The Elephant Man (film)

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The Elephant Man
US cinema release poster
Directed by David Lynch
Produced by Jonathan Sanger
Screenplay by
  • Christopher DeVore
  • Eric Bergren
  • David Lynch
Based on The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and in part on The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu
Music by John Morris
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Distributed by Columbia-EMI-Warner (UK)
Paramount Pictures (US)
Release date(s)
  • October 3, 1980 (1980-10-03) (New York[1])
  • October 10, 1980 (1980-10-10) (US)
Running time 124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5,000,000
Box office $26,010,864 (USA)[2]

The Elephant Man is a 1980 film about Joseph Merrick (whom the script calls John Merrick), a severely deformed man in 19th century London. 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 Frederick Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) and Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971). It was shot in black and white.

The Elephant Man was a critical and commercial success with eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor. The Academy was scolded for failing to honour Christopher Tucker's work on the film. This prompted them to create the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.[3] The film also won the BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Production Design.


London Hospital surgeon Frederick Treves finds John Merrick in a Victorian freak show in London’s East End, where he is kept by the brutish Bytes. His head is always hooded, and his “owner”, who finds him retarded, is paid by Treves to bring him to the hospital for exams. He shows Merrick to his colleagues and highlights his monstrous skull, which makes him sleep with his head on his knees, since if he were to lay down, he would asphyxiate. On Merrick’s return he is beaten so hard by Bytes that an apprentice calls Treves to bring him back to hospital. When Bytes accuses Treves of likewise exploiting Merrick for his own ends, he vows to do what he can to help Merrick.

John is tended and quarantined by Mrs. Mothershead, the formidable matron, since the other staff cringe away from Merrick. Mr Carr-Gomm, the hospital’s Governor, is against housing Merrick as the ward is no place for “incurables”. To prove to Carr-Gomm that Merrick has skills, Treves makes him say a few phrases. Carr-Gomm sees through the ruse but as he walks off, he and Treves are stunned to hear John recite the 23rd Psalm, which Treves did not teach. He now permits John to stay, and the patient starts drawing, reading, and making a model of a cathedral he sees from his window.

When Merrick has tea with Ann Treves, he is so overwhelmed that he shows them his mother’s picture. He hopes she would love him if she could see his “lovely friends”. Later on he starts to have guests in his rooms, including the actress Madge Kendal, and becomes an object of curiosity and charity to high society. Mrs. Mothershead says he is still treated as a freak, though in a more upper-class style. This rebuke and his role in the matter trouble the surgeon, who now questions his morals. And while John is treated well by day, the Night Porter makes money by bringing clients from nearby pubs to gawk at Merrick.

Through her daughter-in-law Alexandra, the hospital’s royal patron, Queen Victoria sends word that Merrick will have permanent hospital care with all funds arranged. But his problems resurface when Bytes uses the Night Porter’s “viewings” to reach John and take him to continental Europe, where he is once again put on show and brutalized. Consumed with guilt over Merrick’s plight, Mr. Treves sacks the porter with Mrs. Mothershead’s help.

His fellow attractions help Merrick flee, though at Liverpool Street station he is taunted by several boys and accidentally knocks down a girl. He is chased, unmasked, and cornered by an angry mob, at which point he cries, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I ... am ... a ... man!” before collapsing. When policemen return him to the hospital he goes back to his room. He recovers a little, but as he is dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Mrs. Kendal bids him go to the theatre, where he, Treves, Mrs. Mothershead and a nurse will see an enrapturing show. A white-tied John Merrick stands up in the royal box to reap hearty applause, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs. Kendal. Back in the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for all he has done and completes his church model. To copy the sleeping child on his wall-hung sketch, he takes off the pillows he needs to sleep upright, lies down and dies, consoled by a vision of his mother, who quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing Will Die”.

Main cast[edit]


The film’s executive producer Mel Brooks was impressed by Lynch’s film Eraserhead but kept his name off the marketing lest people expect a comedy. For his second feature and first studio film[4] David Lynch furnished the musical direction and sound design. The film uses Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to underline Merrick’s death.

Hurt’s makeup was made from casts of Merrick’s body, which had been kept in the Royal London Hospital’s private museum.


The Elephant Man was well received by critics; the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 91% rating with an average review score of 8.2/10.[5]

Vincent Canby wrote: “Mr. Hurt is truly remarkable. It can’t be easy to act under such a heavy mask... the physical production is beautiful, especially Freddie Francis’s black-and-white photography.”[6] Roger Ebert gave 2/4 stars, writing: “I kept asking myself what the film was really trying to say about the human condition as reflected by John Merrick, and I kept drawing blanks.”[7]

In her book The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Nadja Durbach said the film was “much more mawkish and moralising than one would expect from the leading postmodern surrealist filmmaker” and “unashamedly sentimental”. She blamed this mawkishness on the use of Treves’s memoirs as source material.[8]

Awards and media listings[edit]

The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including 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.[9] However, the film did not win any.

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

Home media[edit]

There have been many releases of the film on both VHS and DVD. The version released as part of the David Lynch Lime Green Box includes several interviews with John Hurt and David Lynch and a Joseph Merrick documentary.[10] This material is also available on the exclusive treatment on the European market as part of Optimum Releasing’s StudioCanal Collection.[11] The film has only been released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK, however this disc will play in both Region A and B players.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Times, October 8, 1980, in large article on page 9 by John Higgins: "The Elephant Man, which opens tomorrow at the ABC, Shaftesbury Avenue, is also likely to establish the reputation of its director, David Lynch." Read in The Times Digital Archive on October 28, 2013
  2. ^ "The Elephant Man (1980)", Box Office Mojo (, Inc), retrieved July 4, 2010 
  3. ^ Roger Clarke (March 2, 2007), "The Elephant Man", The Independent 
  4. ^ Huddleston, Tom (2010), "David Lynch: interview", Time Out (Time Out Group Limited), archived from the original on June 16, 2010, retrieved June 16, 2010 
  5. ^ "Rotten Tomatoes: The Elephant Man". Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  6. ^ Vincent Canby: The Elephant Man review
  7. ^ "Roger Ebert: The Elephant Man review". Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  8. ^ Durbach (2009), p. 35
  9. ^ "NY Times: The Elephant Man". NY Times. Retrieved December 31, 2008. 
  10. ^ "The Elephant Man on StudioCanal Collection". Retrieved August 1, 2010. 
  11. ^ "StudioCanal Collection". Retrieved August 1, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Shai Biderman & Assaf Tabeka. "The Monster Within: Alienation and Social Conformity in The Elephant Man" in: The Philosophy of David Lynch 207 (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

External links[edit]