E.T. vs The Alien: 25 years on the mystery still continues

“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon” – Akira Kurosawa

The man who put Indian cinema on the global map. An author, a music composer, an illustrator, a costume designer and above all a filmmaker, Satyajit Ray was all of them and more, an ‘auteur’ in the truest sense of the word as Truffaut would have envisioned. In this article, we delve into the untold story of his visionary sci-fi movie, which never went on to see the light of day.

Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of extra-terrestrial life. The success of the science fiction genre in pop-culture is a testimony to our obsession with the mystery of extra-terrestrial beings. A pioneer of the New Hollywood era, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial perhaps revolutionized how aliens were portrayed on the big screen. It completely changed the existing cliché of 70’s, 80’s sci-fi cinema, which portrayed aliens as blood-thirsty vicious creatures with their sole purpose being the destruction of humankind. The timeless classic, upon its release became an immediate blockbuster, and was the highest grossing film of all time before being bettered by Spielberg himself with Jurassic Park, eleven years later in 1993.

But before we sing any more praises for E.T., we must get acquainted with the biggest controversy surrounding the film. It has been alleged, that the script of E.T. was partially plagiarized from a screenplay written by Satyajit Ray back in 1967. Titled “The Alien”, the screenplay never materialized into a film. However, several copies of it continued to make its rounds around Tinseltown. Much of the screenplay for “The Alien” was based on a short-story by Ray– Bonkubabur Bondhu (Mr.Banku’s friend), which he had published in the Bengali magazine, Sandesh in 1962.

Ray, first spoke with his friend, celebrated science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, about his script for what would have been India’s first sci-fi film. Impressed by the script, Clarke advised Ray to share the script with Columbia Pictures. The American production company agreed to produce the film with Classic Hollywood heavyweights such as Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers being considered for the lead roles. But hard luck was yet to hit Ray. Unbeknownst to him, Mark Wilson, his representative in Hollywood copyrighted the script and appropriated the fee as a co-writer despite having played a minimal part in its creation. With things looking grim and Marlon Brando dropping off the project, Ray lost hope in the project and decided to return to Kolkata later in 1967.

He went on to direct several classics of Indian cinema, when fifteen years later in 1982 he received a phone call from his friend Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, who had just been to a screening of E.T. in London had been astounded by the resemblances the film beared to the script of The Alien. Ray, in an interview in 1983, had asserted “You know at least two of the Spielberg-Lucas films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.” Renowned director, Martin Scorsese, a close personal friend of Spileberg, alleged that E.T. was influenced by Ray’s script.

However, Spielberg denied copying the script of The Alien saying he “was a kid in high school when (Ray’s) script was circulating in Hollywood”. The celebrated director, also went on to say that the alien in E.T. was inspired from an imaginary friend he had made up as a kid, while going through the divorce of his parents. Ray decided not to take any legal action, because he considered Spielberg was a great director who made great films, and both the legendary film-makers made peace. It has also been said, that both Spielberg and Scorsese were influential in pushing The Academy to recognize the work of Satyajit Ray. The Academy awarded Ray with an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, while being severely ill and bed-ridden, in 1992. In a rather tragic turn of events, the exemplary film-maker passed away twenty-four days later, from a heart-block complication.

Whether, E.T. Extra Terrestrial, was influenced by the script of “The Alien” still remains a mystery, but it continues to enthrall youngsters and adults, twenty-five years after its release. The immense contributions of both Spielberg and Ray to the silver screen in general remains unmatched, and since the dust settled amicably, it is perhaps in our best interest to appreciate both the masters.

Saptaparna Patra Written by: