It is rare among reviews of this film to find something negative or dissuading about the affective power of the title character's plight. There are such opinions; yet the dissent voiced inevitably comes off as captious. For whatever reason – the biographical discrepancies, the poverty of London, the dim, piebald tenements, the elephants and the nightmares they trample through at the film's beginning – some element rings false, as if we were not watching a tragedy with its necessary melodrama and instead scrutinizing the real life and times of Joseph Merrick. This approach is fundamentally incorrect yet, as we shall see, no impediment to enjoying the film.
The fictionalized version of the story is better known than the truth: rambling around late Victorian London, a celebrated physician, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), comes across a circus sideshow featuring a being known only as the Elephant Man (John Hurt). What or who this man could be is not immediately apparent; whether he is even fully human can be termed dubious by the superstitious soul. In any case Treves, a man both of science and faith, pays his way to a viewing and discovers a sad, horribly misshapen being that he hopes secretly is an ament. The sentiment behind such a whispered wish is clear: should this poor creature actually be able to recognize his hideous separation from the majority of mankind, his fate would be all the more intolerable. Treves's medical interest in the Elephant Man may be likened rather coldly to a philologist's interest in an undeciphered manuscript: he does indeed pity this being, the origin of whose malady is at once both fantastic and terrifying, but is not so much interested in attempting to cure him as in availing himself of the obscure knowledge that might explain his disease. Treves mentions his credentials and prestigious jobs at the London Hospital and Medical College, is summarily dismissed by the wicked handler Bytes (Freddie Jones), and retreats to his offices with his imagination racing. We understand that the Elephant Man will find Treves and continue the conversation they never had, but we cannot possibly foresee the subjects of their discourse.
Shortly thereafter Treves's offices are visited, to the great chagrin of the nursing staff, by a man with his head under a makeshift mask that makes him resemble a mummy, although he may be more accurately compared to this fictional character. Treves ultimately finds him crouching alone in the shadows, asks for names, how long he has been in this state, and, as a medical precaution, about his parents. But the masked man does not answer and stares like a ghost waiting for its victim to guess the reason for its spectral visit. We next see some of him in a lecture hall full of, one supposes, London's most renowned physicians and anatomists. Against a light and curtain with his silhouette now resembling that of this famous movie monster, he is subjected to objective comments on his affliction as well as a few pseudo-comforting asides ("entirely intact genitals; perfectly normal left arm"). He eventually identifies himself as John Merrick, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman of humble birth but some learning; this latter detail is not made evident until Merrick recites the twenty-third psalm, again recalling the cultured and sensitive Frankenstein's monster. In many ways the film hitherto has proceeded as such films are supposed to proceed: the misunderstood creature is discovered by chance by a scientist who has both a kindly and self-aggrandizing side; numerous peripheral characters deride him and suggest that making him a patient is pointless; and the scientist is in turn protective and frustrated with his creature as if it were an impudent child. It is also quite typical that the cruelty everyone inflicts upon him is due to the notion that he is somehow not quite human, a bestial hybrid of heavy breathing and mummy wraps, a degradation and insult to the human condition itself.
Yet the twist comes when Merrick is accepted as an intelligent and righteous Christian who has been dealt one of the hardest of lots. For a while our black-and-white pictures come alive with color: Merrick has been redeemed; Merrick is one of us. After a letter from Victoria carried by Alexandra, the Princess of Denmark, establishes Merrick as a permanent resident of the London Hospital (overriding the barbarous rant of an allegedly beneficent doctor who claims he only wishes to help the poor), we know that this bliss will not last the entirety of the film and not only because we know something of the real Joseph Merrick (mistakenly called John in the film following the error in Treves's memoirs). Merrick is constantly harangued by the mobs wishing him no real harm apart from the mockery to which they believe that he, as the circus sideshow freak, must be relegated. In a strange way, he goes along with it; one can tell when they show him his mirror and he waits a few seconds before uttering a histrionic howl. He is both appalled at such ridicule and playing along in a role he cannot avoid, a fate not dissimilar to that of the bullied child tired of denying his tormentors. And alas, despite the differences between the life of the real Joseph Merrick and the slightly Romanticized screen version, we are well aware of how matters will end.
About those few who did not admire the film: dissent against The Elephant Man has been uniform, which means there is at stake a philosophical not an aesthetic argument. Critics seem to believe that the extremity of Merrick's condition coupled with the smoothing over of a couple of important facts – most notably, that the real Merrick required several jaw operations before being able to speak – point to a schmaltzy attempt to win hearts and minds. As it were, this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the unnecessary opening nightmare scene (repeated much later with factory workers or stokers, a mob with a mirror, the long trunk of an elephant, the boot of a lyncher, and swirling, ominous clouds as if he were born from God's turmoil), the film does not veer from a straight dramatic plot. It does less to tug on our heartstrings than present a situation whose every facet could easily be deemed tragic. Merrick's favorite words are "my friend," on which he lingers, relishing them like the name of the person he will always adore. When a well-known actress (Anne Bancroft) invites him to the theater, he states as plainly as in a police report: "I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know that I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not say that were it not for you." At that same production Merrick sees the woman in the cage, the fairy, the swans, the whole atmosphere of discovery and wonder, and understands that he must always view this world from the outside. And indeed, each scene of The Elephant Man is ended so abruptly we are allowed but a moment to mull it over; ripostes are not provided, simply the mood is broached and left as that, a shift of mood. The brevity of these vignettes suggests that we are leafing through a photo album, the last remains of a tired existence. So Treves is quite right when he admits to his spouse that, "I'm beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike." For him and most everyone else, the life of Joseph Merrick will always be a spectacle he can watch in a comfortable seat from afar.