The Elephant Man: Beauty in the Beast by: Bob Bevington

Posted: October 21, 2011 by jperritt in Uncategorized

Deformed. Grotesque. Hideous. Repulsive. Wretched. Shocking.

Words employed to describe the real person, Joseph “John” Merrick, depicted in the true story film, The Elephant Man. Merrick lived from 1862 to 1890 and suffered from an incurable combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome. What you see below is not the product of “Hollywood” makeup wizardry. It’s an authentic photo of a real man:

Three-time Academy Award winner David Lynch directed the film. Its star-studded cast includes Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Kendal, and John Hurt as the Elephant Man. Set in Victorian London the movie was shot entirely in black-and-white. It was released in 1980 and received nominations for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.

For me, 1980 was a banner year. Fresh out of Ohio State with a Doctorate in Optometry, in many ways I was on top of the world. At least I thought I was. Back then you could have called me a “yuppie.” That means I was relatively well-dressed and well-groomed, my career was upwardly mobile, and I wore real cologne and not Old Spice like my father. I valued only the people who could help move my token forward on the game board of Life. And I was attracted only to the attractive.

Then I went to see The Elephant Man and something broke inside me.

When the movie was over, I sat glued to my seat until the theatre was completely empty. Then I walked to my car in silence, feeling as repulsive on the inside as the Elephant Man was on the outside. I whispered to myself, “I will never, ever be the same.”

The Elephant Man opens with Merrick as a circus sideshow freak. When not on display, he wears a burlap hood with a single eyehole to cover his face. Today the hood is on exhibit in the Royal London Hospital Museum:

Merrick’s “keeper” mistreats him with unrelenting cruelty. Dr. Treves arrives and makes a deal to allow him to take Merrick to the hospital to study and catalog his condition. Why? So he can gain notoriety in the medical community. As Treves begins to examine his “find,” Merrick is afraid to speak. He concludes that Merrick is an imbecile, a medical term meaning a person of extremely low intellectual capacity.

In the next scene, Merrick submits to being displayed and photographed naked before a meeting of the London Medical Society. Treves points out that Merrick’s left arm and genitals are entirely normal, but the remainder of him is “absolutely grotesque.” The scene ends with Treves receiving the applause of his colleagues.

In order to study him further, Treves quickly arranges for Merrick to stay in an isolated room at the hospital. A few days later, he overhears Merrick passionately reciting the 23rd Psalm. To his amazement, not only can Merrick speak, but he can also read. He is a person of faith who knows the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. Behind his monstrous appearance there is a person of intelligence and sensitivity. Treves’ self-interest begins to turn to fondness for Merrick.

And as the story unfolds, you discover the dignity in the downtrodden, the beauty in the beast. Please watch the trailer before you read on:

Due to his condition, Merrick is as broken and humble as any man ever was. But eventually grace pours in according to the very promise of God:

God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

-James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5

As it becomes increasingly clear that Merrick is tender, thoughtful, and courageous, more and more people begin to admire him. Merrick’s story is eventually featured in The London Times and the famous actress, Mrs. Kendal, takes notice and arranges to meet him in person.

In my favorite scene, Mrs. Kendal arrives with a gift: The Works of Shakespeare. Merrick opens it with delight and before long the two of them are playing the parts, he reads the lines aloud, while she recites them from memory. When they are done, she beams at him and says, “Oh, Mr. Merrick, you are not an Elephant Man at all. You are a Romeo.” She kisses him on the cheek. He sheds a silent tear.

As the story draws toward the close, you discover a profound, transcendent beauty in the Elephant Man. He exhibits every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And you discover you love him, not in spite of his appearance, but because of his appearance.

To know the Elephant Man is to love the Elephant Man. So I was not surprised to learn that in addition to the movie, Joseph Merrick’s legacy included several biographies, and a Tony Award winning play.

When it is all said and done, was Merrick’s condition actually a blessing from his infinitely wise, loving and sovereign God? Was his disfigurement a path to authentic humility? A humility that in turn unlocked an outpouring of grace that enabled Merrick to live an extremely rare and difficult life—a life that continues to inspire millions through film, print and theatre? A life that still speaks even though he’s been dead for over 120 years?

Jesus said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I wonder what Joseph Merrick will look like in his resurrected body?

I wonder. If I could trade places with the Elephant Man, would I? Think I might, would you?

  1. Lovely, lovely review. Would I trade places? Like to think I would…but maybe I would chicken out. Got to work on it.

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