The Elephant Man – Play vs Film

By Pamela Tarajcak

Recently I had chance to go see the play version of the Elephant Man (playwright Bernard Pomerance).  Since the screenwriters of the film, Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch, treated the same real world subject somewhat differently than the play, I thought to write at length about the differences so you all have a little idea of what you’ll be getting if you should want to see the play.

One major similarity between the play and the film was the theme of illusions and dreams, treated differently though in both.  The play explicitly discusses the nature of dreams, dreamers, illusions and reality, in Mrs. Kendall’s conversations with Merrick especially.  Lynch, of course takes a more implicit route with a dreamy ambience throughout the film. In the film, Merrick has the dream sequence, fearing his own external monstrosity; whereas, in the play, Treves has the dream sequence reflecting on his own inner monstrosity and Victorian rigidity which caused more harm than good throughout history.  

Both Play and Film share a reflection on the modern age but again treat it differently.  The play outwardly hails the modern age but in between the lines leads to questions if it actually was a good thing.  Lynch’s film, like in Eraserhead, showed the modern age to be the danger that it sometimes is with Lynch’s typical machinery sound effect and repeated shots of smoke billowing.     

The Last major similarity is the importance of the building the model of St. Philips is for Merrick who treats it almost as a way to his salvation, in both film and play.  

There are a whole slew of differences though.  The primary one is the treatment of Merrick by his owner.  In the film, it is entirely obvious that Bytes abuses him, even though Bytes calls him “His Treasure” but only as a means of exploitation.   In the play, Ross, the name of Merrick’s handler and manager, merely abandons Merrick, robs him of a well earned salary and dares to return to Merrick near the end of the play to beg for his return, mentioning how Merrick had been whoring himself to London Society.

Another major difference is the treatment of Merrick by the other characters.  In the play, Merrick is an object, a subject of discussion, a teachable feral creature (by Treves nonetheless), as mirror to reflect every character’s own hubris and false humility against. Carl-Gomm (the hospital administrator) is more excited towards how much fundraising monies Merrick is bringing in than concerned for Merrick himself.   Treves feels an urge to civilize the feral Merrick which grows to a pity for Merric’s state. We, as an audience, know that their views towards Merrick are wrong but they maintain their righteousness throughout the play. The only person to treat him with some level of humanity was Mrs. Kendal the actress. However, her first contact with Merrick is different than in the film.  In the play, Treves hires her to be a civilizing influence on Merrick. She gradually grows to respect him enough to give him his first sexual experience which in the play is her partially disrobing for Merrick to enjoy her form. (An experience interrupted by Treves who drives her away in the name of rigid Victorian decency, for her never to return.) 

In the film however, Merrick starts off as an object: of Treves’ charity, of everyone’s fear, of Kendal’s curiosity (who chooses to see him).  However, as the film progresses, it is not Merrick’s humanity we have to find as he’s always had it (a tribute to David’s empathic direction of every character) but the humanity in others as they start to treat Merrick as a human.  It’s especially poignant towards the end as, after Merrick returns from his kidnapping, to the hospital, Treves embraces him with the eagerness of someone who has truly missed him, calls him a friend, and the hospital staff who have grown close to him, join him for a night at the theater where Mrs. Kendal announced him as “Mr. John Merrick, my very dear friend” (Not only calling him a gentleman but a friend).  In the play, no one calls him friend even to the end or even dare touch him, let alone embrace him. 

Another difference is the atmosphere of the hospital as “home” for Merrick.  The play quickens the action of making the hospital a home for Merrick where he is now constantly safe but in truth caged from a world which will never accept him.   The first orderly to make him an object of curiosity is fired. Merrick also must be told that he had to be grateful for this home, a concept he has no idea about. In the film, two interesting things happen.  The first is when Merrick learns that the hospital is his home, he is immediately grateful and breaks down in tears (where Lynch truly understands the plight of the abused person as this kindness would produce the same reaction in anyone who had the same backstory).  However, a continual Lynch theme of home becoming the hell (as present in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks saga, and Lost Highway), as soon as Merrick learns it is home, Sonny Jim, the film’s porter, abuse really ramps up and becomes particularly horrific. Also, his home becomes a place where he need not hide, but could go out.  He proclaims his humanity to the world and the world accepts him. 

The last major difference between the film and play (among other more minor differences) is the treatment of Merrick’s death.  In the film, David, of course, treats it as a transcendance to the heavens and a reuniting with Merrick’s mother (who’s fate and loveliness is constantly revisited throughout the film, a theme hardly revisited in the play).  He dies with a glorious vision of his mother inside an orb (just like Laura’s orb in Part Eight) who recites the poem “Nothing Will Die” by Tennyson. In the play, however, Merrick dies with another much less transcendent vision. In the beginning of the play, Merrick and Ross are traveling around continental Europe, stop at Brussels and meet the Pinheads, a troupe of female freaks with developmental disabilities.  They reappear in his death vision singing “Queen of the Cosmos” almost as if the only place that Merrick was accepted was among the freaks. Which I found a lot more distasteful. I found David’s treatment more humane and returning to the source of love for Merrick. Merrick found peace in David’s film, he only really found death in the play. 

Therefore, the differences between the play and the film are numerous and should you go to the play expecting something totally in line with the film, don’t.  Also I found David’s treatment far more humane, empathic, implicit (less in your face preachiness) of the lives of both Merrick and Treves than the more preachy play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s