Parents’ divorce sparks Spielberg’s greatest ideas



Originally published as “Separation Trauma in Spielberg.” The Steven Spielberg Film Society. November 1991: Issue 44, pages 6-7.


It is very likely that one major event in director Steven Spielberg’s life—the divorce of his mother and father—lies at the very heart of almost all his great movie ideas. This recurring motif shows up again and again in each of his major films. While each of his 20 features has a little bit of the boy from Cincinnati, Ohio locked up tight inside of them, three of his early films reveal the most about this troubling time in his life: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K). Each of these was originally conceived, written to a greater or lesser extent, and subsequently directed by the man himself. (Yes, even Poltergeist. See my argument below.) Jaws, though relying much on his youthful fear of a neighborhood bully, was originally a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley. 1941 was written by his friends Zemeckis and Gale. Raiders was the brainchild of Lucas and Kaufman. Color Purple was already a novel. Empire was already a novel. Always was a remake. Hook was a remake. So it is obvious that films he originally conceived, wrote and directed himself reveal the most about him. So what do these three early films—E.T., Poltergeist, and CE3K—tell us about the life of Steven Spielberg? They tell us that separation trauma, or the divorce of his mother and father, was one of the great, lingering affects of his adolescence. These three make up what viewers might call the divorce-trauma trio.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, virtually a sequel to CE3K, was based on a concept by Spielberg, drafted by Melissa Matheson, and rewritten and polished by both. Almost a reversal of the story told in CE3K, this film has all the elements of separation trauma we see in the other two films: single-parent family, fear of separation from one’s loved ones, reuniting of the family unit. The mother Mary (Dee Wallace) is a single mother, painfully divorced, husband cavorting somewhere in Mexico. (“He hates Mexico,” she says tearfully.) The alien E.T. is a father figure, a brother figure, and, more importantly, a reflection of Elliott himself. Just as the alien is separated from his civilization, Elliott too is separated from his father. Both are trying to be reunited with their families. Elliot’s heart burns for his father’s return, just as E.T.’s quite literally burns for his lost civilization. When E.T. dies, Elliott again loses the only father he has, which is why the pain his so acute. As with his real father, Elliott and E.T. are of one mind, sharing the same thoughts and feelings (see the scenes where Elliott mimics E.T.’s emotions in school)—they are of the same blood, so to speak. The force here driving the family apart seems to be the government men, on the surface, symbolized by the character known in the first few pages of script only as Keys (authority—Peter Coyote). But in this film, unlike the other two, this force turns out to be both friend and foe, which is why this film is probably the most complex of the divorce-trauma trio. Here, the force driving the family (E.T.-Elliott) apart is neither good (as the aliens in CE3K) nor evil (as the ghosts in Poltergeist), but neutral. Keys, we later learn, is not an evil figure, but really an older version of Elliott himself. With this film, it seems that Spielberg has achieved some sort of balance or inner piece with himself over his mother and father’s separation. He realizes that divorce is neither good nor bad, but merely a transitory state. The keys are a nice symbol of the devices which might unlock the doors to this sort of understanding, and the rainbow at the end of the film is also noteworthy. Literally, this could be God’s promise never to leave man again. But more of this man-separated-from-God theme is explored in Raiders, released a year earlier, and in his 1993 work, Schindler’s List.

Poltergeist is another film where the pain of divorce is sorely evident. In this film, unlike in E.T. and CE3K, divorce is seen through the eyes of parents rather than children. This is why the main character is named Steve (Craig T. Nelson), after all. Here we have another nuclear family, the Freelings, set to self-destruct. Though relatively happy, they are torn apart by unseen forces. The neighborhood in Poltergeist, Richard Corliss tells us, is just like the one where Steven spent his maturing years from 9-16 in Scottsdale, Arizona (Time 62). Behind the scenes, this film was almost another traumatic divorce for Steven Spielberg, in which his “baby” (the film) was almost taken away from him during production. This film is unique of the three, then, in that the divorce-trauma motif manifests itself both on- and off-screen. The early draft of this film was written by Spielberg, then polished by Michael Grazis and Mark Victor, probably because Steven was busy filming E.T. at the same time. Had he not been so busy, he may have rewritten and (officially) directed the film himself, rather than handing it over to Tobe Hooper. (Spielberg took credit for directing the film at one point, but later apologized in Variety magazine.) All this wrangling aside, the final film should bare his name as director. The fluid camera moves, revealing shots, and jump-beat editing reveal nothing of Hooper’s directing style (see Lifeforce, Hooper’s follow-up film, for comparison) while being wholly consistent with Spielberg’s. In this light, the line, “Give me back my baby, you bastard!” could have a whole new meaning. But back to the story: in CE3K, aliens are pulling a family apart; in Poltergeist, ghosts serve as a unifying force that keeps a family fighting to stay together. Some serious social criticism also manifests itself in this film: in an exaggerated way, it shows how television can draw family members apart. The child, Carol Ann, gets lost in a TV set, and her parents have to pull her out again. (“Go towards the light, Carol Ann!”) Parents trying to control their children’s TV viewing habits can relate to this problem. Even when this film was released in 1982, in the days before home video games and reality shows, the message was clear: TV can suck you in and swallow your soul. In all three films, Spielberg is grasping for knowledge as to what tore his family apart: Was it aliens? Was is ghosts? Was it evil government men? Or maybe it’s those four legged, one-eyed monsters sitting in our own living rooms.

