Revisiting E.T.

E.T. (1982)
Director: Steven Spielburg
Writer: Melissa Mathieson

Last night I watched E.T. with my two children, aged 3 and 8, for family movie night. I watched this movie a lot as a kid, but I don’t think I ever saw it in the theater. Instead I had a VHS tape of it, recorded from when it was on TV. There are certain scenes from E.T. that are like my own childhood memories — like in the still above, when Gertie dresses E.T. in her clothes. And there’s another scene when E.T. hides in the closet full of stuffed animals, because he’s scared. I loved that. The set design in this movie is impressively detailed and gives the sense of what it’s like to be in a house full of kids. Everything is messy but the objects are also very beloved and special. The house also helps to tell the story: you get the sense that everything is a bit more chaotic than normal because the parents have just separated. The mother is barely holding it together as she works full time and parents three children, and her housekeeping is a place where she has decided to let things go. That’s how E.T. manages to live there without her noticing.

I think of E.T. as a Spielberg movie, and that’s the beginning and end of the story. But as I watched, I began to wonder about his collaborators. I became convinced that the set decoration had to be done by a woman — and I was right — but I was surprised to find out that the script was also written by a woman, Melissa Mathieson. She was nominated for an Oscar in 1983 for Best Original Screenplay (she lost to John Briley for Ghandi). I say I was surprised only because most screenplays are written by men; the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that E.T. was written by a woman. The mother character is so well done, and there are little details that come so clearly from the experience of being a caregiver of small children, like when the mother comes home from work and asks the older kids to watch the little one so she can take a quick shower. Or when she’s in such a hurry to unpack the groceries that she doesn’t notice E.T. walking by. Or when she dresses up for Halloween, not only to cheer up the kids but just to do something fun for herself. Mother characters are usually pretty one-note or portrayed as either “good” or “bad” but this mother is shown to be a well-meaning and competent woman who also has an emotional and professional life that’s separate from her kids.

But really, this movie is from the children’s point of view, and deeply so, with the grown-up world at the corners of things. Writing child characters was Mathieson’s speciality. She wrote Black Beauty, The Escape Artist, Kundun, The Indian in the Cupboard, and the BFG — which was her last film, before she passed away in 2015. Apparently she was about to give up on screenwriting before E.T. but Spielberg convinced her to help him develop an idea he had about a lost alien. In an interview with E.W. after her death, Spielberg described how good Mathieson was with kids, and how he learned to direct children from watching her interact with him. I love how E.T. takes so little interest in the adult point of view, with almost zero attention paid to the scientists searching for E.T. It was fascinating to watch my three-year-old daughter watch the movie, because she could follow the story very easily by paying attention to the music, the lightning, the interior of the house, and the mother’s moods. It was all very familiar to her, and it’s that familiarity that gives the movie so much of its power. Spielberg’s dramatic lighting and magical moments wouldn’t have work if they weren’t grounded in the messiness of everyday life. Mathieson’s script delivered that, beautifully.

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