THE ELEPHANT MAN -- AMC Academy, Dupont Circle, Pike and Springfield Mall.
As is carefully stated in its advertising, "The Elephant Man" is not a film version of the successful play, but a different fictionalized account of the life of the same man. In these days of simultaneously developed creative properties, or whatever an "idea"is called that is first marketed and then made to order in a variety of artistic outlets, this seems an interesting distinction. The film-makers boast of having gone back to the source material.
But in fact, although the two dramatizations differ stylistically, they use the biography of John Merrick to pose the same philosophical question, which remains unanswered.
Merrick was an Englishman so hideously deformed from birth by neurofibromatosis that he lived by exhibiting himself in freak shows as The Elephant Man, a name suggested by the trunk-like misshapeness of his face, and not related to the disease of elephantiasis. Plucked from that life by an interested doctor, Frederick Treves, he became a comspicuous object of compassion to high Victorian society.
Both dramatist and filmmakers were struck with the relationship between the position of carnival freak and that of society pet, between those who enjoyed staring at Merrick in taunting horror and those who enjoyed staring at him in self-congratulatory pity. And yet both accounts have to show how miserable he was in one life, and how happy in the other. This ought to suggest that yes, whatever the motives, there is a big difference between being openly attacked and being invited to tea, and that the ability to control one's natural reation to the body and deal with the soul is a major part of what we call civilization. That such reactions are natural are underscored, in the play, by Merrick's own enthusiasm for beauty in women, but the question of Merrick's sexuality is avoided in the film.
Unlike the play, in which Merrick's illness was acted, rather than shown, by a well-formed young man, the film tests the audience's reaction to such ugliness by turning actor John Hurt into a latex-covered "special effect." One could argue the superior taste of either approach -- it's interesting to feel oneself getting used to the filmed Merrick's appearance and beginning to see through his humanity.
But if this decision were purely motivated, rather than connected to the hope of appealing to the vast horror film audience, the effect is spoiled by the use of threatening mists, eerie music and terrifying nightmare sequences -- including a twice-repeated atrocity, in which Merrick's pregnant mother is stampeded, if not actually raped, by a herd of elephants -- standard to the low-level screamer film.
There are also some stunning, original scenes. In an argument at the hospital that has given Merrick a home, we see a presumably well-intentioned doctor cut off in his objection to this nonmedical use of the facilities by the well-timed appearance of the Princess of Wales with a message of commendation from Queen Victoria (jarring because it has the Queen use the pronoun "I" in an official communication). The point is well made that showmanship is an integral part of "normal" life.
In the performances of Anthony Hopkins Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones and others, there is an effective literary quality. A very conscious attempt has also been made to give the film a Dickensian tone, even to the extent of suggesting, by showing menacing trains and evilly dripping pipes, that the Industrial Revolution is somehow to blame for Merrick's tragedy. In fact, the film opens with Treves performing an operation on a disfigured worker, and announcing grimly that "We're going to be seeing a lot of this sort of thing."
But there was no such villain to account for Merrick's disfigurement, and if the cruelty he encounters is attributed to the brutality of particular times, it would ruin the point raised by this story. This is, and remains, the strange relationship of body and soul.