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The Elephant Man is a AmericanBritish drama film based on the story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man in 19th century Londonmarker. The film was directed by David Lynch and stars John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon and Freddie Jones.

The screenplay was adapted by Lynch, Christopher De Vore, and Eric Bergren from the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu. It was shot in black-and-white.

The Elephant Man was recognized as a critical and commercial success, and received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture in 1981.


John Hurt as John Merrick
Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon at the London Hospitalmarker, discovers John Merrick (John Hurt) in a Victorian freak show in London's East Endmarker, where he is managed by the brutish Bytes (Freddie Jones). Merrick is so deformed that he must wear a hood and cape when in public. Bytes further claims that his "exhibit" is an imbecile. Treves is professionally intrigued by Merrick's condition and pays Bytes to bring him to the London Hospital so that he can examine him. He then presents a lecture to his colleagues on Merrick's disability, dispassionately displaying him as a prize physiological curiosity. Treves draws attention to the oversized deformities of Merrick's skull; it is his most obvious disability and (as he was so informed by Bytes) also the most life-threatening, as he is compelled to sleep sitting with his head resting upon his knees, as the weight of his skull would asphyxiate him if he were to ever lie down. On Merrick's return, Bytes beats him so severely that a sympathetic apprentice (Dexter Fletcher) alerts Treves, who attempts to take him back to the hospital. Bytes confronts Treves, accusing him of likewise exploiting Merrick for his own ends, which leads the surgeon to resolve to do what he can to help the unfortunate man.

The ward nurses are horrified by Merrick's appearance, so Treves places him in a quarantine room under the watchful care of the formidable matron, Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller). Mr. Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), the hospital's Governor, questions Treves about his mysterious patient and reminds him that the hospital is not designed as a residence for "incurables". Treves attempts to coach Merrick (who has thus far remained mute) to recite a few polite phrases, such as: "Hello. My name is John Merrick. I am very pleased to meet you." However, during an interview with Gomm, the bewildered and distressed Merrick breaks down. Gomm leaves, telling Treves that, while it was a good attempt, the man is an obvious imbecile. He orders Treves to remove him. As Gomm walks away, Treves hears Merrick recite the 23rd Psalm in an hitherto unheard strong and confident voice. He calls back his superior, who, in shock at this unexpected show of Merrick's intellect and conviction, allows him to remain.

It is soon revealed that Merrick is sophisticated and articulate, with refined intellectual and spiritual leanings. He demonstrates a level of literacy unusual even in able-bodied men of his class and background. His playing dumb was a defense mechanism to avoid beatings from Bytes. Gomm arranges a suite of rooms for Merrick to reside in at the hospital. Merrick settles into his new home and, with the encouragement of Treves and Nurse Nora (Lesley Dunlop), passes his days reading, drawing and making a model of a church visible through his window. One day, Treves brings him to take afternoon tea at home together with his wife, Ann (Hannah Gordon). Merrick, overwhelmed by the familial love he perceives in the domesticity about him, reveals to them his most treasured possession, a picture of his mother, and expresses his wish that she would love him if she could only see what "lovely friends" he now has. Later, Merrick begins to receive society visitors in his rooms, including the celebrated actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft). He becomes a popular object of curiosity and charity to high society. As these connections and visits increase, Mrs. Mothershead (who has charge of Merrick's daily care) complains to Treves that he is still being treated as a freak show attraction, albeit in a more upper class, celebrated style. For Treves' part, this observation (and his role in this situation) deeply trouble him, and he begins to question whether or not he has done the right thing.

Threatened dissent from a member of the Hospital Board at this decision is dramatically overturned when the hospital's Royal Patron — HRH The Princess of Wales — pays a surprise visit to the decisive board meeting with a message from Queen Victoria. Her Majesty desires that Merrick receive permanent care at the hospital and the necessary funds have been arranged. It transpires that Carr Gomm has been a source of information to an intrigued Royal Family and the outcome a reflection of his personal wishes.A night porter (Michael Elphick) exploits Merrick by charging late-night local pub drinkers for a "viewing". Through this, Bytes gets to his former "property" and eventually abducts him to continental Europe, where he is once again put on show and subjected to Bytes' cruelty and neglect. Merrick escapes with the help of his fellow freak show attractions, and makes it back to London. However, he is harassed by a group of boys at a train station, and accidentally knocks down a young girl. He is chased, unmasked, and cornered by an angry mob, at which point he cries out:

As the shocked mob backs away, he collapses from illness and exhaustion. Treves, consumed with guilt over Merrick's plight, takes action against the night porter with the help of Mrs. Mothershead. When the police return Merrick to the hospital, he is reinstated to his rooms. He recovers a little but it is soon clear he is dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As a treat, Mrs. Kemble arranges an evening at the musical theatre, where Merrick is accompanied by his beloved friends: Treves, Mrs Mothershead, Nurse Nora, and HRH The Princess Of Wales. Resplendent in white tie, he rises in the Royal Box to an ovation, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs Kemble. That night, back at the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for all he has done and finishes his model of the nearby church. Imitating one of his sketches on the wall — a sleeping child — he removes the pillows that have allowed him to sleep in an upright position, lies down on his bed and dies, consoled by a vision of his mother.

Historical accuracy

The film is based on historical events, but makes numerous changes to recorded fact. For example, the incidents in Belgiummarker and at the railway station took place before Merrick was admitted to Treves' hospital, not afterward, and Merrick traveled to Belgium of his own accord, because freak shows had been made illegal in Britain. There is also no evidence that Merrick was abuse while working at the British freak show; in fact, Merrick had saved up a great deal of money from the wages he had earned while working there and considered the freak show coordinator a close friend. Likewise, Trevesmarker did not "rescue" Merrick from a sadistic carnival proprietor: Merrick freely approached the doctor with a written note requesting his care. The film's chief antagonist, Bytes, is an entirely fictitious character.

Due to the constrictive deformity of his mouth, Merrick was never able to speak as clearly as in the film, and Treves often had to act as his interpreter for visitors. Those who knew him well, such as hospital staff and friends, grew accustomed to his impeded speech but it remained indistinct and worsened as his condition deteriorated.


The film was produced by Mel Brooks, who had been impressed by Lynch's earlier film Eraserhead at a private screening. Brooks made sure that his name was not used in the marketing and promotion of the film because he did not want fans to expect that the film would be a comedy.

Hurt's makeup was made from casts of Merrick's body, which had been preserved in the private museum of the Royal London Hospitalmarker. Lynch originally attempted to do the make-up himself, but the results were not filmable. The final make-up was devised by Christopher Tucker. It was so convincing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which had earlier refused to give a special award to Tucker's work on The Elephant Man and received a barrage of complaints — was prompted to create a new category for Best Make-up for the Oscars.

In addition to writing and directing the film, Lynch provided the musical direction and sound design. During its depiction of the final moments of Merrick's life, the film uses "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It would be later used in the 1983 film El Norte, and the 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film, Platoon.

Actor Frederick Treves, great-nephew of the surgeon, appears in the opening sequences as an Alderman trying to close down the freak show.

Awards and media listings

The Elephant Man was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (John Hurt), Art Direction-Set Decoration (Stuart Craig, Robert Cartwright, Hugh Scaife), Costume Design, Director, Film Editing, Music: Original Score, and Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. It failed to win a single one.

It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film as well as other BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (John Hurt) and Best Production Design, and was nominated for four others: Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing.

It was listed by Entertainment Weekly's film's "Saddest Moments". In 2006, the film was listed in a televised Australian series 20 to 1 countdown celebrating "Great Movie One-Liners"; the line featured was the iconic "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being!"

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