The Elephant Man: 40 Years Later

This article was extracted from Scratch Cinema.

Forty years after the release of David Lynch’s groundbreaking The Elephant Man, StudioCanal is marking the anniversary with a 4K restoration of the film playing in cinemas from March 13th. There will also be a DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD release available from April 6th.

The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man with severe deformities living in 19th century London. Shunned by Victorian society, Merrick is exploited as a disfigured circus freak and treated cruelly by almost everyone he meets. Anthony Hopkins plays Doctor Treves, a kindly surgeon who rescues Merrick from a life of prejudice and shelters him at the Royal London Hospital, which becomes his new home. Merrick soon becomes a celebrated curiosity, gaining celebrity status among London’s upper class. Shot in black and white, Lynch’s historical drama explores themes of compassion, the human condition and man’s inhumanity to man. Boasting an outstanding lead performance from John Hurt, this influential film went on to be a commercial and critical sensation with eight Academy Award nominations.

Black and white photo of John Hurt as the elephant man cornered by a crowed of Victorian era men
Image courtesy of Brooksfilms

In Frederick Treves’ memoirs, he mistakenly gave Merrick the first name of John when his name was, in fact, Joseph Merrick. In 1977 this name was used by playwright Bernard Pomerance when he wrote ”The Elephant Man”, a play that premiered to critical acclaim in London. Many often assume that Lynch’s film is based on the play. As a result of a legal case, the film’s introduction carried a statement declaring itself separate from the Pomerance script. 

In the forty years since its release, what impact has The Elephant Man had within cinema and its portrayal of disabled people? More importantly, have social attitudes towards visible differences changed?

From a young age, we often associate visible differences with a negative connotation, with scars and disfigurements making for menacing undertones. The film industry has fed audiences this narrative for decades, showcasing sinister and reclusive villains such as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King, Joker within the Batman franchise, to the titular antagonist in The Phantom of the Opera.

On the other end of the spectrum, modern stories resembling characters with visible differences are often overly sentimental and patronising. Based on The New York Times bestselling book, Wonder is a film about ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a fifth-grader with a craniofacial condition resulting in distinct facial differences. Jacob Tremblay played Auggie, wearing prosthetics and heavy layers of makeup to portray the character’s facial disfigurement. Craniofacial conditions affect 600,000 people in the United States alone, which only strengthens the need for authentic and reflective representation. In Wonder, Auggie is used as a prop to educate those around him about kindness and acceptance, with his mere existence labelled as inspirational. The stories that are told on screen ought to be reflective, powered by authentic storytelling rather than used as an accessory to make non-disfigured people feel better about themselves.

a close up of Auggie's face, he's wearing a spaceman helmet
Image courtesy of Lionsgate, Mandeville Films, Participant Media, Walden Media and TIK Films

Adam Pearson was born with a condition that causes tumours to grow on his face. He has been bullied, harassed and described as Elephant Man for as long as he remembers.  Pearson starred in the critically revered science fiction film Under the Skin along with Scarlett Johansson, enabling Pearson to challenge the stigma surrounding disfigurement on the screen.

In 2018, the casting of a non-disabled actor in the BBC drama adaptation of The Elephant Man sparked criticism, reminding the public that inauthentic disability representation is still a prominent issue within television and film. Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) had been cast as Joseph Merrick, who is arguably the most recognisable disabled character portrayed within film. Some called this casting a missed opportunity, highlighting the barriers that disabled actors have to overcome to progress within the industry, with inaccessibility being a significant factor. 

In recent news, Jo Vigor-Mungovinm, who traced Joseph Merrick’s grave, has been fundraising the estimated £100,000 for a monument of Merrick in his native Leicester. However, prejudice has hindered any such attempt to commemorate Joseph Merrick, with critics declaring that the city is already “ugly enough”.  The city’s reaction is a stark reminder that there are still vocally hostile attitudes towards disability and visible differences. 

a black and white portrait of joseph merrick
Joseph Merrick

Changing Faces is a UK based organisation who campaign for positive and accurate representation, a society free from discrimination and a society that respects difference. The charity launched their latest campaign, ‘#VisibleHate: Together We Can Stop It’, with a video featuring British presenter Adam Pearson and other individuals with a visible difference repeating remarks such as “If I were you, I’d kill myself” and “a face only a mother could love”. Every comment uttered within the video is familiar to many with a visible difference, having encountered such verbal abuse themselves. 

Changing Faces recently published independent research revealing that seven in ten people with visible differences experience adverse reactions such as staring and bullying simply because of the way they look. The study also found that 28% of people with a visible difference have experienced a hate crime and 35% of those people now feel nervous when leaving their homes. Almost half of those who have encountered negative behaviour say they’ve lost confidence and 27% claim it has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing.  

Media platforms are encountering a turning point within our society, as we start to realise the importance of accurate representation of marginalised communities. Media portrayals influence the shaping of social attitudes, distributing a trickle-down effect upon impressionable audiences. It’s time for a shift within the infrastructure to change perceptions towards ‘different’ people. For change to happen, mainstream television and film companies need to reach into underrepresented communities and consult the experiences of marginalised individuals, both positive and negative. Netflix shows such as Special and Atypical are paving the path for mainstream disability representation, but overarching progress within the industry is slow with no momentum or driving force behind it.

It can be said that the release of The Elephant Man was a necessary and critical display of social attitudes towards disfigurement, challenging the social standard for compassion. Lynch’s exploration of hypocrisy still rings true, with his depiction of exploitation under the guise of kindness as a barrier of total liberation and independence for disabled people. Despite the film’s flawed theme exploration, which has only become glaring due to societal progression, Lynch’s The Elephant Man paints a devastating portrait of a man with so much to offer and a heart that never stopped loving.