In many ways E.T. is not that dissimilar from a modern day fairy tale. The film opens in a
deep dark forest; there are strange and wonderful creatures, and even a sense of magic throughout the story. Most importantly, as is the case for all great fairy tales, like those by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, J. M. Berrie, Edith Nesbit, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and C.S. Lewis, E.T. is about the children. Thus adults take more of a supporting role in the story as the children grow up and find their place in the world through the course of their adventures.
The fact that E.T. focuses mainly on children rather than adults is something that makes it so unique. The vast majority of films in Spielberg’s directorial filmography focus mainly on adults. Even if they have children, as is the case for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Minority Report, or War of the Worlds, they tend to be supporting players in the story. In fact to date, not including the films he produced like Back to the Future, Gremlins, and Goonies, the only other Steven Spielberg films that focus exclusively on children are Empire of the Sun, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, The Adventures of Tintin, The BFG, and Catch Me If You Can by the virtue that Frank Abagnale, Jr., is barely out of High School when he starts his spree. This is
However, the one thing that sets E.T., and for that matter The Goonies, apart from those other five “child focused films”, or even Back to the Future is that, it never loses sight of the child’s perspective on the story. In Close Encounters, the story is very much from an adult point of view, while the main character in Empire of the Sun is already “Wise Beyond his years” and is forced to grow up even faster in a prison camp, while Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s experiences rob him of a typical childhood.
This focus on the child’s perspective is best demonstrated in the unique filming choice that Spielberg employed for E.T. Taking a page from the Tex Avery cartoons he loved as a kid, Spielberg filmed the movie from the waist down. Adult’s also remain largely silent, and when they do speak it’s jargon or garbled. In fact the muted Trombone used to voice Miss Othmar and the other adults in the Charlie Brown specials would not have been out of place in E.T. In any other hands, E.T. would have been nothing more than a forgotten film for the Wonderful World of Disney.
This makes the movie’s ending much more suspenseful. As Damon Wise noted in his write up for the film in British Newspaper The Guardian’s series that looked at the 25 best sci-fi and fantasy films of all time,
“Largely filmed from an adult-waist-height perspective, the film prioritizes this world of children and indulges them in their harmless naivety. So when the mean-minded authorities find out about the presence of E.T., the effects are doubly shocking. The faceless hordes of uniformed, flashlight-toting militia make an intimidating and brutal sight.”
Thus, while adults are present, but they have a minimal role in the film until the very end, save for one: Elliot’s mother, Mary. When we first meet her, she’s in the kitchen of the family house, having finished up with a shower, while her eldest son plays a game with his friends. In these few establishing minutes we get hints at just why she’s one of the only adults to remain in focus throughout the film.
As Nigel Morris notes in A Companion to Steven Spielberg,
“Single parent Mary is infected by the play atmosphere, dancing around the kitchen in her dressing gown while trying to keep order…Mary is oblivious when Elliot exits to collect the pizza delivery Michael…has illicitly ordered, then, hearing scary noises in the garden, investigates… From the outset then Mary is established as fun and sympathetic, but as someone who has trouble asserting authority.”
Much of this may be inspired, like much in E.T., from Spielberg’s own relationship with his parents and their divorce. He noted of his late mother Leah Adler, in a 2013 interview with CBS News,
“My mom didn’t parent us as much as she sort of big-sistered us. She was Peter Pan. She refused to grow up…It’s still a mystery to me, but even though my mother was like an older sister to me, I kind of put her up on a pedestal…”
In fact when Elliot returns with news about what he saw in the shed Mary is actually laughing as she tells the older boys to put away their absurdly sharp knives. Then when outside, she’s more concerned about the fact that the boys had ordered a pizza without telling her. Later at the family dinner the next night she tries her best to keep the peace between Elliot and Michael, as the elder boys tries to play parent in the situation and offer suggestion what he saw. She even laughs at Elliot’s rude insult and only orders him to sit back down, rather than rebuke him for his colorful choice in words.
It’s only after she’s regained composure, does she try to help restore some balance between the two sniping brothers as Mary, rationally tells Elliot,
“It’s not that we don’t believe you, honey…All we’re saying is maybe you imagined it…If you ever see it again, whatever it is, don’t touch it, just…call me and we’ll have somebody come and take it away.”
