The screenplay was adapted by Lynch, Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren from Frederick Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) and Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971). It was shot in black-and-white and featured make-up work by Christopher Tucker.
London Hospital surgeon Frederick Treves finds John Merrick in a Victorian freak show in London's East End, where he is kept by a Mr. Bytes. His head is kept hooded, and his "owner", who views him as retarded, is paid by Treves to bring him to the hospital for exams. Treves presents Merrick to his colleagues and highlights his monstrous skull, which forces him to sleep with his head on his knees, since if he were to lie down, he would asphyxiate. On Merrick’s return he is beaten so badly by Bytes that he has to call Treves for medical help. Treves brings him back to the hospital.
John is tended to by Mrs. Mothershead, the formidable matron, as the other nurses are too frightened of Merrick. Mr. Carr-Gomm, the hospital's Governor, is against housing Merrick, as the hospital does not accept "incurables". To prove that Merrick can make progress, Treves trains him to say a few conversational sentences. Carr-Gomm sees through this ruse, but as he is leaving, Merrick begins to recite the 23rd Psalm, which Treves did not teach him. Merrick tells the doctors that he knows how to read, and has memorized the 23rd Psalm because it is his favorite. Carr-Gomm permits him to stay, and Merrick spends his time practicing conversation with Treves and building a model of a cathedral he sees from his window.
Merrick has tea with Treves and his wife, and is so overwhelmed by their kindness that he shows them his mother's picture. He believes he must have been a "disappointment" to his mother, but hopes she would be proud to see him with his "lovely friends". Merrick begins to take guests in his rooms, including the actress Madge Kendal, who introduces him to the work of Shakespeare. Merrick quickly becomes an object of curiosity to high society, and Mrs. Mothershead expresses concerns that he is still being put on display as a freak. Treves begins to question the morality of his actions. Meanwhile, a night porter named Jim starts selling tickets to locals, who come at night to gawk at the "Elephant Man".
The issue of Merrick's residence is challenged at a hospital council meeting, but he is guaranteed permanent residence by command of the hospital’s royal patron, Queen Victoria, who sends word with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. However, Merrick is shortly kidnapped by Mr. Bytes during one of Jim's raucous late night showings. Mr. Bytes leaves England and takes Merrick on the road as a circus attraction once again. Treves confronts Jim about what he has done, and Mrs. Mothershead fires him.
Merrick escapes from Bytes with the help of his fellow freakshow attractions. Upon returning to London, he is harassed through Liverpool Street station by several young boys and accidentally knocks down a young girl. Merrick is chased, unmasked, and cornered by an angry mob. He cries, "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I ... am ... a ... man!" before collapsing. Policemen return Merrick to the hospital and Treves. He recovers some of his health, but is dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Treves and Mrs. Mothershead take Merrick to see one of Mrs. Kendal's shows at the theatre, and Kendal dedicates the performance to him. A proud Merrick receives a standing ovation from the audience. Back at the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for all he has done, and completes his church model. He lies down on his back in bed, imitating a sleeping child in a picture on his wall, and dies in his sleep. Merrick is consoled by a vision of his mother, who quotes Lord Tennyson's "Nothing Will Die".John Hurt as John Merrick - An intelligent, friendly and kind-hearted man who is feared by most people in his society because of his severe deformity.
Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves - a doctor who takes John from the freakshow to work in the hospital.
Anne Bancroft as Madge Kendal
John Gielgud as Francis Carr-Gomm
Wendy Hiller as Mrs Mothershead
Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes, The Ringmaster (based on Tom Norman)
Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ Boy
Michael Elphick as Jim, The Night Porter
Hannah Gordon as Ann Treves
Helen Ryan as Alexandra, Princess of Wales
John Standing as Fox
Lesley Dunlop as Nora, Merrick’s Nurse
Phoebe Nicholls as Mary Jane Merrick
Morgan Sheppard as Man In Pub
Kenny Baker as Plumed Dwarf
The film's producer, Jonathan Sanger, optioned the script from the writers Christopher Devore and Eric Bergen after receiving the script from his babysitter. Sanger had been working as Mel Brooks' Assistant Director on High Anxiety. Sanger showed Brooks the script, which he read and decided to help finance the film through his new company, Brooksfilms. Brooks' personal assistant, Stuart Cornfeld, suggested David Lynch to Sanger. Sanger met Lynch and they shared scripts they were working on (The Elephant Man and Lynch's Ronnie Rocket). Lynch told Sanger that he would love to direct the script after reading it and Sanger endorsed him after hearing Lynch's ideas. However, Brooks had not heard of David Lynch at the time. Sanger and Cornfeld set up a screening of Eraserhead at a screening room at 20th Century Fox, and Brooks loved it and enthusiastically let Lynch direct the film. By his own request, Brooks was not credited as Executive Producer, to ensure that audiences would not expect a comedy after seeing his name attached to the film.
