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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.

Yeah, I was that guy in high school…

It just dawned on me that Monkey Goggles seems to have shuttered (there’s been no new content since last year when editor Geoff Carter and Archie McPhee amicably ended their partnership.)  So just in case the site ends up folding completely I’ve decided to repost the two articles I wrote for them here at Branded.  This first one concerns my unhealthy high school obsession with Spam.  Mr. Carter aptly titled it, Leaving Spamalot: Taking a Joke Too Far

I’ve never eaten a single bite of Spam in my life, yet I probably have more goofy stories surrounding the iconic slab of preserved, pork product than most people living outside of Hawaii or Guam.  I’m hardly what you’d call a super-fan of the wartime staple.  I don’t go to canned ham or potted meat conventions, and I don’t dress up in a specially-constructed costume of my own design trying to meet up with other enthusiasts obsessed with chopped-and-formed foodstuffs.  I don’t write Spam slash fiction.  I was just a weird kid who, back in the early 1990s, took a joke just a little too far.  Five years too far.

I’m sure most people hate high school, and I’m no different.  I’ve got a few scars, but I was lucky enough to find an anti-clique that got me through mostly unnoticed.  I was part of a group of four kids who loved comic books and role playing, who were smart enough to avoid getting into fights and just dumb enough to not care all that much about what anyone else thought.  We were those kids who took any available art class and managed to avoid every single pep rally.  We were basically invisible.

This can have a strangely unexpected effect on a kid.  It made me yearn to be noticed, even as I did my best to hide.  I was that guy who sweated bullets while trying to talk in speech class, the one who lived in fear of getting called on by a teacher, the one who walked the long way around the gym to avoid getting catcalls from the cool crowd at the smoking area.

My outlet came after a late-bloomer’s introduction to Monty Python in the 10th grade.  There was something completely enchanting about the absurd use of the iconic meat treat in the Spam sketch, as well as the throw-away line during the approach-to-Camelot song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  My tiny cadre of friends and I made Spam jokes for weeks.  It got to the point where the word lost all meaning for a while and eventually it became a generic stand-in, a variable for in-joke comedy.  After that first month my friends got sick of it and moved on.

I took it further.  I bought my first seven-ounce can of Spam with the leftovers from my weekly comic book allowance.  The plan was to wear it around my neck to school the next day.  I carefully wove together a handful of homemade friendship bracelets, fashioned them into a sturdy necklace, and strung them through the pull tab on the top of the can.  I made sure to put a few dollops of superglue onto the tab to keep it from lifting open.  The last thing I wanted was gelatinous ham all over my carefully ripped and worn flannel shirt.

I unveiled my masterpiece on the bus ride that next morning.  It got some chuckles out of my friends and a lot of weird stares from the rest of the crowd, so I was feeling pretty proud of myself.  I decided the event called for a super-jump from the top of the bus steps, and I was in mid-freefall when it occurred to me that this was a stupid idea.  As my feet hit the concrete, there was an audible click as the necklace pulled taut and the pop top ripped open.  It was almost as if I’d pulled the pin on a hand grenade; everyone standing around took three big steps away from me.  As luck and science would have it, gravity and inertia pulled the can outward, and its contents just splattered with a juicy thump on the pavement.

The next can I bought weighed in at a more respectable 12 ounces, and I carried it around like a pet rock.  I even made a leash for it.  This can lasted for three weeks.  Sometimes I’d sit it on the corner of my desk during class, and other times I rested it on my shoulder like a parrot.  I was beginning to get a reputation for being “that Spam guy.”  In the middle of that pet can’s third week, a cute skater girl sauntered up to me during advanced pottery class and started asking flirty questions.  I was dying for the attention and summoned up as much wit and courage as possible.  In the middle of explaining why I couldn’t decide on a name for the can, she pulled a potter’s knife out of her pocket and stabbed the living hell out of the Spam.  I sat in disbelief, staring at the wet blade of the knife and her twisted, satisfied sneer.  Into the trash it went, right alongside my ego.

Undeterred, I soon moved on to Deviled Spam.  I took cans of it everywhere I went because they were smaller and less prone to knife attacks.  After graduating high school and getting a summer job at a grocery store, I used my first paycheck to buy a case of these tiny cans of Spam.  I thought it would be hilarious to collect one for every day that I worked, thinking this was just a short-lived summer job.  Ninety-odd cans and four months later, I stopped buying them.

In 1996, during the sci-fi fantasy convention Dragon Con, I had one last run at the Spam joke that would never end.  The gag had lasted for four-and-a-half years at this point and my friends were tired of it, but I’d kept pushing.  I was running on two days with no food, stuck in the Atlanta Hilton with three of my closest friends and no money for meals.  We were subsisting on complimentary corn chips and Kool-Aid from the Con suite, when I noticed a shiny new can of Spam on the table.  I asked the volunteer manning the room who owned that can, and he just shrugged and said it was purchased as a joke and that no one was going to eat it.  He said I could have it, and I immediately darted over to scoop it up.

Famished, halfway delirious from a lack of protein and hopped up on way too much sugar water, I marched down to the dealers’ room/exhibitors’ hall – and over the course of the next five hours, I made it my mission to cover the can in pseudo-celebrity autographs.  I got a bevy of comic book and fantasy artists to sign the can (Mark Bagley, John Bryne, Ken Meyer Jr., Bernie Wrightson, and Bo Hampton to name a few), as well as Darth Vader himself, convention legend David Prowse.  In my mind, it was the coup de grace of my very long experiment in absurdist comedy.  I was only made fun of twice and verbally abused once (by Jim Steranko, who let out a Christmas Story-like stream of profanities).

The last guy to sign the can, Glen Danzig, was even a personal hero of mine, though the whole experience failed to even faze him (makes you wonder what he’s been asked to sign over the years.)  I’m pretty sure it was at that point where I finally got tired of the whole thing.  I guess you can take a joke too far … but I still have that last can.