In the midst of the dysfunction, during this exchange that Elliot reminds her that his absent father would have believed him, all Mary can do before breaking down and crying, is to tell him to call his dad himself and tell him. Bit by bit they all chip away at each other, opening the apparently fresh emotional wounds amidst the family.
As Gershon Reiter notes in Fathers and Sons in Cinema,
“Elliot reminds her of the change their family has undergone, of her husband’s abandonment, and that she cannot fill his empty place. The fact that the first time the father is mentioned is tied with E.T. underscores the connection between his absence and the advent of the extra terrestrial. Elliott’s reply to (her) seems to express both his pain of abandonment and his anger at his mother who could not hold on to her husband. It upsets her enough so that she leaves the table, emphasizing her unavailability to her children.”
Unlike Ronni Neery in Close Encounters who is just as messed up as Roy to some extent, Mary is trying her hardest to keep her family together and thus some things fall by the wayside. She isn’t trying hard to be a friend to them, as much as she has too much on her plate. She’s trying to listen, trying to be there, and trying to help her kids, but much like Roy Ferrier in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, it always gets thrown back at her.
This is something that helps ground E.T., and in fact the rest of Steven Spielberg’s “blockbuster” movies in reality. While it goes without saying that the odds of being the victim of a shark attack are slim, cloning dinosaurs is impossible, science has yet to provide definitive proof of extra-terrestrial life, and Indiana Jones would have been dead ten times over in Raiders of the Lost Ark alone, there is still a ring of truth that permeates these films. Now a days when a movie is hyped up as being “realistic” it means often times it can be a dark, and somber experiences that strives to dive deep into the psychology of the characters.
However, realism is also achieved through something else: the relationships with the characters. We can genuinely believe that Mary, Michael, Elliot, and Gertie are a family and it’s not just because we see that they live in the same house. They argue, they get one each others nerves, they tease and torment each other, but at the same time, no matter what they always look out for each other. Thus the relationship, albeit a strained one, between them feels familiar because either we ourselves have been through it or witnessed it in the life of another.
The family we see in E.T. feels like a real family that has gone through a painful, and traumatic experience that has disrupted heir once “normal” life and they are trying their best to return to that state. Steven Spielberg even acknowledged this in “Spielberg at 40: The Man and the Child”, an interview with The New York Times prior to his 40th birthday when he was starting to release some of his first “serious” films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, that many ways his films helped him come to terms with his parents own divorce, as it was the well-spring of inspiration for many of his films,
“My parents got a divorce when I was 14, 15. The whole thing about separation is something that runs very deep in anyone exposed to divorce, especially when you’re cognizant of what it means to not have a routine – no matter how stressful or antagonistic that routine may have been. The breaking up of the mother and father is extremely traumatic from 4 up. All of us are still suffering the repercussions of a divorce that had to happen.”
As Charles Taylor notes in “You Can Go Home Again” for Salon magazine that celebrated E.T.’s 20th anniversary, and looked at how it not only became Spielberg’s most enchanting film, but became his greatest work of his filmography,
“Spielberg’s movies, despite the way they’re often characterized, are not Hollywood idealizations of families and the suburbs. The homes here bear what the cultural critic Karal Ann Marling called “the marks of hard use.” The furniture is functional and beat-up, and might have a few unmade payments left to go. The garages carry the detritus of a hundred forgotten projects. Toys and laundry never seem to get picked up. The TV jabbers in the background. The phone keeps ringing. Kids and their friends are always underfoot. Controlled chaos carries the day…Nobody just sits down to dinner in Spielberg households and talks about what they did that day. The kids …play with their food, keep jumping up to attend to other things, talk over one another and in general create such a hubbub that eating becomes the last thing on anybody’s mind. Nor is Spielberg sentimental about the way families work. Elliott and Gertie love their mom… whom they address by her first name. But that doesn’t stop their lives from seeming like one ongoing rumpus, with jokes and wisecracks tossed in among the disciplining and task-mastering. As in the family scenes of Close Encounters, you feel, watching E.T., that you’re seeing family life as it is: affectionate but perpetually harried, the bonds that hold people together (and make people nuts) more taken for granted than expressed.”