For his second feature and first studio film albeit independently financed, David Lynch furnished the musical direction and sound design. Lynch tried to design the make-up himself too, but the design didn't work. Lynch referred to that episode as one of the "darkest moments of my life". The makeup, now supervised by Christopher Tucker, was directly designed from casts of Merrick’s body, which had been kept in the Royal London Hospital’s private museum. The makeup took seven to eight hours to apply each day and two hours to delicately remove. John Hurt would arrive on set at 5am and shoot his scenes from noon until 10pm. When Hurt was having his first experiences with the inconveniences of applying make-up and having to perform with it, he called his wife saying "I think they finally managed to make me hate acting." Because of the strain on the actor, he worked alternate days. Lynch originally wanted Jack Nance for the title character. "But it just wasn't in the cards," Lynch says; the role went to John Hurt after Brooks, Lynch and Sanger saw his performance in The Naked Civil Servant as Quentin Crisp.
Lynch bookended the film with surrealist sequences centered around Merrick's mother and her death. Lynch used Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to underline the end of the film and Merrick's own death. When Lynch and Sanger screened The Elephant Man for Brooks after they returned from England with a cut, Brooks suggested some minor cuts but told them that the film would be released as they made it.
The Elephant Man was met with critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes the film holds a 90% rating, based on 41 reviews, with an average score of 8.4/10. The site's consensus reads, "David Lynch's relatively straight second feature finds an admirable synthesis of compassion and restraint in treating its subject, and features outstanding performances by John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins."
Vincent Canby wrote: "Mr. Hurt is truly remarkable. It can't be easy to act under such a heavy mask ... the physical production is beautiful, especially Freddie Francis's black-and-white photography."
A small number of critics were less favorable. Roger Ebert gave it 2/4 stars, writing: "I kept asking myself what the film was really trying to say about the human condition as reflected by John Merrick, and I kept drawing blanks." In the book The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Nadja Durbach describes the work as “much more mawkish and moralising than one would expect from the leading postmodern surrealist filmmaker” and “unashamedly sentimental”. She blamed this mawkishness on the use of Treves’s memoirs as source material.
The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, tying with Raging Bull at the 53rd Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (John Hurt), Art Direction-Set Decoration (Stuart Craig, Robert Cartwright, Hugh Scaife), Costume Design, Director, Film Editing, Music: Original Score, and Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. However, the film did not win any.
People in the industry were appalled that the movie was not going to be honored for its make up effects when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations at the time. A letter of protest was sent to the Academy's Board of Governors to requesting to give the film an honorary award. The Academy refused, but in response to the outcry, they decided to give the make-up artists their own category. A year later, the Academy Award for Best Makeup category was introduced with An American Werewolf in London as its first recipient.
It did win the BAFTA Award for Best Film, as well as other BAFTA Awards for Best Actor (John Hurt) and Best Production Design, and was nominated for four others: Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
John Merrick: "I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man." – Nominated
There have been many releases of the film on both VHS and DVD. The version released as part of the David Lynch Lime Green Box includes several interviews with John Hurt and David Lynch and a Joseph Merrick documentary. This material is also available on the exclusive treatment on the European market as part of Optimum Releasing’s StudioCanal Collection. The film has only been released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK, however this disc will play in both Region A and B players.
The musical score of The Elephant Man was composed and conducted by John Morris, and it was performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1980, the company 20th Century Fox Records published this film's original musical score as both an LP album and as a Cassette in the United States. Its front cover artwork features the mask of John Merrick against a backdrop of smoke, as seen on the advance theatrical poster for the film.
In 1994, the first Compact disc (CD) issue of the film score was made by the company Milan, which specializes in film scores and soundtrack albums.
- "The Elephant Man Theme" - 3:46
- "Dr. Treves Visits the Freak Show and Elephant Man" - 4:08
- "John Merrick and Psalm" - 1:17
- "John Merrick and Mrs. Kendal" - 2:03
- "The Nightmare" - 4:39
- "Mrs. Kendal's Theater and Poetry Reading" - 1:58
- "The Belgian Circus Episode" - 3:00
- "Train Station" - 1:35
- "Pantomime" - 2:20
- "Adagio for Strings" - 5:52
- "Recapitulation" - 5:35
The Jam's former bassist Bruce Foxton was inspired strongly by the film, and in response wrote the song "Freak" with the single's cover even making a reference to the film. Produced by the multiple-award-winning Steve Lillywhite and released as a single, it became his biggest hit to date and remains his only Top 40 hit. Actor Bradley Cooper credits watching the movie with his father as a child as his inspiration to become an actor. Cooper played the character on Broadway in 2013. British TV presenter and frequent Ricky Gervais collaborator Karl Pilkington has often cited it as his favorite film. Pilkington's love for the film brought many new features to his various podcasts and radio shows, made with Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Rock band The Mars Volta pays homage to The Elephant Man by having singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala dressed as John Hurt's version of the Elephant Man in mask and hat in the video for their song "Goliath". The 1990s animated TV show The Critic also references the scene in Lynch's movie where the Elephant Man is shown to the room of surgeons by having film critic Jay Sherman being displayed as an obese youth being exhibited. In the "L.A. Jay" episode of The Critic, the Elephant Man is seen driving a sports car with two women mocking Jay Sherman as "a freak".