CE3K, the earliest film in the trio, was made when Spielberg was still in his twenties, only ten years beyond his parents’ breakup. In this film, divorce is seen through the eyes of young Barry (“Ice cream!”) and the Neary children. Spielberg wrote and rewrote the script himself at least four times, and most of the fantastic events had real-life beginnings somewhere back in Steven’s past: A field trip to watch meteor showers with his dad became the famous Crescendo Summit scenes; his fear of the moon sweeping down to take him became the alien UFOs; and his father, an electrical engineer, became DWP employee Roy Neary. (The character was originally named Norman, but probably changed to Roy after Roy Scheider of Jaws.) It is interesting how this entire film, of Roy Neary’s journey into the unknown, can be seen as a parallel of the Spielberg family split. Their unhappiness was so thick, Spielberg once wrote of his parents, that you could cut it with a fork at dinner (Time 63), and he turned this feeling into reality with the famous mashed potato scene in the movie. Could Steven be trying to justify his own father’s departure from the family with CE3K? Spielberg, the name he inherited from his father, translates from German as “play mountain” (Corliss 54), and the director makes much use of this visual pun throughout the film. Steven also once said that the picture he had of his mother was of a little woman racing to the top of a mountain and spinning around, like in the Sound of Music (Time 62). This is an interesting metaphor for what he perceived, in real life, as his mother’s domination of his father. The mountain in CE3K also symbolizes many other things: a childhood goal (mountains to climb), the meeting place of two worlds (two parents with little in common), a father’s disconnection from his family (Roy Neary), and even female breasts. In drafts one and two, the mountain is likened several times to female breasts, and this becomes a repeated image throughout, drawing the character Roy Neary ever closer, reflected in his final view of the mountain itself. Could Steven be implying, in a sly, pictographic way, that his father was unfaithful to his mother? Most of this symbolism was eliminated from the final film, probably for sake of a P.G. rating, maybe for fear of offending his family. The Neary children—Toby, Michael, and Sylvia—are of course the real victims in the story, and the Barry boy represents Spielberg’s own re-emergence from this divorce trauma, the aptly named Mothership near the end of the film (mommy domination), as a man.

These are of course not the only Steven Spielberg films in which separation trauma can be easily seen. It runs throughout almost all of his later features, as well: Celie and her sister in Color Purple, the children and their families in Temple of Doom, the young boy and his family in Empire of the Sun, the lovers in Always, Peter Pan and his kids in Hook, Dr. Grant and Ellie in Jurassic Park, the brothers in Saving Private Ryan. Steven began making films at 13, he says, and his parents’ divorce came at 16. Whereas once film sustained him though a painful separation, he subsequently sustained the separation through film. In all these works, and in many others, Spielberg is in tears over the splitting of the American family—his own family, his parents—and tries, at least in his art, to bring them back together again.



Corliss, Richard. “I Dream for a Living.” Time 15 July, 1985: pp. 54-61

Matheson, Melissa. A Boy’s Life (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial). Original screenplay, property of Universal Studios, 1981.

Spielberg, Steven. “The Autobiography of Peter Pan.” Time 15 July, 1985: pp. 62-63.

Spielberg, Steven. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Original screenplay, property of Phillips Productions, 1976.

Spielberg, Steven, Michael Grazis and Mark Victor. Poltergeist. Original screenplay, property of MGM/UA Communications Co., 1982.


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