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.


Lynch’s film joined Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play, The Elephant Man, as well as several biographies and a novel published around that time, in portraying Merrick’s extraordinary body and life, particularly his transformation from an abject sideshow freak to a favorite of society. The film, like Pomerance’s play, deviates significantly from what are known as the facts of Merrick’s life (beginning with calling him John rather than Joseph, an error begun in Treves's memoir of Merrick), especially in portraying Merrick’s freak show experience as one of unmitigated misery, when in fact he was reasonably well-treated and earned and saved a considerable sum (later stolen from him by an unscrupulous manager). The film also alters the chronology of Merrick’s life to generate suspense and portray Merrick as essentially helpless and in need of rescuing by Treves. In fact, while Treves had sought out Merrick for a case presentation at the hospital, it wasn’t until Merrick returned from Belgium that he went to Treves for help with a bronchial infection.

When teaching this film, calling attention to such revisions instructs students in the role of the market as well as narrative conventions in (mis)shaping accounts of illness and disability. The film is also useful pedagogically in portraying the historical shift that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, wherein the physically different were increasingly viewed as belonging within the domain of medicine rather than belonging to the side show and the category of freak; Merrick’s condition cannot be altered or “cured,” yet he is given a home in the London Hospital and, when his residence there is advertised to society, Merrick is once again put on display, bringing wealth and celebrity to Treves as well as the hospital. While the film’s critique of medicine’s exploitation of Merrick is ambivalent, it is clear enough to raise important ethical questions. For example, the scene in which Treves coldly displays Merrick for the Pathological Society closely parallels Bytes's display of Merrick at the freak show, simply substituting a bourgeois context for working class squalor.

By taking a critical perspective on the film, particularly Merrick’s frequent professions of gratitude and happiness while living in the isolation ward of the hospital and under the authority of physicians, one can instruct students in the significance of the social model of disability, which understands disability as imposed by the lack of acceptance and accommodation in society, rather than inherent in the physically different body or due to perceived moral deviance.


Script: David Lynch, Christopher de Vore, Eric Bergren, based on The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu and the book by Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences

Primary Source

Paramount Home Video