A movie character once said: “life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”
There is wisdom in this philosophy. A little misery is a normal part of the human condition. But if the biggest problem you have is unhappiness, pick your head up and look at the world around you. Things could be so much worse.
Things were so much worse for John Merrick. Merrick was born in England in 1862, deformed and sickly. When we meet him – in approximately 1885 – he is virtually enslaved. He is the star of traveling carnival show, where his greedy owner displays him for gawking crowds in exchange for a few shillings.
When gentleman surgeon Sir Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) hears about this Elephant Man attraction, he is compelled to see it for himself. When Treves lays eyes on Merrick for the first time, though, curiosity immediately turns to empathy.
Anthony Hopkins is one of the greatest actors in cinema. And I think his finest moment is when Treves sees the Elephant Man (John Hurt), chained and alone. Treves is frozen; the unfairness of nature and the depths of human cruelty wash over him. Tears well up but never fall.
At its heart, the film is about emotion. Writer/director David Lynch has never been one to stick to a traditional plot or narrative. With “The Elephant Man,” Lynch gave us a thoroughly unconventional tear-jerker about two men who become friends for life.
Treves brings John Merrick back to the hospital to live. To his surprise, Merrick is educated and eloquent. The Elephant Man goes from being a sideshow attraction to the toast of Victorian London.
In the film’s most beautiful scene, Treves takes Merrick to his house to have tea with his wife. Merrick suddenly begins sobbing. He doesn’t need to explain why. He is being treated with dignity, kindness, and respect and it’s overwhelming. David Lynch and John Hurt give us an unflinching look into the sensitive mind of an abused man.
As more aristocrats come calling to meet the famous Elephant Man, Treves begins to wonder whether he’s any better than the Carnival barker. David Lynch explores the possibility that humans are morbidly obsessed with disfigured creatures. And that we are pathologically predisposed to exploit weaker people for profit.
In the end, Lynch says no. The most controversial thing about “The Elephant Man” is that it is subtly but forcefully classist. Most cockney characters treat Merrick as a freak. The aristocratic characters never do.
Lynch shows that the upper class cares about art and refinement. The lower class is content with ale, whores, and cheap laughs. John Merrick isn’t just an object of sympathy, he is a gentleman. That matters to Treves, and to Mr. Lynch.
“The Elephant Man” is a total success: powerfully emotional and uplifting without being manipulative. When we meet John Merrick, his life is 100% horrible and miserable. At the end, it is neither.