‘The Elephant Man’: A Portrait of an Outcast Defeating His Fears and Deformities with Creativity, Wit and Compassion

David Lynch with the cast during shooting of The Elephant Man. Production still photographer: Frank Connor © Brooksfilms, Paramount Pictures


By Lovorko Marić

David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.

After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.


Fate, luck, and new acquaintances who happened to have access to people with influence brought David Lynch to the limelight. In an odd way, it parallels the story of the protagonist of his sophomore movie, John Merrick (based on the actual historical figure named Joseph Merrick), who has reached the very heights of Victorian England society after being ridiculed and humiliated for years as a kidnapped circus freak, due to his body being riddled with tumours and other deformities which gave him his nickname. After failing to find finances for a script he had himself developed called Ronnie Rocket, Lynch went on a search for scripts he could direct. Immediately as he heard the name The Elephant Man, Lynch, the intuitive eccentric that he is, didn’t want to hear of any other scripts—didn’t even bother to read the bloody thing before he said yes—and the rest is history. This, therefore, marks the first writing collaboration in Lynch’s career, namely with fellow writers Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren, developing a story that was pitched to the American comedy guru Mel Brooks of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, of all people. Brooks had infamously organized a screening of Eraserhead to check out “this David Lynch” and whether he would be qualified for this project, while the frightened young director morosely waited in the hallway expecting to be sacked out of the project pretty much as soon as Eraserhead started. Brooks defied Lynch’s expectations in proudly declaring to him in his extroverted manner after experiencing the nightmare of Eraserhead: “I love you, you’re a mad man! You’re in!” Thus, an Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, known for a dark, avant-garde film with sparse dialogue, was on his way to England to direct a Victorian drama with mammoth actors such as Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, Dame Wendy Hiller and Sir John Gielgud.

The Elephant Man has over the years acquired the reputation of a David Lynch movie for movie fans who do not like David Lynch. It is based on strictly linear storytelling with a minimal amount of bizarre, surreal and/or violent sequences. But even if one would reduce the term “Lynchian” to these two tropes, The Elephant Man is thematically and stylistically integrated far more into the director’s oeuvre than it would seem on the surface.


While Lynch is arguably more famous for themes of revealing a dark underworld of deceit, debauchery, and perversion below a seemingly ideal American way of life, as represented in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, The Elephant Man does the opposite: it reveals decency and dignity below that which seems ugly and degenerate on the surface, and this pertains primarily to John Merrick, the title character played by the recently deceased, great English thespian John Hurt. Due to his disturbing appearance, Merrick is first ridiculed and humiliated, but after finding an unexpected social anchor in the form of Doctor Frederick Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins, he manages to discover–and give back–human kindness and compassion. Nevertheless, Lynch is not shy to show here a more despicable side of humanity as well, particularly through two characters: one the self-appointed ruthless “owner” of Merrick, the other a crass hospital orderly, who spends no idle time in exploiting Merrick and his condition to obtain profit. Despite this, there is a profound warmth to the movie, as even the Victorian aristocracy, not a stranger to hypocrisy and condescension, proves to be welcoming and understanding of Merrick in Lynch’s vision, particularly through Anne Bancroft’s character of Mrs. Kendal, the elite actress who even makes the narcissistic notion of giving away her picture as a present seem noble and gracious.

Whereas Eraserhead encompassed themes of escapism, The Elephant Man is, to an extent, about integration. Even though Merrick is a misunderstood outcast, he begins to form sincere friendships and his inner circle becomes less judgmental and less prone to irrational fear as time goes on. Hurt’s performance goes to lengths in never allowing Merrick to become a caricature and not making him exclusively an object of pity, since the actor has brief moments of unabashed fun with the character, giving him that much-needed personality and thus avoiding plunging the movie into the slippery territory of cheap sentimentality. The make-up by Christopher Tucker must be mentioned as well in hitting the right notes of not making Merrick ridiculous or too frightening, and Hurt’s distinguished voice, along with the emphatic look in his eyes, gives the Elephant Man the emphasis on the “man” and less on the “elephant.” Anthony Hopkins complements him in the role of a man haunted by the dilemma of being ambitious and exploitative for the purpose of ambition and recognition, while having a guilty conscience due to the fact that he cannot cure Merrick’s condition and that he perceives himself as much of an exploiter as Freddie Jones’ manic Mr. Bytes, the Elephant Man’s cruel slave master. Hopkins’ performance here is subtler and less flashy, using his eyes to reveal the torment behind the introverted persona, providing an interesting contrast to, for example, his more exaggerated work as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Some of the more memorable shots in Lynch’s movies involve heavy close-ups of faces, and Hopkins is right to the task at making them some of the more definitive ones in Lynch’s career.


