I do not watch films very often, perhaps because films like The Elephant Man (1980) are no longer made. This classic film is based on the true story of John Merrick (whose given name was actually Joseph Merrick) as recounted by London physician Frederick Treves in his book The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923). Mr. Merrick is a severely deformed man, though mentally he is bright and intelligent. He has been exploited as a revenue generating freak show due to his physical misfortunes, and Treves, a scientist and surgeon, becomes his first friend and rescues him from the greedy and heartless.
I was surprised at the high quality of cinematography for a 1985 black and white film, as well as the special effects used to portray Merrick’s deformities. The viewer is kept in suspense at the beginning of the film, and throughout the course of the unfolding plot is slowly introduced to Mr. Merrick. First, one sees a cartoon drawing of him on the banner used to advertise his freak show, then one sees him from the back in the deep shadows of the slum he shares with the man who claims to own him. Next, his full silhouette is revealed when Dr. Treves showcases him as an anomaly to his London hospital colleagues. Finally, the viewer’s curiosity is satisfied with an unobstructed shot of “the elephant man.”
Yet, it is less than halfway through the film that this happens, and one wonders what else there is to reveal. It is in the second half of the film that the monstrous form of Mr. Merrick is peeled back to reveal the man inside. The viewer slowly becomes endeared to the kind heart, childlike wit, and sincerity of a young man whose only connection with evil lies in the surface of his skin. At the same time, though, the familiar, unarresting forms of “normal” men are grotesquely marred by the evil that has bred deep within their hearts.
When the full body of Mr. Merrick was first revealed, I shrank back in horror, for he barely looks human. But as he begins to speak with Dr. Treves and attends tea in his home, the tension slowly dissipated until my heart was wrung with compassion and a desire to hear his story and understand who he was beyond the physical deformities. Then, as he is mocked and laughed at by those who have no confidence in their own appearance and place in life, my fists clenched in anger and I wanted to scream at the blind injustice. At those moments, knowing that this film was based on a true story was nearly unbearable, but then other true stories of combined abuse and neglect flashed through my mind.
One of my dearest friends is part of a family that has experienced the beauty and pain of adoption. She has three younger siblings who each became part of her family through the foster care system. Both of her young sisters suffer no physical deformity, no mental handicaps; they were simply unwanted. There are many parallels between their abuse, and that of “the elephant man”, yet they met hatred in the eyes of their own parents, instead of complete strangers. Were it not for the grace of God, we might each be participating in the drama of injustice, rather than sitting as observers of it. Our depraved hearts contain within them the capacity to be the abuser, mocker, or greedy exploiter, but in a miraculous exchange we have been called across a line into the role of rescue. We are not just to abstain from injustice, but to pursue its counterpart. There can be no observers in this drama, not while the world can say that a story like John Merrick’s is true, and not while thousands of innocents around the world experience a life that is far worse than death.