Review: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Shooting Script: 9/8/81)

This draft of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is an excellent starter script for beginners in screenplay studies. In many ways it is the quintessential shooting script, containing lots of revisions, added and omitted scenes, half-filled added pages, and a fair amount of technical comment.

The script includes pages from at least six specific revisions — 8/25/81, 8/26/81,  8/28/81, 8/31/81, 9/3/81, and 9/8/81 — demonstrating the state of flux in which the script existed during production. Even the title page, identifying the script as A Boy’s Life, points to an industrial convention: shooting a major motion picture under a false title to avoid popular scrutiny and plagiarism. As another guard against plagiarism and piracy, each page of the script is stamped with a copy code “BOYS00062” to track any unauthorized photocopies to their source. The name “Kotzwinkle,” hand-written on several pages, offers one possible theory for BOYS00062’s origin. William Kotzwinkle wrote the official novelization of E.T. It could be that BOYS00062 was his personal copy of the script, though that is speculation.

The first seven pages of the script (along with a few other points throughout) are written in the continuity style typical of screenplays written before the 1950s and 60s, but most of the script adheres to the rules of contemporary master scene format (perhaps the early pages of the script required more detailed planning due to the special effects demands of working with a puppet). The formatting of this particular shooting script is unusual in its excessive rendering of certain kinds of words in all-caps. All props, for instance, and every character name, each time it appears, are always rendered in all-caps. This is uncommon, though other examples exist (Alan Ball’s American Beauty,1 for instance).

E.T. is also an interesting script to examine as a study of screenplay authorship. Melissa Mathison is awarded sole credit as the writer of the script, though it is generally accepted that director Steven Spielberg conceived the initial idea from his own childhood experiences, charging Mathison with the task of building a story around that idea. Likewise, E.T. is often considered Spielberg’s landmark film, but he did not write it. Who is the author?

In terms of content, BOYS00062 offers a unique perspective. It contains scenes that do not exist in either the original 1982 theatrically-released version of the motion picture or its revised 2002 DVD release, though some scenes in the script that were omitted from the original theatrical release were later included in the revised edition. The script, then, is a bridge between these two commercial releases, while still possessing some unique content of its own. One fascinating difference between the screenplay and the film also attests to the commercial consideration of product placement: the M&Ms on the page are replaced with Reese’s Pieces on the screen.

Beyond these interesting issues of format, authorship, and a theory of versions, the script itself offers rich descriptions of mise-en-scene and an inventive use of sound through-out, neither of which are typical of most screenplays. The script deftly handles the problem of parallel protagonists by interweaving E.T.’s needs and desires with Elliot’s, making the two characters essentially one. While the structure of their journey is handled in typical archplot fashion, the results are no less emotionally charged or satisfying.

The most effective scenes are those that hew closest to script’s central organizing principle that “selfless love heals abandonment.” E.T. and Elliot have both experienced a serious “ouch” — E.T. in being left behind on Earth by his species, and Elliot in being discarded by his unloving father. Interestingly, E.T. and Elliot find their healing in a second “ouch,” in their ultimate separation. Elliot could have prevented E.T. from going home, and E.T. could have kidnapped Elliot and taken him away from earth. Neither of these actions, however, would have resulted in true healing for the characters. E.T. must willfully allow himself to be abandoned by Elliot, and Elliot vice versa, in order for the two character to fulfill their self-emptying love.

Mathison successfully builds this thematic thesis throughout her script. Abandonment, isolation, wounds, death, healing, salvation, and love are all threaded throughout the incidents and actions of her characters, making for a cohesive and compelling presentation.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is both a beautifully written script and a wonderful example of the theoretical issues posed by screenplay studies.

  1. American Beauty was a Dreamworks SKG production, and Dreamworks is Spielberg’s company; it may be worth researching whether the excessive use of all-caps is a Spielberg convention.

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