“Everything has to start with fear. Loss, loneliness, being challenged and pursued by big forces. [The BFG is] the loneliest story I think I’ve ever told. These two lonely people find a way to make a difference. Those are touchstones that attracted me to the book. I read it to my kids, and the bullying was one of the things that I painfully associated with my own childhood. And also being able to grow out of my fears and often, when I do, feeling taller than the tallest giant. Size doesn’t matter when loneliness is what our lives have meant to us.”
Steven Spielberg on The BFG
Why did you take me,” asks Sophie in The BFG. “Because I hears your lonely heart,” comes the eponymous giant’s response. It’s a line of huge significance that speaks not just to the orphaned Sophie, but also The BFG, who’s bullied by the meaner, bigger giants of Giant Country and confesses to being scared of them when Sophie tells him later in the film that she isn’t. But it’s also a line that echoes throughout Spielberg’s entire career. Sophie and The BFG aren’t the only lonely, isolated, confused, or broken characters Spielberg has made films about during his career. Indeed, they’re just the latest in a long line that feeds all the way back to the start of his career — and the start of his life.
As a child, Spielberg was unsettled and isolated. His father’s job as a computer engineer at a time when the technology was in its formative stages meant that the Spielberg family moved from home to home at a moment’s notice. “Just as I’d become accustomed to a school and a teacher and a best friend, the FOR SALE sign would dig into the front lawn,” he’s recalled. “And it would always be that inevitable goodbye scene, in the train station or at the carport parking up the car to drive somewhere, or at the airport. Where all my friends would be there and we’d say good-bye to each other and I would leave. This happened to me four major times in my life. And the older I got the harder it got.”
Even when he did settle, he still never quite felt like he fit in. “A wimp in a world of jocks,” is how he’s described himself, a reputation that meant his day-to-day life involved “just trying to make it through the year without getting [my face] pushed into the drinking fountain.” Indeed, things got so bad that Spielberg tried to remedy one of the most pressing discomforts: his appearance. “I used to take a big piece of duct tape and put one end on the top of my nose and the other end as high up on my forehead line as I could,” he’s remembered. “I had this big nose. My face grew into it, but when I was a child, I was very self-conscious about my schnozz. I thought if you kept your nose taped up that way, it would stay… like Silly Putty.” It never did.
Young Spielberg’s heritage didn’t help his sense of difference. Growing up in mostly Gentile neighbourhoods, the Jewish Spielberg felt a disconnect from all the other kids. It made him ashamed of who he was, even at one point ignoring his grandfather when he called for him using his Jewish name, Shmuel. Christmas was, of course, a particularly challenging period. As all the neighbourhood decorations would go up, the Spielberg house would stay bare and stand out because of it. One year, according to a neighbour, Steven set up coloured lights on the front porch, dressed himself in a white sheet, and posed like Jesus on the cross. It was his was of trying to fit in, but it left his parents mortified and they quickly put an end to the act.
Spielberg’s longing to belong manifested itself in his films early on. Duel and Jaws are both tales of bullied characters who need to muster the strength (both physical and emotional) to vanquish their foes; only once they’ve built up the emotional strength can they find the physical strength to win through. Raiders of the Lost Ark, and indeed the Indiana Jones series as a whole, expands this ideafurther. Indy may be much more powerful than David Mann and Martin Brody, but his plight is always a deeply emotional one: he isn’t heroic because he beats Belloq, Mola Ram, or Donovan. He’s heroic because he masters an emotion and becomes a better human being.
Look, for example, at Raiders, in which he learns the value of respect by shutting his eyes to the power of the Ark to stay alive. Temple finds him learning that the Sankara Stones mean something to the village, not just “fortune and glory” to him. Meanwhile in Last Crusade, he learns the importance of heritage, reconnecting with his father and realising that history isn’t just about hidden tombs and dusty books, but a real, tangible thing that shapes who he is. In each film, he connects with someone during his adventure: relighting his flame with Marion, seeing past the vapid screeching of Willie, and most significantly, understanding his father.
