What makes The Elephant Man work is that it has its cake and eats it, too, as the saying goes. The film portrays Bytes (per Treves' memoir) as a horrible man, not only exploiting but beating Merrick when he doesn't behave. (And, even beats him when Merrick spends the day with Treves with Bytes' permission; the film's version of Bytes is that jealous.) Bytes putting Merrick on display is shown as a bad thing. But, Treves does the same thing. The film lets Treves off the hook because 1) he doesn't beat Merrick (though, in reality, neither did Bytes) and 2) he realizes that he's doing the same thing and questions if it is right... But then he keeps doing it, plus 3) even as Treves continues to make a name for himself on the back of Merrick and Merrick is the talk of the upper class, the film offers up the night porter, Jim (Michael Elphick), who is making money off of bringing lower class folk to see Merrick in his room, which is easily worse than what Treves is doing.
But, the film itself takes this further.
Lynch opens the film with a surreal sequence that turns out to be a visualization of the supposed origin of Merrick's condition, as described by Bytes in the context of the freak show. Merrick's mother, "struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant." Close ups of the elephant. Quick cuts so we don't really see anything happen, but the woman screams, everything is dark and frightening. Purportedly, when studio executives saw the film, they wanted this sequence cut, and producer Mel Brooks supposedly told them, "We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you, to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives." A great line, to be sure. And a great move by Brooks to hold back the executives in favor of his director. But, what does this sequence do for the final film?
(The executives are said to have also wanted the ending removed as well--the bit with Merrick's mother, that is. There is no mention of what they might have thought of the surreal bits with the furnace or the factory workers.)
Consider: within the film, we are never told what condition Merrick actually has. His deformities are described in detail, and we see his face quite plainly once we see it. But, neurofibromatosis is never named. (Well after the release of the film, scientists studying Merricks' skeleton decided that he may have had Proteus Syndrome instead. In 2001, researchers Speculated that he had both. The details of either condition are not important, here, though, because the film doesn't really get into that.) In fact, aside from Treves' initial presentation to his colleagues, the film never bothers to make a particular point of showing Treves' working on anything regarding Merrick's condition. This is good for the film in a way, because it becomes more of a character portrait of Merrick, but the plot structure positions Treves' rescuing of him as central and vital.
Countering that last bit about the film being a character portrait of Merrick, it becomes problematic when, aside from a few key scenes, Bytes and Jim and Treves are given more to do than Merrick is. And, certain faults late in the film become more noticeable; for example, we are told that Merrick is dying only in passing, the film offers no visual representation of his dying. His worsened breathing after the mob corners him could be taken as a temporary, panicked state. (Much as his breathing is more labored after Bytes beats him and he (Merrick) comes to the hospital to stay.) If one happened to miss the single line of dialogue regarding Merrick's impending death, his suicide would feel arbitrary. In reality, Merrick had lived at London Hospital for nearly six years, and it had been his own choice to tour in a freak show. The film--and this is a problem of a lot of films based on true stories--makes no real effort to express the passage of so much time; the same nurses work the hospital, the same doctors. Bytes still lingers at the edge of Merricks' life.
The film also plays coy with Merrick's appearance. While we will become quite familiar with Merrick's face as the film continues, for the first half an hour, we see his silhouette and his shapeless form in a cloak, a hat and hood over his head. We see his face only after a nurse sees him and screams. For a film that will make a huge effort to humanize Merrick and spend time with him, this is a problematic introduction, something akin to the way the monster in a horror film might be introduced. Coupled with the choice to film in black and white, this gives a sense of something like gothic horror. And, I think that is deliberate on the part of David Lynch, but the reasoning is... Well, Tom Huddeston at Time Out London might say it best:
Despite its historical roots, Lynch's take on the life of John Merrick--tortured carnival freak turned society darling--never tries to examine the facts of the man's life, or the society in which he lived. Instead, Lynch refracts the story through the warped lens of his own obsessions: deformity and social exclusion, dreams, and childhood fears, the magic of existence and the mystery of death.
It isn't that Lynch is the wrong director for the story. But, certain proclivities in his style of direction push the story in directions it might be better off not going. Bytes and Jim, I think, come as they are here from Treves' memoir, so they aren't really Lynch's doing. Additionally, certain scenes--for example, Merrick's meeting with the head of the hospital Carr Gomm (John Gielgud), his meeting Treve's wife (Hannah Gordon), or his meeting with actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft)--offer touching and even heartbreaking moments, touches of humanity that are far from what often would be termed Lynchian. I wonder, though, if it wasn't simply John Hurt's performance as Merrick pushing through the material into something better. His John Merrick is a sad man who apologizes for crying as if he "made a spectacle" of himself. Hurt's performance surpasses and supersedes the confines of the film, and lifts it above what might otherwise be an unfortunate exercise... A story about exploitation told in such an exploitative manner.