Tag Archives: 80s Films

Digging deeper into the story of E.T.

Here’s my second and final Monkey Goggles article that was originally published a little over a year ago on the Archie McPhee literary webzine.  As I mentioned yesterday, I’m putting these articles up here as it seems that MG isn’t going to be publishing any longer and in case that site fades away I’d like to have a record of the article.  This piece centers on the differences between the final cuts of films and the book adaptations of the screenplays those films were based upon. T he main example I use is the novelization of E.T. and how it could have been, and in the novel is, a much darker story.  You can also find my thoughts on the sequel story, E.T. The Book of the Green Planet, that was never made into a film, only published as a stand alone novel…

In the realm of film novelizations, there’s rarely room for originality, but every once in a while these books can be a treasure trove of interesting material.

Novelizations were originally a brilliant marketing scheme to bring a sense of weight and establishment to otherwise light genre flicks, at least in the case of the print editions of stories like Star Wars.  It’s rumored that Alan Dean Foster was hired to ghost-write the novel in George Lucas’ name so that the film would have the “literary” background of at the time recent hits like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Peter Benchley’s Jaws.  Later, in a pre-home video world, these novelizations became a merchandising phenomenon, giving hungry audiences an outlet for reliving their favorite films and breathing new life into genre publishing.

The novelization of E.T. sold more than one million copies and gave a generation of fans a glimpse into an alternate view of the story that almost was.  The original idea behind the movie was not to make a tranquil boy-loves-alien adventure, but instead a darker, more sinister sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Originally titled “Night Skies”, the story centered around a malevolent race of aliens that land on earth and besiege a family living on a farm.  Though there was a script written by John Sayles, Spielberg eventually decided that he didn’t want to produce a violent extra-terrestrial sequel to Close Encounters, and instead broke up the script, reusing aspects that what would eventually become story points in later Spielberg productions — namely Poltergeist, Gremlins, and E.T.

Though the character of E.T. became much tamer in the eventual film, author William Kotzwinkle had a much deeper and slightly darker tone in mind when he was commissioned to pen the novelization.  First and foremost, the book contains a fascinating shift in the story’s point-of-view.  Whereas Spielberg chose to ape Charles Schultz’s child’s height world-view perspective, rarely showing the faces or upper torsos of adult characters and basking in the wonderment of a kid’s point-of-view, the book instead takes on a more omniscient angle.  Instead of approaching the alien from Elliott’s perspective, we are instead invited into the mind’s eye of E.T. himself, seeing Earth as it appears to him.  He loses the infant-like quality that made him so loveable in the film, and is instead imbued with the sage wisdom of a ten million year-old wanderer.

One of my favorite moments in the novelization is when, E.T. plays the role of the audience for a second, and it gives the author an opportunity to provide some commentary on Spielberg’s filmic charm.  Kotzwinkle has E.T. strolling out to the edge of the redwood forest where the aliens have landed at the beginning of the film.  After securing a sapling for examination and cataloging, E.T. is enraptured by the lights of the suburban neighborhood sitting at the foot of the valley.  Knowing that this is going to be their last visit to Earth for centuries, E.T. lingers, longing to peek into the windows of the homes, to get a glimpse of the human middle class life.  Again, it’s just a bit of commentary on what makes Spielberg’s early work so special.

It’s also interesting that, with this shift in viewpoint, certain aspects of the story take on a much darker tone.  At the beginning when the humans come to the landing site and start searching the woods, we’re introduced to “Keys”, Peter Coyote’s nameless scientist character who is known in the story by the jangling key-ring on his belt.  When E.T. sees him for the first time, the keys are described thus: “…the old botanist saw the man’s belt, with something hanging from it like an assemblage of teeth, jagged-edged, trophies possibly, wrenched from the mouth of some other unfortunate space creature, and placed on a ring…“  A bit later, the author has E.T. describing the circular key ring as a sort of open-mouthed grin with jangling teeth.

