Recently I watched the film E.T. with our kids. It was the first time I’d seen the film in more than 25 years, and needless to say, my viewing experience was vastly different from that of my college days in the mid-80s. Two and a half decades later, I was able to see things in the film that I didn’t notice before. For one thing, I was struck by how the E.T. story is essentially a reworking of the Wizard of Oz narrative. The Dorothy character is, of course, the extraterrestrial who has landed in a different world and needs to find his way home. Three strangers befriend him, too—only here they are human: Elliott and his two siblings. And they forge strong emotional bonds, as together they fight inimical forces. As the story unfolded, I expected someone to say, “E.T., you’re not in Andromeda anymore.” The wicked witch is now the scientific arm of the federal government (rather ironic, given director Steven Spielberg’s politically leftist trust in the federal government, but I digress), and the magical hope of Oz is replaced by technology—E.T.’s clever homespun gadgetry which enables him to send an S.O.S. to his pals a few million light years away. “E.T. phone home” replaces the Oz mantra “there’s no place like home.”
The film’s sentimental farewell also parallels that of Dorothy bidding adieu to her three friends, but with a crucial difference. The latter occurs after a technological failure—the balloon launch mishap which carries away the bumbling wizard to who knows where—while E.T.’s return home is the result technological success. And, interestingly, as E.T.’s spaceship zooms away from Earth, it leaves a rainbow in the sky, which of course hearkens to the “somewhere over the rainbow” theme of The Wizard of Oz. Coincidence? Surely not, given Spielberg’s astute sense of narrative and film history.
My older two boys, Bailey and Sam, were riveted as they watched, just as they are riveted by The Wizard of Oz. What makes these stories so compelling? Some folks have suggested that their power lies in the “gospel arc,” as they turn abject failure and catastrophe into triumph and joy. As my pastor likes to point out, E.T. has especially strong parallels to the gospel story: From the heavens comes a stranger with miraculous powers. He is befriended by a select few who really love him, while he is misunderstood by the many whose interest in him is anything but personal. He forms a special, life-changing bond with some of his new friends, but his visit is cut short as he unexpectedly dies, leaving the faithful heartbroken and perplexed. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he rises from the dead! Shortly after this, the stranger ascends—back to the heavens from whence he came. But before he goes, he assures his faithful that he will be with them—even in their own hearts.
Now is this parallel a coincidence? Did Spielberg intend to use the Christian gospel narrative as the blueprint for the E.T. plot? That is a much more provocative question, and although the similarities are at least as significant as those between E.T. and The Wizard of Oz, I am not inclined to believe that Spielberg consciously intended this. Neither, however, do I think the parallels are mere coincidence. It seems to me that the explanation lies in the fact that the gospel really is, as they say, the greatest story ever told and that it’s profound, eucatastrophic theme of redemption is as compelling as it gets. So those who possess both a strong sense of narrative and redemption will almost necessarily find themselves returning to the gospel arc, even in their own creative works—even artists and storytellers, such as Spielberg, who explicitly reject the original Gospel. They can’t help themselves. It’s a narrative too good to ignore. Which just goes to show— there’s no story like the Gospel.