Saturday, December 5, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 3 – The Mythology Structure

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

This post I’m going to analyze the mythology structure in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). I think of the mythology structure (often referred to as “the hero’s journey”) as a character based approach to story building. Elliot is the hero of E.T., so as I look for the stages of the journey I will be looking for how they affect Elliot’s character. It may be useful to note at this point that E.T. is a story about a coming of age journey.

The Stages of the Journey:

Inciting Incident: E.T. is stranded. This is the incident that will lead to Elliot’s journey.

Call to Adventure: E.T. throws the ball out of the shed. This is an invitation from E.T., an invitation for Elliot to embark on an adventure. And how does Elliot respond?

Resisting the Call: Elliot responds by fleeing from the shed to get help. He doesn’t accept E.T.’s invitation.

Accepting the Call: However, Elliot’s family and friends don’t believe him. This changes the situation. When Elliot hears strange sounds late at night in the field behind his house, he goes to investigate, thus accepting the call to adventure.

Allies and Enemies: The allies and enemies stage works its way throughout Act I. We meet Michael and Gertie, Elliot’s primary allies. We meet Michael’s friends who will become minor allies. Elliot sees Keys (the name in the script for Peter Coyote’s character) looking for E.T. up in the woods. And we have Mary, his mom, who functions both as an ally and an enemy at various times.

Entering the Special World: Elliot lures E.T. into the house. The special world in this case is the world of aliens. Though Elliot hasn’t physically left his normal, suburban location and lifestyle, that world becomes something entirely different when Elliot introduces E.T. into it. This is a good example of the normal and special worlds being defined by the character’s experience of life rather than physical location.

Meeting the Mentor: E.T. is the primary mentor for Elliot. He is going to help Elliot become more mature.

Visiting the Oracle: I don’t really see an oracle scene in E.T.

Innermost Cave: Elliot enters the innermost cave – the deepest part of the special world – when his psychic connection with E.T. begins to affect his life. This is shown when E.T. gets drunk and it causes Elliot to be drunk at school. The implications are made clear a few scenes later when Michael notes that E.T. isn’t looking so good and Elliot responds, “we’re fine.” At this point Elliot’s relationship to the alien is as deep as it will ever be.

Supreme Ordeal: In this metaphorical Innermost Cave Elliot faces the Supreme Ordeal of sneaking E.T. out of the house and up to the mountain to build his radio on Halloween.

Seizing the Elixir: The “elixir” Elliot needs to save E.T. is the call for help. By succeeding at the Supreme Ordeal and completing the radio, the rescue that will allow Elliot to ultimately win is set in motion. Neither he nor the audience knows whether the call has been heard, but it’s common that we don’t realize the character has their metaphorical elixir until much later in the movie.

Death and Resurrection: Pretty obviously E.T.’s apparent death and resurrection. And importantly, when E.T. appears to die the psychic connection with Elliot is severed. A part of Elliot has died. But the new character born out of that is now capable of meeting challenges on his own.

Return to the Normal World: When Elliot separates from E.T. he returns to the normal world in the sense that he is now a regular suburban kid again.

Final Conflict: Sneaking E.T. out of the house again – but this time with government agents all around – and getting him to his rescue ship.

Master of Both Worlds: Elliot has saved E.T. (thus mastering the special world) and won the respect and faith of his family that he craved in Act One (thus mastering the normal world).

Character Archetypes:

Hero: Elliot

Shadow: Keys – a serious adult with little evident personality for most of the movie…who turns out to be more like Elliot than we would have guessed.

Shape Shifter: Mary (mom) – she’s on Elliot’s side in life, but she is also part of the adult world who cannot be trusted with knowledge of E.T. Ultimately she tries to defend Elliot from the government and is swayed to his point of view.

Trickster: Gertie. Elliot’s little sister mostly serves as comic relief.

Mentor: E.T. E.T. prompts Elliot to become more mature and helps him on the way.

Herald & Oracle: You could call E.T. a herald but he really serves more as a mentor. There aren’t really strong Herald and Oracle archetypes in the movie.

Threshold Guardians: Mary frequently serves this purpose. Elliot and his siblings often have to hide E.T. from her or get by her to move to the next stage – most obviously on Halloween. On a smaller lever you could call Michael a threshold guardian early on when he requires Elliot to prove E.T.’s existence. And Keys and the government men are sort of Threshold guardians at the end when they have to escape the house.

I’ll continue with the analysis of E.T. in the next post. Soon I’m going to start delving into a sequence by sequence study of the movie.


Aya said...

I know I'm a bit behind and still haven't finished reading all posts. I'm enjoying Reading this very much. However I would like to argue that possibly thetitle character, ie ET is the hero, and I beleive u can apply the hero's journey structure with him as the hero. Also ET has a much clear want and need, both are mainly to get home, which is the ultimate journey.


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Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy, Elliot was afraid of course of that unusual situation, it is not everyday that a person encounters a being not of this earth.

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Googleguy said...
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Googleguy said...
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Googleguy said...

Christopher Vogler points out the Supreme Ordeal in E.T The Extra-Terrestrial in a different scene, far different than yours. According to his famous memo he wrote: 8.) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL. This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He/she faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it’s a black moment. In STAR WARS, it’s the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage and is held down so long that the audience begins to wonder if he’s dead. IN E.T., THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, E. T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table.

This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and be born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death. This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain or the Great Whiteknuckler make the passengers feel like they’re going to die, and there’s a great thrill that comes with surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience resurrection. You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.'s_journey.htm