However, while Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds was oblivious about key facts about his kids, like that they may have out grown certain shows, or what foods they didn’t like or what they were allergic too, Mary clearly seems to know her kids. Thus, as far as she knows, based on previous experience, Elliot is probably just acting out. She knows that the pain of her husband leaving her has been just as hard on her as it has been on the kids.
She even says as much to the police when she files a missing persons report when he doesn’t return home on Halloween night, telling the officer, when he asks if there have been any family problems,
“My husband and I just separated recently……and it hasn’t been easy on the children, but….But run away, I….Where would he have gone?”
Thus, she has to try hard to hold it all together for the kids. It’s now her sole responsibility to not only be the care giver for all three kids, but hold down her job, keep food in the fridge and a roof over their heads on her own. She doesn’t have the same luxury that say, Mike Brady had on the Brady Bunch when his wife died of hiring a live in maid to take care of the kids. The entire premise of the 1980’s TV series Full House focused on widower Danny Tanner’s brother-in-law Jesse, and his college best friend Joey moving in to help him raise his three girls. Even in Disney’s The Parent Trap, both Maggie and Mitch had someone to help them raise the respective twin they had custody of, Maggie had her parents and Mitch had a housekeeper.
Here, there is no Alice Nelson to give some sage advice to Mary as well as the kids. There’s no Jesse or Joey to help handle the tasks of running the house. There aren’t even some dotting grandparents to help out in the high jinks. Mary is trying to do the best she can to fill the role of both parents simultaneously. Thus as Casey Cipriani notes in “ This 80s Movie Mom Deserves Way More Respect” in a 2016 Mother’s Day post from the online women’s magazine Bustle, that looked at Mary and how progressive her role was in 1982,
“Mary’s alone, afraid, and struggling, yes, but can you blame her? She’s raising three kids on her own, managing a career, and trying to return to the dating scene, all at once. The freedom she allows her children to have might be a bit much at times, but she’s clearly trying her best and balancing a heavy load. Remember, too, that E.T. came out in 1982, right in the middle of the movement for women’s lib and equal rights. The movie’s inclusion of a multi-dimensional single mother so early in the game…allowed for more diverse family setups and representation on-screen later on, and it reflected many families’ reality in a way that plenty of other mainstream films at the time did not…”
The novelization of the movie reveals just how devastated and overwhelmed she is by her husband’s departure, as she overhears the game of Dungeons and Dragons that her boys play and hears orks like “Ork”, and “Absolute Power”,
“Absolute power. Mary stretched out her aching feet and wiggled her toes. As head of the house, she should be the one with Absolute Power. But she couldn’t get them to dry a dish… I feel like an ork. She had a vague notion, of what the creature was like, but it seemed a vague approximate the way she felt. Orkish…”
We also learn in the novel that “Sally” had once been Mary’s friend, making her husband’s infidelity even more of a betrayal, and Elliot’s comment about his father all the more a twist of the knife in her back. As Sandie Angulo Chen notes in a review of E.T. for Common Sense Media, which focuses n providing parents with valuable information into deciding what movies to show their children, in regards to the character of Mary and the performance of the actress who played her,
“…Dee Wallace, who a year later also played a besieged mother in Cujo, perfectly captured the frustration and at-times insanity of single parenting, which in the early ’80s was an unconventional family structure in movies.”
Thus, when her middle child comes in, claiming to have seen a creature from another world in their shed, she has every right to be skeptical. She can’t afford to go chasing after any perceived flights of fancy that her kids are indulging in. They need to be grounded in the here and now. Thus, she wants to find a logical, and rational solution to what Elliot may have seen, and then hope that it all blows over soon.
As she thinks to herself in the novelization when Elliot races in from the garden with his news that he saw something in the shed,
“Mary weakened deeply, looked at the Dungeons & Dragons display, and desperately wished for a portable hole large enough for all of them. What was she supposed to do now? It hadn’t been mentioned in divorce court.”
At the same time, the fact that Mary is so overworked and overwhelmed with everything going on in life, and trying her best to hold it all together, it inadvertently leads to some of the funniest movies in the film. Despite the warnings from Elliot and Michael, and regardless of making a promise to the, Gertie cannot keep E.T. secret from her mother. It’s not so much a matter that she wants to be honest, but the fact that’s he is so excited about this alien house guest and coupled with the fact that anyone who has a younger sibling knows that the promise of a five year old is never valid, she’s out to introduce her mom to E.T.