Hopkins was infamously antagonistic towards the 32-year-old Lynch, refusing to shave his beard and in general feeling alienated by the young director’s approach to actors, but nevertheless giving a performance that just might prove to be the pinnacle of his career, giving Lynch an early and consistent reputation of getting great performances from his actors, even though Hopkins claimed he was listening more to his own instincts than yielding to Lynch’s demands (years later, Hopkins sent Lynch a somewhat redemptive fan letter). Lynch was faced with many challenges during his stay in England, including a failed attempt at Merrick’s makeup before the production officially started, which even had him contemplate suicide for the first and only time in his life. The persistence of his vision resulted in a slowly gained confidence, earning the trust of his cast and crew, including the always reliable Sir John Gielgud and Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft, and ultimately giving way to an essential humanistic piece of Lynchian cinema.

One of the key pieces of the puzzle was the cinematographer; the stunning monochrome palette of The Elephant Man is the work of Freddie Francis, while the familiarly creepy sound design is again the work of Lynch and Alan Splet. The Elephant Man shares some of its mood with Eraserhead with its depictions of smokestacks and sooty factories; while the industrial, macabre post-world of Eraserhead was more suffocating and isolationist in nature, Lynch’s London in The Elephant Man presents the success of the Industrial Revolution, taking boastful pride in its expansion and the rise of technology, mirroring Merrick’s rising awe of the world around him which is slowly but surely revealing itself in a manner proportional to how he opens more to the society around him. In Lynch’s eyes, as explained in Chris Rodley’s Lynch by Lynch, Merrick’s body is the extension of these factories, seeing his tumorous growths akin to explosions, declaring that the human body is the greatest and most fearless factory of them all. Merrick is, therefore, more integrated into this Lynchian world than any of the “normal” people he has surrounded himself with. The use of symbolism may seem at times on-the-nose, particularly in the unusually unambiguous dream sequences in the beginning and end, but the use of the cathedral model that Merrick is building is a tasteful summary of the movie’s themes—Merrick only sees the top of the bell tower from his window, and he will try to reach it by letting his imagination flow, conquering the heights with his creativity and wit instead of his deformed physicality.


The use of music in the crucial moments of the film also brings Lynch’s impeccable sense of mixing sound and picture to the forefront. For instance, the scene where both the viewer and the characters of Hopkins and Gielgud realise that Merrick is indeed intelligent and literate brings out with the introduction of a musical cue an emotional resonance that continues on with the sequence where Merrick is harassed by whores and deviants in a perverse drunken ball, all the way to the carefully orchestrated, affecting ending, with Lynch choosing “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, a theme that has been exploited in movies endlessly since (Oliver Stone using it most famously in Platoon six years later), but holding its timeless poignant impact in this film.

These examples show that Lynch’s work has a deep emotional truth to it, which is most visible in his most plainly heart-rending movie that is The Elephant Man, but also in his other later work, behind all the layers of alleged incoherence, inaccessibility or plain weirdness that seem to alienate Lynch’s skeptics. Even though his attempts of connection with the audience may seem weirdly sentimental at times, they mostly seem sincere, unironic and are rarely manipulative in a Hollywood sense of the term. Some of Lynch’s later work—The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive in particular—will ensure that the emotional connection to the story is essential in the journey of his characters; one could say that the genesis of Lynch’s maturity as a deeply emotional filmmaker started with this film. Naturally, the movie was marketed in Hollywood (after some difficulties of trying to market it as a “monster movie” when it was, in fact, the opposite, as John Hurt has stated), won eight Oscar nominations and gave Lynch the keys to the kingdom, whose doors he unlocked to confront his first artistic and commercial failure. The architect of nightmares on the screen was now in a dune of a creative nightmare from which he cringes on even to this day.

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Here’s a rarity: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch’s screenplay for The Elephant Man [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers (September 29, 2020). Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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David Lynch’s Oscar-winning 1980 film is returning to cinemas on 13 March for its 40th anniversary in a new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal. Also available on Digital DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD Collector’s Edition on 6 April.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Photographed by Frank Connor © Brooksfilms, Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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