There’s also an isolationist’s tone to the opening of the novel. E.T.’s species survive for millennia and have cultivated a vast knowledge as well as a Zen-like understanding of peace and harmony, yet they refuse to attempt to communicate with the humans, instead centering all their attention on Earth’s flora because they are afraid of being ridiculed and mocked.  It’s a very odd and dark way to approach the material, for sure.  E.T. was Wall-E before there was a “Wall-E”.

Another interesting aspect that Kotzwinkle either added to the “E.T.” universe or amped up from the script was the idea of the alien race being so closely connected to plant-life that they not only communicate with it, but also have the ability to physically manipulate it. It’s either that, or that plants defy their normal physics in their presence. In the opening scene when the humans have descended upon the landing site and E.T. is trying to get back to the ship, there are trees that lift their roots to trip the pursuing earthlings, while a patch of emotionally-clingy weeds hold the alien back, wanting him to stay with them. It exudes a passion for the story that goes beyond simple script adaptation, which I think is rare in these 1980s era movie novelizations.

I could go on and on with how much deeper the original novelization probes into the characters – how Elliot, Steve and Gertie’s mother Mary (played by an exasperated Dee Wallace in the film) is so lonely and lost in her own mind that she fantasizes about disappearing from life and, believe it or not, masturbation.  (See page 17; the innuendo is there.)  She’s also simultaneously dreading the world her children have to face, wondering if they’ll succumb to overdosing on drugs, all while listening in on them playing a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons in the kitchen.

Who would have thought that there’d be room for this sort of storytelling in what amounts to simple movie merchandising in a decade known for its hollow commercialism?  I honestly didn’t think there was anything left for me to learn from a story I grew up with and thought I knew so well. Never in a million years did I think I’d get so sucked into reading the E.T. novelization that I’d be skipping lunch breaks and desperately wondering what happens next.

Guest Hosting on the Nerd Lunch Podcast!

I listen to a lot of podcasts, but lately it seems like a bunch of shows that I love have been ending.  So I was pretty excited when I discovered a new show that featured some of my favorite bloggers coming together to geek out over the airwaves.  The Nerd Lunch podcast debuted this past week, and it features NL alums CT and Jeeg, as well as Paxton from Cavalcade of Awesome!

These guys were gracious enough to invite me in as a guest on their second episode as the 1st in a series of revolving 4th chair hosts.  We spend the episode discussing the Back to the Future flicks, which just happens to be one of my favorite franchises from the 80s.  So if you want to hear us talk about Marty, Doc, Biff, time travel continuity, the animated series, as well as where we think the future of this film franchise could go them head on over to Nerd Lunch and give the episode a listen.  You can also find their show on iTunes.

Smuckers missed the boat by not having a tie-in neon blueberry flavored Tron jam…

Though I feel completely like a child of the 80s, I have to say that being born in 1977 there were a handful of 80s pop culture events in which I completely missed the boat.  Tron and the boom of arcade gaming are a couple  phenomena that I didn’t get to really immerse myself in as a kid.  Sure, I had an Atari 2600 (bought at a garage sale) after the big home console crash, and I was a full-blown Nintendo kid, but I didn’t catch a screening of Tron until only a few years ago.  In fact, aside from a vague idea of the iconography of the arcade console (in particular the awesomely large joystick) and what the characters in the flick more or less looked like, I was largely unaware of the film.

My childhood video game movie experience surrounded flicks like the Wizard, Wargames, and the Last Starfighter.  I’ve met so many people at work over the last 10 years that attribute Tron as the incipience of their awakening to the potential of computer technology and quite possibly the reason that they entered the IT field as a career.   Having never experienced a film like Tron and being exposed to the idea of anthropomorphizing the inner workings of a computer, I never saw the excitement inherent in programming and computing.  Like most people, it took the wide acceptance of the internet to open my eyes.  Because of that I’ll always probably feel a little left behind.