This desire to understand, to belong, is what fuels Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.. These are films of disconnect and tragedy, films about characters who feel lost in the world, unable to find a place for themselves within it. Roy Neary can’t connect with his family and seems to have little interest in his job. He’s daydreaming through life, and when the aliens implant visions of Devil’s Tower in his head, he finds purpose but can’t work out how to act upon it. “What is it!? WHAT IS IT?! Tell me…” he screams after another unsuccessful bid to craft a physical version of what’s in his mind. He’s not just trying to understand what the shape he’s seeing is; he’s trying to understand what he is and how he fits into the world.
Elliott and E.T. are no different. Both are lonely, both are without a centre. E.T.’s lost his people, Elliott has lost his father and is picked on by his friends. They find each other because they need each other. Deeply, fundamentally, there’s a connection between them, one built on loneliness. They find solace in their friendship, but it’s what their friendship leads to that truly transforms them. Half way through the film, they fly through, and above, a deserted forest, living a fantasy that’s totally disconnected from the world. They’re happy, but still lonely. It’s the second flight that marks their progress. Escaping their FBI pursuers, the pair again fly, but this time with Elliott’s friends. And instead of flying against a moon they fly towards a warm, inviting sun, a repeated symbol of truth and togetherness for Spielberg. They’ve connected not just with each other, but with other people too: Elliott’s brother and his friends. Only by doing this can they truly progress in their lives.
This idea repeats time and time again. Peter Banning needs the Lost Boys to become Peter Pan; Oskar Schindler needs the Girl in the Red Coat to take action against Göth; Alan Grant needs Lex and Tim to awaken his paternal feelings; the company need Captain Miller to guide them through their mission to save Private Ryan; David needs Gigolo Joe to help him find the Blue Fairy; Frank Abagnale needs Hanratty to stop his life of crime isolating him entirely; Albert needs Joey to help him survive the madness of war, Haddock needs Tintin to rediscover his heritage; Lincoln needs Tad to keep him centered during his fight to end slavery; Abel needs Donovan to defend him against Red Scare hysteria and the BFG and Sophie need each other to survive the bullying and isolation they suffer in their respective lives.
When we think of Spielberg films, we think of fantastical creatures and daring adventures. We think of sharks, aliens, and lost temples in ancient jungles. Too rarely do we think of the single most important thing in all Spielberg films: people. It’s people that propel Spielberg films, people that face up to the terrifying foes and emotional turmoil, and people that transcend them all. What these films teach us is that nobody is alone and no matter how bad the world seems, no matter how lost you feel, no matter how dark the night gets, there’s always good, there’s always light, and there’s always someone out there you can reach out to. ?
Find out more about the films mentioned in this essay by visiting From Director Steven Spielberg’s Filmography section. A list of the books and sources referenced can be seen below, alongside other recommended reading.
- ‘The Darkness of Steven Spielberg‘, Interview with James Kendrick by Landon Palmer, Film School Rejects. Published 20th October 2016.
- ‘Steven Spielberg: “It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything”‘, Tom Shone, The Guardian. Published 16th July 2016.
- ‘The Big Family-Friendly Giant: Steven Spielberg and Understanding the Loneliness of Childhood‘, Teo Bugbee. MTV. Published 30th June 2016.
- ‘It’s a lonely Christmas for Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can‘, Mike D’Angelo. The A.V. Club. Published 9th December 2016.
- ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘, Chris Wisniewski, Julien Allen, Michael Koresky, Eric Hynes, Farihah Zaman, Adam Nayman, Bruce Bennett, Jeff Reicher. Reverse Shot. Published 2012.
- ‘Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg‘, James Kendrick. Published by Bloomsbury Academic, 3rd July 2014.
- ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg‘, Adrian Schober, Debbie C. Olson (eds). Published by Lexington Books, 15th April 2016.
- ‘Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg‘, Andrew M. Gordon. Published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 15th October 2007.
- ‘Steven Spielberg: A Biography (Third Edition)‘, Joseph McBride. Published by Faber and Faber, 1st September 2012.