The Kids Stay in the Picture: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
One of the most important mainstream Hollywood filmmakers since the refocus towards directors as the artistic leaders of film production in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg has built his legacy on films with child protagonists. Aside from his most family friendly fare (E.T. certainly included there), films like Jaws, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and War of the Worlds have serious themes and genre elements while featuring and sometimes centering on child characters. A deeper dive into his work as a producer of Poltergeist, The Goonies, Back to the Future, the Transformers series, True Grit, and Real Steel further showcases his interest in the stories of kids and teens. Considering all of these films, Spielberg has become synonymous with themes of suburban families, unconventional parent-child relationships, and larger-than-life adventure. His 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of his most beloved and sentimental. The story of an awkward, lonely child and his relationship with an alien left behind on earth is a perfect encapsulation of Spielberg’s narrative style and themes.
Of all the films that have been discussed in the series, E.T. is really the first to take on a childlike feeling. This might be because it is the first to be made primarily for children and families (The Kid is debateable, though since it was made when feature films were just becoming a thing, the situation is certainly different). That certainly doesn’t mean the film isn’t full of complex emotional themes, especially in the subtext. It’s also easy to think of E.T. in this way because of its time – it was a seminal film for many 20-and-30-somethings growing up in the mid-80s. It also kicked off a popular run of child-centered adventure films, many of which were produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy founded Amblin Entertainment (which of course uses E.T.’s most famous image as its logo).
Ten-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) doesn’t seem to have many friends and is struggling to connect with his cooler older brother, young sister, and emotionally-drained mother. Though we don’t meet him, we understand Elliott’s father has left with a mistress to Mexico, obviously a traumatic, confusing development in the life of a young boy. Most child characters would have some sort of outlet to fill their lonely lives, typically some sort of artistic venture, but there doesn’t seem to be anything for Elliott until the deep connection with the film’s title alien. Spielberg has talked about his own troubled childhood that seems like a slightly less extreme version of Elliott’s – his parents were divorced and his father was largely absent from his life. In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Michael Sragow following the release of E.T., Spielberg says Elliott was drawn from his own feelings as a kid with few friends.
Except for Elliott’s mother and an unnamed scientist on the hunt for the alien, adults are generally absent from the film. The only other prominent adult character is a science teacher, though he’s never present for a major set piece. This creates a separate world between the kids and adults, a common trope of 1980s films where children (usually boys) live through wild, sometimes dangerous adventures without being noticed by parental figures. Slightly different, Elliott lives in his own house without being noticed, his mother unaware of the film’s alien plot to almost an absurd degree.
The biggest difference between Elliott and adults is clearly the way they experience empathy, in this case toward the alien. Fear is still the first impulse, but only when it is an unknown danger; the two quickly make a connection after the initial fright. Elliott isn’t merely empathetic, though, as he forms a symbiotic emotional bond with the alien where they can feel each other’s feelings. This subplot is nicely subtle, if a little strangely inconsistent (I’m not exactly sure how Elliott is compelled to mimic the actions of The Quiet Man as the alien watches it on the television). In any case, adults simply don’t have the capacity to relate to the alien in the same way. The government officials are automatically set on finding the visitor as a threat, even if they aren’t all so evil. Their fear impulse doesn’t so immediately go away as they are primarily concerned about how they may be contaminated. Overall, they try to understand it in intellectual and scientific ways. They care more about the status of its heartbeat than its symbolic heart.
I find Mary to be a particularly complicated character. It is easy to read her as neglectful or absent, but she is really sympathetic to me. Perhaps it’s because of my own upbringing and history with divorced parents, but I see her as a mother who cares for her kids but has her own difficult stuff going on. Her problems may not be as grandiose as the stranded alien or the potential ones that Elliott may have without meaningful connections, but they are more real than the film lets on. Aside from that, who wouldn’t want a mom who can’t help but laugh when her son calls his older brother “penis breath”? She is young and modern like Antoine Doinel’s mother, but without all the cruelty.
I would be remiss not to recognize that Elliott isn’t the only child figure in the film. Unless I missed it, there isn’t any clues in telling how old E.T. is, though I suspect an alien race doing scientific missions on distant planets wouldn’t send children. There is no doubt, however, that it is coded as a child. Like Elliott, it is curious, but apprehensive. It learns through recognition and imitation and, of course, from television – the first words it speaks come from Sesame Street, just as Gerdie’s may have. When it is able to express itself, it does so primarily through heightened emotional response. E.T. is a fascinating character, so different from humans and yet so similar. After this rewatch, I wondered about its status on its home planet and just how that world worked. Spielberg smartly doesn’t really go there, even as the character becomes so complete by the end of the film. Honestly, I’m surprised there hasn’t be a sequel to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial where Elliott somehow becomes stranded on the alien planet. That could be an interesting idea, but certainly would take away all of the mystery.
Henry Thomas may never had become a star, but he has had a productive career as an actor with roles in Gangs of New York, Legends of the Fall and Sons of Anarchy. His performance in E.T. is strangely authentic; something in it goes beyond feeling sad for the character to the kid actor, as if he was acting out his real-life loneliness. If you’ve ever seen Thomas’s famous audition tape, you see the young actor’s great ability to blur this line. Drew Barrymore, as Elliott’s younger sister, has become the great breakout child actor from the film. Gertie similarly blurs the line between acting and realistically reacting and she’s young enough to wonder if her performance is more natural than not.
 Michael Sragow, “A Conversation with Steven Spielberg,” Rolling Stone, July 22, 1982
 Youtube, Henry Thomas Audition for E.T.