Most film directors, like any artists, are influenced in their work by their own life experiences. This is more readily apparent in some director’s films than others, however. The violent and gritty New York City streets of Martin Scorcese’s youth have been featured prominently throughout his career; nearly every one of Oliver Stone’s films are impacted by his experiences in the Vietnam War; and Steven Spielberg’s childhood has a complex effect on the ways in which he portrays family in his films. This essay will focus on the work of Steven Spielberg and the manifestations of his childhood experiences, specifically his relationship with his father, in several of his most beloved films.Spielberg’s early family difficulties seem to have provided raw material for a filmography crammed with broken homes, abandoned children, and wayward, would-be, or substitute fathers. His family relocated a number of times when he was a child, from Ohio to New Jersey to Arizona to California. While his mother Leah was indulgent to the young boy’s interests, Spielberg’s father Arnold was emotionally distant, and he and Steven did not have a good relationship. He has said that his father never gave him his approval until his dad’s fellow workers walked up to him and said they’d seen his son’s movies and they really liked them.Eventually, his parents’ marriage began to fall apart. Steven would shove towels under his door to keep out the noise of the arguments. They were soon divorced, and Steven was estranged from his father for 15 years. It is this early hardship that seems to have provided Spielberg with his greatest source of inspiration.Considering both their authorship by a wide variety of screenwriters and their broad commercial appeal, Spielberg’s films contain a surprising degree of thematic unity, which is focused on human relationships and the model of the family broken and mended. Spielberg refers to himself in interviews as the eternal child and has said that in his movies he has tried to create the warm domestic environment that was absent in his childhood.The absence of Spielberg’s father in his life has translated itself to the big screen in films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Catch Me If You Can, among others. The theme is perhaps most consciously explored in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook, but in these cases the role of the father is so crucial to the story, and so readily present on the surface, that it becomes less interesting in a formal analysis. All of these films feature a father that is either distant or completely absent from his family, and in each case the audience views the film from the perspective of the child rather than the father, in order to better understand the emotional impact that a father’s distance has on his child.Close Encounters, released in 1977, is one of the earliest examples of Spielberg’s preoccupation with the estranged father. Although in the film Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, does not leave his family, he does become so emotionally distant that he cannot relate to his wife and children anymore. His obsession over a “close encounter” with alien life eventually pushes everyone else away from him. Neary can be seen as a loose representation of Spielberg’s own father, who cared more for his work than for his own son, even before he was divorced from Steven’s mother and did not see his son for years.E.T. offers the most overt example of Spielberg’s use of absent fathers to that point in his career. In the film, young Elliott is coping with the departure of his father from the family, which left only his mother to care for Elliott, his older brother Michael, and his younger sister Gertie. The children are dependent solely on their mother, but they must also be more independent in order to help her run the household on her own.Therefore the children’s mother is the only adult viewed with kindness and sympathy for the majority of the film, while all others are somehow threatening or ominous (in fact, their mother is pretty much the only adult whose face is shown until the end of the film, adding to the audience’s sense of camaraderie with the children). This is part of Spielberg’s strategy to bring the viewer back to the state of a child. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliott or ET, he/she is looking at Elliott or ET looking up. In this way the director recreates the way children look up at their parents, other adults, and even the stars. By linking the audience so closely with the emotions of the children, Spielberg accentuates the children’s need for family security and the impact that their father’s absence has on them.Catch Me If You Can is perhaps the most autobiographical of Spielberg’s films – even though it tells the true story of a man named Frank Abagnale Jr. – in terms of the relationship depicted between parents and child, and the ways in which the young protagonist deals with conflict. 15-year-old Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a child devastated by the divorce of his parents. The split comes when Abagnale’s mother can no longer put up with his father’s extensive IRS burdens, after the family has already moved from their comfortable suburban home to a cramped apartment. Like Abagnale, Spielberg’s family relocated when he was a child, and his parents were subsequently divorced when he was about the same age as Frank. As a method of coping with the division of his family, and left with the difficult task of choosing which parent he wants to live with, adolescent con-artist Frank embarks on a series of charades as a PanAm airline pilot, a doctor and an attorney, while also running a check-forging scam that granted him millions of dollars in fraudulent funds.Although Abagnale’s story does not exactly parallel Spielberg’s life experiences, there are broad similarities which are interesting to note. During the 1960’s, at the same time that the precocious young Abagnale was concealing his identity, even creating a fake ID to appear ten years older than he really was, the director allegedly started his career in filmmaking by sneaking onto the Universal Studio lot to examine the process up-close. The young Spielberg took up residence in an abandoned janitor’s closet, converting it into an office, and pretended to work for the studio until people actually gave him work to do. When Spielberg later signed a contract with Universal Studios, he lied about his age, claiming to be one year younger than he really was so that he would then be the youngest filmmaker ever contracted to a major studio. Both Spielberg and Abagnale are uniquely driven in their ambitions, and the roots of their motivation can be seen in their family relationships.In addition to Spielberg’s identification with Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can is also intriguing for its portrayal of the relationship between Abagnale and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent who pursues him relentlessly for years. Eventually, through years of playing cat-and-mouse and exchanging annual Christmas phone calls, the audience senses a transition in their relationship. Hanratty transforms into a surrogate father for Abagnale, who has become estranged from his own family, specifically his father. Hanratty even takes Abagnale under his wing at the end of the film, offering him a job and a chance at redemption and a new life. This kind of relationship is another important element in Spielberg’s work, and is seen in many of his most well-known films.