The Elephant Man

John Hurt stars as John Merrick, the hideously deformed 19th century Londoner known as "The Elephant Man". Treated as a sideshow freak, Merrick is assumed to be retarded as well as misshapen because of his inability to speak coherently. In fact, he is highly intelligent and sensitive, a fact made public when one Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues Merrick from a carnival and brings him to a hospital for analysis. Alas, even after being recognized as a man of advanced intellect, Merrick is still treated like a freak; no matter his station in life, he will forever be a prisoner of his own malformed body. Unable to secure rights for the famous stage play The Elephant Man, producer Mel Brooks based his film on the memoirs of Frederick Treves and a much later account of Merrick's life by Ashley Montagu. The film is lensed in black and white by British master cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Is the Elephant Man really a worthy entry for the Empathy Library? I think so, in the sense that it is a mirror revealing the prejudices and stereotypes that still abound in the world today, whether it is about people with mental health problems, those confined to wheelchairs, or people living on the streets. It is not clear, though, whether the Elephant Man offers any clear lessons for how to overcome our prejudices and act more empathically towards others. In a sense, it is suggesting that it may be impossible to do so.

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David Lynch
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