A Tribute to Melissa Mathison: 3 Story Secrets in E.T.

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Last week the screenwriting world lost a titan of our industry. Melissa Mathison passed away at the age of 65 on November 4. Having written legendary scripts like The Black Stallion and Kundun for Martin Scorsese, most people will only remember Mathison for her greatest storytelling achievement – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Steven Spielberg had wanted to tell a story about a boy and an alien, loosely based on the imaginary friend he created to cope with his parents divorce, for several years. He was a fan of Mathison’s work on The Black Stallion but had not considered her to pen his new story until fate seemed to step in.  Spielberg ran into Mathison on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia. She was there visiting her boyfriend, who would later become her husband, Harrison Ford. Speilberg felt it was a sign that Mathison was the person to write his next film. Between takes on Raiders, he undertook the slow process of convincing Mathison to take the job. She eventually accepted the offer and knocked out a first draft of E.T. and Me in eight weeks. The rest, we can safely say, is history. Besides being one of the most beloved stories in all of cinema, E.T. is also an excellently constructed script. Here are three story secrets that lie inside the film.

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1. THE SUBTEXT DRIVES THE STORY

Discussion about the loss of Elliot’s father is only given a few moments of screen time. We quickly learn that the father has left the family and has a new girlfriend. The two of them are away on a Mexican vacation. How this affects each member of the family is different. Elliot’s mother is upset. His brother, Michael, wants to cover up the reality of the situation and is distraught with Elliot for bringing it up. Gertie, Elliot’s sister, is too young to understand the nuances of the moment but can clearly sense things are wrong.

Elliot himself is lost. He’s without a guide. He needs a father. He needs a friend. This subtext of Elliot’s need for a father drives the story of E.T. It’s what helps Elliot overcome his initial fear of the alien. It’s what motivates him to help E.T. get home, despite the loss he will suffer in the process. It’s what drives him to involve his family to rally around this unifying figure. While he never appears on screen, Elliot’s father could be considered the most important character in the story, as it is he that creates the hole all other characters will attempt to fill. Mathison was building on a grand tradition of subtexts involving strained relationships between fathers and their children. Treasured films would carry on the tradition in The Empire Strikes Back, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Judge.

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2. SUPPORTING CHARACTERS PROVIDE THE HEART OF THE STORY

Elliot knew he couldn’t get E.T. back home on his own. The characters around our protagonist play important roles in helping complete the plan. His older brother, Michael, is a reluctant participant at first. However, over the course of the story, his character experiences his own arc in his feelings about the alien living in their home. This becomes a metaphor for the “aliened” brother who has been living in his home for years. The reality of this truth is not lost on Michael and we see him treat Elliot differently by the end of the film.

Though the middle child, Elliot emerges as the leader of his broken family in the final scene of the movie. His family seems to humbly acknowledge this.

Elliot’s sister, Gertie, allows us to step into her shoes as she overcomes her initial fear of E.T. As she becomes playful with the new family friend, we find ourselves rooting for the alien and his need to return home. As Gertie changes her feelings about E.T., we follow suit.

In Rocky, it’s his trainer, Mickey, and his girlfriend, Adrian, that give the film its heart. Unless our hero has people to care about – people he cares about losing – the audience may fail to care themselves.

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3. DEATH & RESURRECTION THEMES ARE UNIVERSAL

There are a number of deaths and resurrections in E.T., both literal and metaphorical. This theme is one of the most powerful in all of cinema and can play out multiple times in the same story.

Elliot’s family has experienced a metaphorical death at the beginning of the film. They have lost their father. The family will never be whole again. Somehow, over the course of the story, E.T. manages to resurrect the family with the magic he brings. We find them once again whole in the film’s final image. There is also a death of innocence in the story. Because of what the father has done, the family has lost its innocence, in a sense. Each member of the family, but especially Elliot, must now step up to a higher degree of maturity. The responsibility of getting E.T. back home is going to require this. Keeping E.T. a secret requires the death of innocent truth in order to succeed. But in the end, the death of innocence is rewarded with a new innocence – a pure honesty within the family about what they’ve been through and who they are.

There is also the literal death of E.T. near the end of the second act of the story. Elliot mourns the loss of his friend. We believe all is truly lost now. The mission has failed. No one will ever be complete again. But somehow the miraculous emerges. The warm glow of E.T.’s heart illuminates his plastic coffin. He lives again. He has experienced resurrection.

Films ranging from Birdman to Patch Adams to The Lord of the Rings all enforce this universal theme of death and the astonishing power to rise again.

Melissa Mathison’s final script, The BFG, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, will be in theaters in 2016. Steven Spielberg will be directing.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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