David Lynch

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Garden, Rebecca

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), a man who we first encounter in the film as “The Elephant Man” of a freak show, whose physical differences are so frightening to the authorities that the exhibit is closed. An ambitious young surgeon, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), seeks out Merrick (John Hurt) as a subject for a presentation to the Pathological Society and, taken by Merrick’s intelligence and amiability, arranges for Merrick to have a permanent home on the premises of London Hospital. The film portrays Treves as rescuing Merrick from a wretched existence in the squalid wharf district, where he is beaten savagely and otherwise abused by his sideshow manager, Bytes.

Treves provides Merrick with modest bourgeois comfort in the form of private rooms on the hospital premises. When the London Times publishes a letter from the hospital director describing Merrick’s disfigurement as terrifying and requiring isolation, first a famous actress, then most of London high society seek out Merrick, some to befriend him, others to indulge in spectatorship or the fashion of the day. A hospital porter who has access to Merrick’s room brings drunken revelers to view Merrick for a fee, giving the villainous Bytes the opportunity to kidnap Merrick and spirit him off to Belgium and a desperate existence as an abused and degraded sideshow freak.

Eventually, the other members of the freak show free Merrick and send him back to London, where, in a dramatic chase scene, he is pursued by an angry mob until the police arrive. Treves is summoned and reinstalls Merrick in his rooms at the hospital. Merrick is then celebrated by society when he attends his first theater performance. That night, he arranges himself to be able to sleep lying down, like a “normal person,” a position he knows will lead to his asphyxiation due to the size of his head, and he dies.

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