Steven Spielberg's classic film about the heartwarming friendship between a boy and his new alien friend started life as something quite different.
After Close Encounters of the Third Kind became a critical and commerical success, Columbia Pictures wanted Spielberg to make a sequel. Spielberg was more interested in other projects, but he wasn't very happy with the job Universal Pictures did of making Jaws 2 in his absence, so he started to mull over the possibility of another alien feature, this time one in which the aliens would be definite enemies of mankind.
Working with screenwriter John Sayles (who'd written the Jaws-inspired and Jaws-parodying Piranha, of which Spielberg was a fan), Spielberg started to develop an idea he initially called Watch the Skies!, later retitled Night Skies. The film would be inspired by the 1955 "Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter," a report from Kentucky farming families claiming they'd been visited by extraterrestrials that has become one of the most famous close-encounter tales ever. Sayles' eventual script featured a family trapped inside their farmhouse while "ETs" outside tormented them with glowing fingers, telepathy and telekinesis. One of the aliens, who Sayles named "Buddy," actually wound up forming a bond with "Jaybird," an autistic boy in the farmhouse, and helping the family drive off the aliens, leading the other ETs to leave him stranded on Earth. Special-effects legend Rick Baker was set to design the creatures for the film, but Spielberg hadn't quite made up his mind yet.
While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg showed the Night Skies script to Harrison Ford's girlfriend, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was reportedly so moved by the friendship between Buddy and Jaybird that she cried. That, coupled with Spielberg's own childhood memories of pretending he had an alien friend, was enough to create a massive change in the Night Skies script. Spielberg asked Mathison to write a new screenplay that focused only on a friendship between a boy and an alien, and that became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
So, instead of a scary movie about aliens terrorizing a group of innocent humans, we got one of the most beloved family-friendly sci-fi films of all time. But Spielberg didn't let the horror elements in Night Skies go to waste. He took the family-under-seige element, replaced the aliens with ghosts, and co-wrote and produced Poltergeist. As for the whole alien menace thing, he's since delivered us stuff like War of the Worlds, Falling Skies and the Transformers franchise (the Decepticons are aliens, after all), so that certainly didn't go to waste either.
All this should serve not only as an interesting anecdote about one of the most successful films of the 1980s, but also as a reminder that subplots are often much more than they seem.
And check out these other little-known sci-fi facts:
How Whedon accidentally got Angel cancelled