exhibited to. In particular ‘Adagio for Strings’ is beautifully composed and expresses the emotion faced by Merrick in his final moments, giving the audience nothing but tears and admiration for the character.

Almar Haflidason argues, "It would take a heart of stone not be moved by "The Elephant Man". Based upon the true story of the horrendously deformed John Merrick (Hurt), this tale of a pure soul struggling to be heard over the prejudice of the many is quite heart-rending." (Haflidason 2001) Haflidason expresses his admiration for the film wonderfully and makes prominent the inner beauty of the film. The black and white cinematography is flawless and adds to the overall impact of the film, bringing to life the story in the time it was set in.  

Fig. 3
The film is a true tear jerker, not just due to the disgusting discrimination Merrick faces, but the way he excepts the reaction others have. This is shown when Merrick breaks down in tears when Mrs Treves doesn't scream or cry at the sight of him and the way she acts polite and welcoming. Merrick's humanity is shown throughout. Kim Newman suggests, "The central performances are astonishingly subtle. John Hurt allows humanity to shine through impressive make-up as the multiply-deformed Merrick, who retains a childlike gentleness no matter how sorely he has been abused." (Newman) Newman observes Hurt's performance to be astounding. The performance Hurt gives is how the audience would perceive the real Joseph Merrick to be.  List of illustrations

Figure 1. Lynch, David (1980) The Elephant Movie Poster. At: (Accessed on:8/10/11)

Figure 2. Lynch, David (1980) John Merrick. At: (Accessed on:8/10/11)

Figure 3. Lynch, David (1980) Frederick Treves with John Merrick. At: (Accessed on:8/10/11)


New York Times Review Vincent Canby (1980) The Elephant Man (1980). At: Tomatoes (Accessed on:8/10/11)

BBC Almar Haflidason (2001) The Elephant Man (1980). At: (Accessed on:8/10/11)

Empire Kim Newman (unspecified date) The Elephant Man. At: (Accessed on:8/10/11)

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