Mary is so distracted by putting the groceries away, an awful spaghetti sauce stain that is still on her nicely dry cleaned good dress, and later dealing with the call from school that Elliot got in trouble during biology class, that not only does she leave Gertie home alone, she hits E.T. with the fridge door, knocking him out. Also in this exchange, she mistakes some of the things her daughter is saying, like “he can talk” to being about Elliot. This ends up proving Elliot right when he told Gertie that “only little kids can see him.” Mary actually can’t see E.T., and it’s not because she lacks the imagination, but because she is so justifiably busy in the adult world that she doesn’t notice the strange and wonderful around her.
As Linda Ruth Williams notes in “Motherhood in Spielberg’s Dramas of Family Dysfunction” from the book A Companion to Steven Spielberg,
“In the chaotic miasma of family understanding that she tenuously controls, truth, and untruth interpenetrate, and what she believes to be true conceals quite other truths: for Mary, Gertie must be making up a story …E.T’s face is hidden in plain sight by the plentitude of toys (Mary sees but doesn’t see him, so he can remain “the goblin” of Elliot’s fabrication); the make-believe of Halloween prompts a total suspension of disbelief.”
Thus, it’s even more fitting that later on when Elliot and E.T. are working on the communication device that they overhear Mary reading the story of Peter Pan to Gertie, and is getting just as involved in the story as her daughter. We also see during the opening moments during the Dungeons & Dragons game that she enjoys the raucous spirit of the boys around her, and later on Halloween night, she gets into the full spirit of the day by dressing up like some kind of Cat-woman to hand out treats to the kids. She wants to believe in the fun and adventure too, but life has robbed her of that experience.
The novelization reveals, after Elliot is informed his character in the role-playing game can only stay portable hole for a certain amount of time,
“All I need it for is about ten minutes at the office. And maybe a little later, in heavy traffic…she swung her feet off the bed, in a firm resolution to face the evening squarely, with out any anxiety symptoms… But where was romance?.. Where was the exciting man in her life?…”
Thus while eldest son Michael may, like Wendy Darling in Peter Pan, be the eldest child on the cusp of adult hood, Mary is the true Wendy figure in the Peter Pan-esque fantasy. Wendy may clean up John, Michael, Peter and the other Lost Boys after their adventures and help get them to bed, but she still tries to take part in having fun when she can, and so it is with Mary and the kids. She tries to keep order, but up until the end of the movie, there are more kids than adults in her world. She’s the one stuck in the adult role, though she desperately doesn’t want to be.
However, there is another side to her, like any good mom, she will do whatever she can for her kids. This quality isn’t just scene when she gets the call from school that Elliot has gotten into trouble. When Elliot, Michael and Gertie fail to return home on time she heads out into the Halloween pandemonium in her car to find them. As soon as she finds Michael and Gertie she orders them into the car without another word. Later on at home, she makes the call to the police to file the missing person report on Elliot so someone can go find him.
Then when she finds Elliot Return she is overjoyed to the point of tears, and after telling him to never scare her like that again, has Gertie prepare a bath for him upon noticing that Elliot really is sick this time. Later, when Elliot and E.T. are fading fast, and Michael brings her into the secret, the bewildered Mary dumps her coffee upon seeing the dying alien, and quickly orders Michael to take Gertie away while she gets Elliot away from E.T. This marks a huge shift in her character. Through much of the film, she is often seen with Gertie, perhaps as it is easier for her to relate to her daughter than her sons. Now, it is starting to change
To some it may seem cruel that Mary would try and separate Elliot and E.T., but she doesn’t fully know the situation. She just sees her son lying on the bathroom floor with some strange creature and hears him utter the most freighting words a parent could hear, that Elliot thinks he’s sick and may be dying. Later when the frightening men burst into their home in their space suits breathing like Darth Vader she makes a futile declaration that this is her home.
Later she finds herself swarmed by the scientists, and tries her hardest to answer their questions. Having only just been fully brought into the adventure her children have been having, she is less capable of answering the questions the doctors and scientist have about the alien. Michael and Gertie clearly know exactly who it is these “invaders” are interested in, but Mary believes they are asking about Elliot, leading to much confusion. All she wants at that point is to know what’s going on with her son and if he can get better.
