…aka Fact against Ballyhoo: Cinema’s Elephant Man and the Real Joseph Merrick (if you want to get all serious-like ;)).
Let me preface this by stating that I could not love The Elephant Man (1980) any more than I do. I’d even go as far as to say that it is quickly becoming one of my favorite films. At mind, I am an adult who appreciate well-developed drama and artistry (and bewbs). At heart, I am a child who loves the sideshow, it’s “freaks,” and romanticized accounts of social misfits who ultimately get their due (and bewbs ;)). These characteristics are what attract me to the Universal Monsters and to the films of Tim Burton. Without any snide intention, I truly love and thrive on films that, even on a simplistic level, celebrate the odd and remarkable people of the world. Simplistic is the key word for the treatment of “John” Merrick in David Lynch’s masterwork. Now, simplistic is hardly a bad thing, but the film, this beautiful work of art, does strip Joseph Merrick (his actual name) of any real complexity and convinces us of the horror and tragedy of sideshow life that isn’t quite there.
For the sake of fairness, I must state that Dr. Frederick Treves (the man Anthony Hopkins portrays) is responsible for much of this and that the film is mostly faithful to his accounts. However, much of the Treves book is inaccurate, to the point where its subject’s name is wrongly stated. (#WTF, T-bone??)
(Image of Mr. Merrick published in the British Medical Journal in 1886)
Sideshow operator Tom Norman’s account of events is probably no-less biased, but it does challenge the Treves book. What we have in the film is a version of the story. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, this is a drama, first and foremost. To illustrate this, I will compare the film (briefly…don’t worry!! ;)) to Mr. Merrick’s life. This is not to take anything from this extraordinary film, but to highlight the life of a highly remarkable individual and, in a small way, look at the interesting relationship between adaptation and fact.
(A photograph of Joseph Merrick, taken in 1889 and published in the British Medical Journal with the announcement of Merrick’s death.)
Film: The Elephant Man is prisoner in the sleazy underworld of the traveling sideshow. Forced to suffer humiliation at the hands of the cruel Mr. Bytes, Merrick is treated as a monster and is horribly abused.
Life: In reality, historians point out that Tom Norman (the real Bytes) and Mr. Merrick were financial equals and that the rudeness displayed in public may have been part of the act. John chose to display himself and part of this was to play the part of a half-human, half-elephant from Africa.
He was said to be well-treated and that Norman was a decent fellow. In fact, because Norman paid for the venue/lodging/food, he made less than Mr. Merrick. Norman’s son unearthed the testimony of a hospital porter who claimed that Merrick asked more than once: “Why can’t I go back to Mr Norman?”
Staying at London Hospital and Belgium:
Film: Merrick is taken in by the Royal London Hospital, then kidnapped by the contemptible Bytes, carried off to Belgium in a cage with some rather unfriendly baboons.
Life: Merrick went off to Belgium of his own accord when the freakshow began to fall out of favor in London. His partner robbed him and he returned to London distressed. The scene at the Liverpool station with the mob is unfortunately accurate.It was at this point that Merrick was admitted to the hospital. In the hospital, Merrick was largely confined to his room. Treves said he intended to save him from the humiliation of public exhibition. However, the Elephant Man was constantly visited by curious members of high society. According to Norman, Merrick was “constantly seen and examined” by a “never-ending stream of surgeons, doctors and Dr. Treeve’s friends.” The hospital became a freakshow of its own.
Film: Merrick, after years of sleeping upright because of his condition and is near the end of his life, decides to sleep like a normal man for the first time. He had experienced theater as he had dreamt, and passed away (peacefully, triumphantly :)) after a good night’s sleep.
Life: Treves argued that Merrick’s death resulted from his “pathetic but hopeless desire” to sleep “like other people”. (#Dick) Norman, however, believes that Merrick had taken his own life. Merrick was found dead in the middle of the afternoon, and thus not during a natural sleep. He was lying in a position that he knew would cause asphyxiation.
Was it the sideshow or the hospital that truly made Joseph Merrick a freak? The film makes it clear, but real life is more ambiguous. However, from what we know, the sideshow circuit was not the hell depicted in the movie. While it’s true that there is much deviation from the truth, as I previously stated, the film is drama of the Elephant Man. It’s hard to argue that a cruel sideshow is more sensational than a benevolent one. After-all, it cannot be denied is that the film has given Joseph Merrick a new immortality (and rightfully-earned SeXXX Symbol Status), and for that we must be grateful.
If you managed to get all the way through this only slightly kinky post, I thank you. If not, just take away this gist and I’ll be happy: THE ELEPHANT MAN RULES AND YOU SO NEED TO WATCH THIS MOVIE. (As soon as Halloween is over… ;)) xoxoxo
PS- A quickie tribute to my new perma Man Crush… #art 😉 xo