The Elephant Man is a 1980 biopic loosely based on the story of the 19th century British deformed celebrity, Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film). 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 Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch 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.
A surgeon at the London Hospital, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), discovers John Merrick (John Hurt) in a Victorian freak show in London's East End, where he is managed by the brutish Bytes (Freddie Jones). Merrick is so hideously deformed that he must wear a hood and cape when in public. Bytes further claims this exhibit to be 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 peculiar physique, 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 cause a fatal constriction of his windpipe (asphyxiation) 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 Carr Gomm, the bewildered and distressed Merrick breaks down. Carr Gomm leaves, telling Treves that, while it was a good attempt, the man is an obvious imbecile. He orders Treves to remove him. As Carr 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—astonishingly and yet disturbingly for a man of his hitherto appalling circumstances—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 self-imposed defence mechanism to avoid beatings from the bullying alcoholic Bytes. Carr Gomm arranges a suite of rooms for Merrick to reside in at the hospital. 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. Merrick settles into his new home and, with the encouragement of Treves and the warm-hearted Cockney Nurse Norah (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 photographic portrait of his mother and expresses his touching wish that she would love him if she could only see what "lovely friends" he now has. Mrs. Treves breaks down in tears, much to her anguish and shame. Later, Merrick begins to receive society visitors in his rooms, including the celebrated actress Fanny Kemble (Anne Bancroft). He rapidly becomes a popular object of curiosity (and totem of charitable expression) to fashionable society. As these connections and visits increase, Mrs. Motherhead (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.
Unfortunately for Merrick, his rooms may be comfortable but they are not secure and a night porter (Michael Elphick) exploits him 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 manages to escape with the brave help of his concerned 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 Merrick angrily asserts his humanity, crying out in anguish:
I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a man!As the shocked mob back away, he collapses from illness and exhaustion.
Treves is consumed with guilt over these events and, with the help of Mrs. Mothershead, takes action against the night porter. 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 (he has 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 Norah, 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 knows he has had the best day of his life. He 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 lies down on his bed and dies.
Contrary to the film, Dr Treves did not cajole Merrick into speaking his first words. Indeed, on account of a severe constrictive deformity of the mouth, it actually took several operations before Merrick was physically able to speak at all. The film's chief antagonist, Bytes, is an entirely fictitious character. As played by Freddie Jones, wearing ratty clothes with a stove-pipe hat, a perpetual five-o'clock shadow and a chronic case of alcoholic tremors, Bytes is seemingly modelled after Robert Newton's characterisation of Bill Sikes in David Lean's 1948 film adaptation of Oliver Twist. Additionally, actress Fanny Kemble's stage career was not contemporary with the adult life of Merrick.
The make-up for John Hurt was made from casts of Merrick's body, which had been preserved at the Royal London Hospital. David 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 Motion Picture Academy—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, David 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. This has been partly responsible for a resurgence in the piece's popularity (it would be later used in the 1983 film El Norte, the 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film, Platoon, and in the funeral scene in Amélie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
Actor Frederick Treves, great grandnephew of the surgeon, appears in the opening sequences as an Alderman trying to close down the freakshow.
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 the American Film Institute's list of "Greatest Film Scores" and, with Entertainment Weekly, 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 Elephant Man was featured, with the line "I am not an animal! I am a human being!"