Premise: (from IMDB) A meek and alienated little boy finds a stranded extraterrestrial. He has to find the courage to defy the authorities to help the alien return to its home planet.
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Technical: 117 pages. Shooting script. September 8, 1981 revision.
Page one, there is a ship full of alien beings, exploring a forest on earth. They are shown examining and nurturing plants.This is obviously meant to garner our sympathies; a "Save The Cat" scene if there ever was one. The way this is done with the aliens is sort of a cheap, unimaginative trick. They are all loving, innocent, and vulnerable (how could we not care about them?). It succeeds; the aliens are instantly likable, and we are on their side. They're compassionate, kind, and curious towards the earth; they are not a threat. (Looking back on this, I realize something very important: unimaginative, lazy writing can sometimes work. Just as writing with many grammatical errors can sometimes work, having a powerful emotional effect. Or just as overwritten work, arduous to get through, may underneath contain brilliant characters, or other gems. Uninspired writing can sometimes work, just as inventive writing can sometimes fail. How you want to use this awareness to your advantage is up to you. Some writers would feel ill at the thought of including a lazy trick in their story, knowing full well that a reader will eat it up; other writers thrive on these easy manipulation tactics. There is no right or wrong answer. It is just something to think about).
The first eight pages of the script, everything up to the point where we get to Elliott's house, is unneeded. It should have either been cut, or condensed into one or two pages. But after that, the story gets going very quickly. Elliott and E.T.'s interactions are very cute; Elliott leading E.T. with a trail of M&Ms, E.T. copying Elliott. After that, the script starts to kick into high gear. And just as quickly... runs out of gas; sagging all throughout the middle. At the end, the race to get E.T. back to the ship was kind of exciting. But it weakened as it went on.
One of the biggest problems, why the script wasn't compelling, was that it was totally predictable. You know that at the end, E.T. will get home. Even before that, when E.T. dies, we know he is going to come back to life, somehow. The script ends with an expected happy, everybody-wins, everything-is-back-to-normal-but-forever-changed, Hollywood ending.
One good things about the screenplay is that it is written simply and clearly. The script is minimalist, without having each line of action only four words long. There is no flowery language, no over description. This makes for a quick, much more enjoyable read. And of course, within the script, there are some great lines and scenes: "E.T. phone home". Elliott throwing the orange into the shed - the orange being thrown back out by the unseen E.T. Unfortunately, the good ends here. The screenplay did what Hollywood's dark side does best: it had zero imagination, and was filled with cliches. A perfect example of this is the spaceship on the first page. The description of it as round, with a hatch door stretching to the grass, spilling light, is so cliche that it seems silly.
Keys is about the most boring antagonist that the writer could have come up with. For more than two thirds of the script, he doesn't say anything, and we don't see his face. When we do see him, and when he does speak, it doesn't get any better. Him using the Geiger counter to find E.T. is extremely goofy, and there is zero explanation behind it. When Keys was finally revealed as a kind-looking young man, I thought that was great. It was the opposite of what I was expecting. But the writer didn't do anything with that, so it was pointless. He was still devoid of personality. (This follows the pattern prevalent throughout the script: half-baked ideas).
I blindly accepted a lot of the unbelievable things in the screenplay, which is fine. With a script like this, the reader has to. But there are some things relating to the character of E.T. that don't make sense, and need to be addressed. On page 6, E.T. is hiding in the bushes from Keys. The red light in E.T.'s chest comes on, and the alien moves his hand to cover it. But that doesn't make any sense. If these aliens are all so peaceful and innocent, how would they know fear or shame as we do? It really, really feels as if the writer just threw a bunch of ideas against the wall, and then left it to the director to see what stuck. This not only shows laziness, but is insulting to the reader. E.T. crying on page 82 is just goofy. On page 88, Elliott asks E.T. if E.T. can heal himself. E.T. says no. But they have only been together two days, so how can E.T. understand and respond to Elliott so perfectly?! It goes on and on. The writer makes the enormous mistake of assuming that if it is written down, the reader will/must believe it.
A little thing that I thought might be fixed: E.T. says the word "home" too many times, in different variations. I didn't count how many exactly, but it is at least have a dozen. If E.T. verbally expressed his desire to go home one time, or twice, it would be more powerful than him saying it over and over and over. "Less is more".
The writer technically did the majority of things right. The script was a good length... there were believable characters... the writing was clear... the structure is solid... But the characters were still boring. The story was told in a boring way, and was just generally uninteresting.
This screenplay is a slap in the face to intelligence and imagination. Quite repulsive, especially with regards to the fact that the writer sent this screenplay out, knowing it would be filmed and viewed by children.
Lesson: Amazing movies can be made from terrible scripts. Amazing scripts can be made into terrible films. "Professional" writers can write abysmal screenplays. "Unprofessional" writers can write something that will become Harry Potter. Experience, age, none of that has anything to do with the writing. All that has to do with the writing is the writing. The E.T. screenplay was utter trash, though funnily enough, I am grateful to have read it. It taught me some valuable lessons. Even if your characters are believable and likable, even if your script has perfect structure, and is written clearly... it can still be mind-numbingly boring. Do not underestimate the importance of imagination, and having passion for the story you are telling. Cliche equals death, and do anything you can to get away from it. Anything else is better than a cliche. Also, even if you are writing something for a younger audience, anything goofy (characters, situations, etc.) is unacceptable. Films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo were told in a mature, professional, intelligent way, and they appealed very much to children. If you want to write a "family film" or a "children's movie" it should probably appeal to children and adults (I wonder if there are any instances where this would not be the case?) Never underestimate your reader or your possible audience. Readers and viewers are not stupid. The only time they are stupid is when you make them stupid.