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Initially, Van Sant thought Clarke’s title referred to the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. In the story, a version of which appears in Buddhist canons dated 2 B.C., several blind men examine different parts of an elephant – ear, leg, tail, trunk, tusk, etc.
Each blind man is firmly convinced that he understands the true nature of the animal, based on that one part he felt – that the elephant is like a fan, or a tree, or a rope, or a snake or a spear. But none sees the whole. For Van Sant, the parable’s theme seemed apt in the context of school shootings. "I assumed Alan Clarke called his film Elephant because it was about a problem that was hard to identify, because of different ways of looking at it," he says. "That was what I thought for a long time, until I read a quote where Clarke said that it was the elephant in the living room. But for us, when were making our film, it was more about the blind men."