On the bright side, getting a chance to catch up with the film as an adult I can both appreciate some of the more technical aspects to the conceptual nature of the flick, and it gives me the unique opportunity to discover something new and nostalgic.  It’s rare that I get a chance to stumble upon something from the 80s that I’m either not familiar with or have been inundated with during the last 10 years of the 80s nostalgic resurgence.  For that I’m thankful.  Because of this and because of the news of the new sequel over the last couple of years I’ve been keeping and eye out for any bits of scan-able Tron ephemera, in particular vintage advertisements.  Here are a few I’ve found while flipping through old issues of Woman’s Day and Muppet magazines…

First up is this 1982 ad for Dial and Tone bar soap with a mail-away coupon for a discounted Tron beach towel.  Featuring the static hero pose of the titular character, this towel is one of the few times when I think that image is successfully striking.  I’m always curious how many of these mail-away items make it into the public (and it’s not like old beach towels get proffered up on ebay all that often), so it’s cool when you can find some photographic evidence of these items.  Thanks to Hillary over at I’m Remembering for coaxing her readers into submitting old photos for her site…

Next up is this 1982 Smuckers ad for strawberry jam and the in-store special offer for a free Tron Futuristic Adventure Book with the purchase of a bottle of preserves.   Maybe not as cool as a collectable jelly glass with Tron characters and scenes, but the book did come with a fold-out 17″x22″ poster, and featured games, puzzles and stickers!  I’ve seen a couple of Tron sticker sheets over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever laid eyes on the stickers from this free book.

Last, but not least, is this 1984 holiday ad from Disney Home Video featuring a VHS copy of Tron.  Back in ’84 this cassette copy of Tron was a steal at $39.95 (msrp at the time was a whopping $84.95.)  This was back before most people had started purchasing movies for their home libraries, and videos were largely still priced for the rental market.   Also, at first I was pretty excited when I flipped to this ad in the back of an issue of Muppet magazine because I though the video came with a free Tron ornament.  How cool would that have been?  Well, even though there is that die-cut gold Tron disc on the packaging, the ornament is actually the image on the top left featuring Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Still a cool ornament, but not nearly as cool as one featuring Tron.

There is another thing that stuck out to me in this ad.  I thought it was weird that the graphic designers of this advertisement chose to feature a rare red variation of the Tron character artwork.  Though my memory might be a little shady, I thought that red was reserved for the “evil” programs in the Tron world like Sark and his minions?  I guess this is sort of the equivalent of catching a glimpse of Luke Skywalker with a red lightsaber…

Twitter del.icio.us Reddit Slashdot Digg Google StumbleUpon

E.T. went home alright, and maybe he should have stayed there…

I think I’ve written about this before, but there’s aspect to American pop culture that I find endlessly fascinating; this deep need for sustainable continuity.   Though we’re fanatics for origin stories, once an idea is set into motion we very rarely want to see it end.  So when a successful sitcom invades our television schedule, the hope is that it will be continually produced for as along as possible, ten, twenty years down the line. When it ends, there’s still hope in our hearts for spin-offs, and reunion specials, and when all else fails, hopefully it will eventually end up as a big screen adaptation (which will hopefully be successful enough to garner a trilogy.)

I’m not sure what it is in our culture that makes us so clingy as an audience.  Maybe subconsciously the idea of a story having a distinct ending echoes fears of our own eventual mortality.  Maybe we just love a good success story and nothing says success like sequels and long running TV which have a validating effect on our own enjoyment.  I loved Ghostbusters something fierce growing up and I pined for the eventual sequel that seemed to take a million years to materialize.  Sure, I’d watch the original when ever it came on TV, but somewhere in the back of my mind I felt that I deserved to see the continuing story.

