As a self-proclaimed artist, I understand fully the dangers in giving an artist too much credit for the most innovative parts of a work. But Steven Spielberg has demonstrated such a repeated use of symbolism in all his works that it would be foolish to assume most if not all were intentional.
For this reason, when he makes references to Peter Pan, Hansel and Gretel and other fairy tales, we should think of them as important clues to the overall meaning of his own work.
Spielberg, in fact, seems to use fairy tales as his personal bank of inspiration from which he makes frequent withdrawals. In his better films, he managed to shape his own tales out of the original, giving us yet another and often extremely original fairy tale.
In order to appreciate this aspect, I've started to travel back into the roots of my own childhood, returning to those days when I listened to my Aunt Alice read me to sleep - in much the way the small girl in ET sat on her mother's lap. I had not previously understood the relationship between the stories my aunt read and the disturbing dreams I suffered over the hours that followed, the words and images churning into some psychological resolution I am still not wise enough to understand completely.
Fairy tales and the better Spielberg films like ET and Close Encounters are about revolving issues, in particular, appear to be focused upon what we mean by the concept of family. While it is possible to draw close parallels between ET and Peter Pan - some of which previous critics I have read have touched upon in their psycho-babble - we could also read too much into the comparison.
But both ET and Peter Pan do have strong similarities, superficially and fundamentally, which might help provide a better understanding of what Spielberg might be trying to do (I won't assume to know because God alone would risk a journey into Spielberg thinking and remain unaffected).
ET, like Peter Pan, forms a bond with children - with Elliott in particular, but with all the children by the end.
ET, like Peter Pan, can make his children fly.
Elliott's parents like those of Wendy, Michael and John in Peter Pan start out as irresponsible and though the threat of permanently being separated from their children form a stronger bond by the end of the film. Some foolish critics have claimed that the elder male sibling in ET became the father figure. I don't see the film that way since by the film's end the father - who had mysteriously gone off to Mexico with his squeeze - was represented by a father-like figure, a sympathetic scientist played by Peter Coyote. Although you can argue that Wendy in Peter Pan became a substitute mother for other kids, and that Spielberg might have intended to serve as a similar substitute the Coyote character turned up and the real mother matured enough to take her place as head of the family. Elliott's mother gradually moved from being flighty to loving through the process of the film, just as the parents of the three kids in Peter Pan.
ET like Peter Pan seems to represent perpetual immaturity, that state of relative innocence prior to when socialization begins the dramatic shaping leading to adulthood. Peter Pan has more of an edge, an uncomfortable resistance you might find in teenagers who distrust the older generation. But ET's world like Peter Pan's Neverland is a haven for kids, leaving adults outside the circle of trust. Unlike Peter Pan at the end of the film, ET seems wiser for his experience as well, having learned the ways of the world just as Elliott has.
Although ET never takes Elliott into space, he appears to have helped create a Neverland for kids right there in the middle of the ultimate suburban neighborhood, a private little enclave where the kids shared him as their secret resource.
Like the fairy tales my aunt read me as a child, ET has a very distinctive and often disturbing tone, playful and at the same time extremely serious - again reinforcing the idea that somehow the story is resolving some hugely important issue but in a way that seems less threatening or preaching that a lecture or religious sermon. ET echoes the mood that fairy tales and stories like Peter Pan and suggests that some important issue is being resolved - a mood and meaning often lacking in most adult tales.
ET, of course, uses his glowing finger instead of pixie dust, to make his magic, reverting in some ways to the concept of magic wand. While ET had no Tinkerbelle, Spielberg provided us with numerous similar creatures in Close Encounters and Batteries Not Included.
Two additional strong allusions to Peter Pan are evident in the film ET. One is set up by the story telling in which the mother in reading Peter Pan reaches the part where Tinkerbell's life will be saved only if children dreaming of Neverland call out that they believe in Faeries. This provides an important foreshadowing to what will happen later when Elliott stands beside the deceased ET, and suggests that his believe in the creature helps in its recovery. The other allusion comes earlier with the reaction of the mother to a missing Elliott who had searched for ET. Her relief at his return very much echoes the relief expressed by the mother in Peter Pan at the return of Wendy and the other children.
My initial negative reception of ET (and perhaps even my continued questioning of AI) may have evolved out of my early rejection of fairy tales in preference for space operas. Once I was allowed to cross the street on my own to where the nearest book and magazine store was, I searched out the dusty shelves for books by Asimov and Heinlein, not Grimm. I much preferred Doc Savage to Peter Pan. So that the 1977 release of Star Wars became my defining movement rather than the 1982 release of ET.
I presumed one was more adult than the other. I was right, of course. But I was also wrong.
As with the characters in ET and Peter Pan, I have since matured and come to understand (perhaps) how fairy tales and many Spielberg films struggle to work out some social issue that may lie outside even the usual wide boundaries of speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction - sometimes called science fiction - deals with the concept of "what if" but usually limits itself to a futuristic or alternative universe impact of technology. What if man kind got light speed vehicles? What if the world was taken over by robots? How would society change? How would the individual cope?
Spielberg's film - as in fairy tales - often focuses on the particular impacts of family relations.
What does technology do to the family? How can the family survive - if it does at all?
This difference can be seen in two films, both based on books by the same author, but adapted into film by different directors: Sphere and Jurassic Park.
Sphere delves into what might happen when human's come into an alien life form. Although there is a group dynamic, the conflict is largely psychological - showing us how each character deals with the conflict of facing his or her own worst fears. While there is this same aspect in Jurassic Park, Spielberg appears to have added his own touch, an element carried over from his other films - how does the situation affect the family unit?
In ET and his other films, Spielberg brings us home, and shows us the impact on our most basic of social structures unlike the anti-communistic impact shown in speculative fiction of the 1950s, the environmental disaster of the 1960s and the paranoid films of the early 1970s.
Often the impact is not world destruction or what happens in the universe, but rather what happens between the members of the most basic of human social organizations: the family. His films are not about society coping with impacts so much as the struggle of the family to retain or regain their cohesiveness.
In choosing (if he did choose) fairy tales as a model for some of his stories, Spielberg has chosen a model that has always served this purpose, one that has reflected throughout time what the relationship is between father and son, mother and daughter, and the impacts of social change have on those relationships. In most fairy tales, this was the impact of the socieal revolutions - with Peter Pan reflecting the period at which mechanized society was reaching its peak prior to the outbreak of World War One. In basing his works on such material, Spielberg may well be creating the next generation of fairy tales, one based on suburban sprawl and the age of information.