The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980, USA/UK)

    The Elephant Man, David Lynch’s studio debut, is one of his most mainstream efforts and also the film which launched him into the Hollywood establishment. The film was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for an incredible eight Academy Award nominations (winning none of them). For the first time, Lynch was working with some of the greatest actors of stage and screen – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft. Lynch was selected for the project based on Eraserhead producer Mel Brooks was a big fan of the film. Certainly, the bleak and industrial setting of Eraserhead lends itself well to the Victorian London setting of The Elephant Man.

       In its marketing materials, the film touted itself as the real story of the Elephant Man, and not based on the popular Broadway play. However, in reality, the film takes noticeable liberties with the story. Most significantly, Merrick was more voluntarily involved in his freak show role than the film suggests, and his boss at the freakshow – Tom Norman – was far from the unkempt, drunkard Mr. Bytes – played by Freddie Jones in the film. David Lynch was brought onto the film when the script was already written, but there are a number of passages in the film where it is clear he added to the script. Most significantly, the various dream/fantasy sequences in the film feel very much a product of Lynch’s imagination.

        The Elephant Man is unique in Lynch’s filmography in that it is a film that can be enjoyed purely at the surface level. There are of course deeper meanings to be read into the film regarding the nature of deformities and how we present ourselves to others, but the film also has a sentimental and humanistic streak that no doubt made it popular with audiences and the Academy.



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