Battling against this cultural yearning are the hopes and dreams of the very people who makes these stories possible.  Sure, Dan Akaroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and Sigorny Weaver seemed more than willing to make a sequel but how did Bill Murray and Rick Moranis feel?  Word is that they weren’t all that keen on the idea, that as actors and creative-minded individuals they were more interested in pursuing something new, something that was interesting to them at the time.  Often this creative reluctance to suit up for a sequel is what quashes projects, but it’s not necessarily the end of the story.  There are other outlets for continuity, especially for entertainment that feeds the all-ages sensibility of an audience.  The cartoon spin-off for instance.  While waiting the five years in-between Ghostbusters films, DiC started production on the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which featured the continuing adventures of our favorite spectral sleuths.  But for various reasons the creative yearnings of writers, and the monetary needs of the studio forced the story to change.  Egon became blonde, the group all began wearing colored coded jumpsuits, Janine became a punk, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man became an ally and Slimer switched from being a chaotic-neutral villain to a bungling, Baby Huey-esque sidekick.

This leads me to the gist of today’s subject, which is the continuing story of the beloved plant-friendly alien, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial in his only sequel story, The Book of the Green Planet.  Published in 1985 and written by William Kotzwinkle, the same gentleman responsible for the film-to-book novelization of the original story, Book of the Green Planet follows E.T.’s adventures after reuniting with his species as they travel back to the home planet to study the flora specimens they’ve been collecting from Earth over the millennia.  In the original novelization we got a peek into a different view of the movie as Kotzwinkle tended to write from E.T.’s perspective, giving the reader an insight absent from the movie.  In that book E.T. comes across as a wholly different character, at times a centered peaceful monk-like being wise beyond his ten million years of age (yup in the book he’s 10,000,000 years old for crying out loud), a others a tired curmudgeon afraid of offending Elliott and his siblings as he sees them as the rulers of the planet.  It’s an odd balancing act that takes a weird shift in the follow-up sequel novel.

Unburdened by adhering to a script, Kotzwinkle decides to let loose in the sequel revealing that E.T. is not merely an alien from another world, but a traveler from outside of our universe/dimension.  Kotzwinkle also decided to mold the character more into the image we get in the film, drawing him as playfully ignorant, continuously spouting incorrect English to his friends as if he had learned to master the language during his layover on Earth.  He’s also shown depressed, having left his newfound friends behind, never to see them again, yet I find this awkward and weird considering that he’s literally lived throughout the millennia.  Was this experience with Elliott so profound, and if so, how boring was the rest of his existence?  Besides, for a being of that age who travels through out dimensions and across galaxies with ease, isn’t it a bit naive to assume you’d never see your friends again?

Anyway, the basic plot involves E.T. returning home only to be demoted for his shenanigans on Earth.  Sad and lonely, it becomes his quest to find a way to travel back to the Milky Way and to his beloved friend Elliott.  The book flits back and forth between E.T.’s adventures trying to secure a vessel to make the trip and a slightly older Elliott on Earth who is struggling with puberty and his newfound obsession with girls (which troubles E.T., through their psychic connection, to no end.)   Trying to help (but coming across as a dumped ex stalker) E.T. sends astral projections of himself towards Earth in the hopes that they will meld with Elliott’s troubled soul and help him to find peace (as well as the nerve to finally step up and mingle with the girl of his dreams.)  In a sort of anticlimactic ending E.T. grows a ship (making it easier to hide from his people) and embarks on the long journey back to Elliott, though the story ends before the trip is finished leaving the book open to an obvious sequel (though unlike this one, a sequel that never materialized.)

All in all, this book (and the original novelization) gives the audience what it craves, a continuation of the story with so much more to explore.  It’s weird and not much like the original film, but it is something which in and of itself is sort of a treasure.  Also, believe it or not, with the re-release of this book in 2002 there was a teacher’s guide printed that has artistic rendering of a couple of the odder creatures mentioned in the book including the ellusive flopgopple!

Twitter del.icio.us Reddit Slashdot Digg Google StumbleUpon

We’ve got some big guns and some big-big guns but I’m afraid I’m all out of big-big ammo!

Hot on the heels of the 20th Century Fox announcement of the Night of the Comet and Solarbabies DVD releases (both for March 6th), Universal has announced that they will be releasing a Harry and the Hendersons special edition DVD on April 24th.  There’s also the beginnings of a rumor about an official Monster Squad DVD release floating around as well.  Slap my ass and call me happy.  All the pieces are coming together now…