The Elephand Man, directed by David Lynch was released 1980. It tells the story of John Merrick, whose body is so deformed he is called the elephant man. A skilled surgeon, Frederick Treves finds him in a freak show and attempts to give him a better life from his hospital.
I had seen this movie ages ago when I was a teenager. I enjoyed it immensely. Still, it was hard to know what made it so great. So I try here to analyse it to try and find part of the answer.
Just like Children of Men and Boy A, this is a story with many characters, but only a handful are key.
First we have the two main ones:
- Frederick Treves, the surgeon (Anthony Hopkins).
- John Merrick, the elephant man (John Hurt).
And the supportive ones:
- Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who will help John develop his taste for language.
- Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), the hospital head, who initially rejected John at the hospital, until they actually meet.
- Motherhead (Wendy Hiller), at first not welcoming toward John, but her attitude will evolve.
- Bytes (Freddie Jones), always trying to own John for his freak show.
- Night Porter (Michael Elphick), trying to make money out of night visits to see John in the hospital.
Structure in Positive/Negative
I tried to decompose this story in 3 acts, as it is such a simple framework,
but you kind of need to find the correct plot points to do so. The point of no return, the acceptance of adventure and so on.
I wasn’t sure I had found them here. So I reverted to making a list of positive and negative scenes.
What is interesting then is how intertwined they are. Eventhough John Merrick gets plenty of help
from Frederick and the hospital, the danger is constantly present, wherever he is.
It is mostly personified in the Night Porter, who organizes clandestine visits and Bytes, who still attempts to get him back in the freak show.
But Frederick’s self doubt, in the hospital motherhead fear that he is “starred at all over again” and of course, in his recurrent nightmares.
Here are all the scenes that are making the movie go forward. (+) marks a positive scene and (-) a negative one.
- Frederick invites John Merrick in his office. He trie to make him comfortable. (+)
- John is sent back to Bytes, who beats him up. (-)
- John gets stick. Bytes calls Frederick. John is back at the hospital. (+)
- First night visit from the Night Porter. (-)
- John starts talking. (+)
- Bytes wants his man back. (-)
- Hospital head wants to meet him. (+)
- Interview with hospital head. He is happy to keep John Merrick. (+)
- The Night Porter finds customers for night visits. (-)
- Quick night visit with woman. (-)
- John meets Frederick’s wife. cries because so well treated. (+)
- John asks Frederick if he can cure him. “No, but we can care for you”. (-/+)
- John meet Mrs. Kendal. (+)
- The hospital motherhead points out that John is being stared at, all over again. (-)
- The night porter is present. (-)
- Recurrent nightmare. (-)
- Doctors committee wants John out of the hospital, but the Princess of Wales arrives and settles. John becomes a permanent guest. (+)
- Night visit with crowd. (-)
- John is abducted, back at the freak show. (-)
- John gets helped to escape. (+)
- John is chased again by the crowd. (-)
- But he has some strength to fight for himself. (+)
- John has been found by the police and is back at the hospital. (+)
- John spends an evening at he theatre, pure joy. (+)
- Good night John. He finally sleeps on his back. and it is suggested that he dies. (+)
I’ve excluded the first 2 or 3 scenes where Frederick sneaks into the freak show and tries to meet John Merrick.
I did not think those scenes where particularly relevant to understand the structure of the movie. They are however extremely good at
creating the mood of the film.
So that’s 25 scenes, give or take. And keep in mind that some scenes are actually serving the same sub plot. For instance, the night visits organised by the Night Porter are actually evolving over 5 scenes. So it is not like all those scenes are independent. They all nurture a few threads, which are growing together.
So again, you don’t need a very complicated plot to tell a great story.
visit to the freak show
try to make him comfortable
exhibition to doctors
gets beaten up when comes back
back at the hospital
the hospital does not accept incurrable deseases. But this case is exceptional
Bytes wants his man back. Hospital head wants to meet him.
interview with hospital head. first victory.
the Night Porter organizes visits
John meets Frederick's wife. cries because so well treated
can you cure me? no.
he is being stared at, all over again
the night porter is present
am I a good man? or am I a bad man?
princess of wales helps settle John's stay in the hospital
night visit with crowd
John has been abducted. you did everything you can.
back at the freak show
gets beaten up but then gets helped to escape
chased again, although he has the strength to fight for himself
at he theatre, pure joy
Good night John. He finally sleeps on his back