How do you retell a story like E.T.? Spielberg’s masterpiece has become so integral to our culture that we know every shot, musical cue and beat almost off by heart. As the likes of Stranger Things and Super 8 have found, even homaging the film can deliver as much frustration as delight, so what about a literal translation: actually retelling the story in a different medium? That’s the task Kim Smith had laid before her with this storybook version of the film, and I’m delighted to say she’s succeeded with flying colours.
The E.T. storybook is the latest in Quirk Books‘ Pop Classics line. This is a series of slimline A4 picturebooks that adapt pop culture classics for new generations; Home Alone and The X-Files have already been released and Back to the Future will follow next year. All are illustrated by Smith, whose sweet and utterly charming style breathes fresh life into these well-known stories.
E.T. is perhaps the best suited so far because it is, essentially, a fairy tale that in another time would have been created as a storybook to be read to kids at night. The storytelling brevity the format necessitates actually helps the story along. E.T. has been picked apart so much that it feels more like a series of great moments than a complete story now: the bike flight, the Yoda Halloween scene, the science class sequence. By paring things down to Storybook length, Smith and Jim Thomas (who adapted the film for this book) are able to focus on what E.T. is truly about: loneliness and the empathy needed to end it.
With Thomas’s winning structure to work from, Smith crafts imagery that is both true to the original film and still unique. Spielberg bathed his original in rich blues and warm oranges that are key to the film’s storytelling and Smith maintains their use and meaning here. The scenes in Elliott’s home, for example, emanate a gorgeous orange glow that makes them seem every bit as inviting as they are in the film, while the blues have all the mystery and intrigue Spielberg’s did. In much less time and without the benefit of moving imagery, Smith has captured the heart of the story perfectly.
This is no simple retread though. Smith has a unique style all of her own, and it’s one teeming with life, fun and – as this is a storybook – unbelievable cuteness. Whether peeking out of Elliott’s shed, being scared by Gertie, or hiding amongst stuffed toys, Smith’s E.T. is an adorable joy. His wide eyes engage our sympathy, while his pudgy body and spindly little arms make him as weird and awkward as he was in the film. It’s impossible not to love him.
But Smith doesn’t just do wonderful things with the title character: she has fun with all the little details. The family dog gets some adorable moments with E.T., while Gertie (who, let’s face it, is the real star of the film) steals every moment she’s in. Whether she’s apprehensively checking out E.T.’s strange feet, or looking delightedly at her efforts in dressing him up, Gertie steals the show and adds a whole other level of cuteness to the book. You get the feeling that Smith had as much fun illustrating Gertie as Drew Barrymore did playing her.
As this is a modern retelling of the story, and one aimed at younger readers, there are some small changes made here and there. Perhaps the biggest is that E.T. doesn’t actually die; instead, he’s simply captured. Meanwhile, Elliott’s group of friends now includes a young black boy; in the film, they’re all white. Both are important changes, making the story softer and more diverse. Spielberg (who’s explored racial issues in a number of his films) would approve of the second change in particular.
The E.T. Pop Classics book is a delightful piece of work that will please old and new fans alike. Recreating a masterpiece is never easy, but Smith has done it with real skill here and I can’t wait to see what she does with Back to the Future. Hopefully, more Spielberg and Amblin adaptations will follow soon after.
A perfect adaptation for the young and young at heart that beautifully pays tribute to E.T. whilst at the same time offering a new spin.