It is also in these moments we see that despite the sniping between her and Elliot the two of them, like any mother and child share a deep bond. She clearly hurts for him, and though she can’t understand Elliot’s grief over E.T., she knows her son has lost a dear friend, perhaps in the same way that a child would grieve for a beloved pet. Thus when Elliot recovers after E.T.’s death Elliot finds solace in his mother’s arms.
As Casey Capriani notes,
“(W)hile Mary may seem at first glance to be a bit of a mess, she’s actually quite brave, and a hugely important character. Sure, she might be busy, a little distracted, and unsure of where to go or how to live post-divorce, but she’s loving, nurturing, and, when push comes to shove, downright protective …”
We see this protective quality the best at the end of the film. When Elliot, Michael and their friends abscond with E.T. to the woods, her first instinct when Gertie tells asks if they have left yet as that is when she should give her the note is to demand that her daughter give her the note right now. Then when the federal agents chase after the kids, she pleads with them not to use their guns as they are, at the end of the day, only kids. While their time with E.T. gives the boys their chance to have the adventure they always dreamed of, this encounter brings out Mary’s own strengths, and more importantly galvanizes her bond to her children. Further, E.T. grants her dream of bringing a mystery man into her life as she appears to clearly hit it off nicely with “Keys”.
Not only does E.T. physically return her son to her, but emotionally as well as the two of them share a relationship that is much stronger than it ever was before.
As Ilsa J. Bick notes in “The Look Back in E.T.” from the book The Films of Steven Spielberg,
“Only at that moment can Elliot turn to his mother, who embraces him… When Elliot can return home, he can allow E.T. to return home, as the last major sequences of the film invoke the children’s flight from male adults and E.T.’s return to his own “Mother” (ship). Mother s now frequently shown in extreme close ups ( only Elliot’s and E.T.’s faces are shown with greater frequency) and she is unencumbered by other children…Just as E.T. assures Elliot that he will always be “right here” ….mother is also delivered to Elliot—alone, available, and always right here.”
More importantly, this woman whose fairy tale was shattered by her husband’s infidelity was shattered by her best friend, she has learned to “believe in fairies once again”. As she tells Gertie when her daughter watches as the doctors labor to save E.T. that she wishes he could come back,
“I wish too.”
Bick, Ilsa, J. “The Look Back in E.T.” The Films of Steven Spielberg. Charles L.P. Sillet, ed.Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press: 2002. Pg. 81. Print.
Cipriani, Casey. “This 80’s Mom Deserves Way More Respect.” Bustle, 4 May 2016,www.bustle.com/articles/157652-this-80s-movie-mom-deserves-way-more-respect.
Chen, Sandie Angulo. “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – Movie Review.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, Common Sense Media, 28 June 2005, http://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/et-the-extra-terrestrial.
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E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. By Melissa Mathison. Perf. Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, and Erika Eleniak. Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures. 1982. DVD.
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Kurtzwinkle, William. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: In His Adventure on Earth. New York, NY; Berkley Books. 1982. Pgs. 16,18,27. Print.
Morris, Nigel. A Companion to Steven Spielberg. Gichester, West Sussex, UK;John Wiley and Sons. 2017. Pg. 249. Print.
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Stahl, Lesley, and Steven Spielberg. “Spielberg: A Director’s Life Reflected in Film.”
CBSNews.com, CBS Interactive, Inc., 10 Jan. 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/spielberg-a-directors-life-reflected-in-film/.
Taylor, Charles. “You Can Go Home Again.” Salon, Salon Media Group, Inc, 22 Mar. 2002,www.salon.com/2002/03/22/et/.
War of the Worlds. Dir. Steven Spielberg. By Josh Friedman, and David Koepp. Perf. Tom Cruise,Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwein, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, Rich Gonzalez, Yul Vazquez, Lenny Venito, Lisa Ann Walter, and Ann Robinson. Amblin Entertainment/Dreamworks SKG/ Paramount Pictures. 2005. DVD.
Williams, Linda Ruth. “Motherhood in Spielberg’s Dramas of Family Dysfunction” A Companion to Steven Spielberg.
Wise, Damon. “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Oct. 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/oct/21/et-spielberg-fantasy
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1982 Amblin Entertainment/Universal Studios.