It Doesn't Matter
The conversation around Stranger Things has been all about the show’s “influences”: the first thing everyone has said is that it’s the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel by Steven Spielberg anyone has ever seen, while also being a John Carpenter adaptation of a John Hughes movie. And so on, and on, and on. That the show is “an unabashed rip off of any number of beloved genre classics (E.T., The Thing, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Blow Up, etc.) to the point where each episode should come with a works cited page” is pretty much the first thing everyone says about it. And sure, ok, why not.
But that shouldn’t be the last thing we say about it. I mean, if you want to un-suspend your disbelief and tease out different derivations of the show’s narrative strands, we can easily turn one show into a game of spotting its dozens and dozens of narrative ancestors. This is especially easy because, for at least the first part of the show, the many different characters in the show actually inhabit different genres: the show is a monster fantasy for some, a sci-fi conspiracy mystery for others, plus overlapping shades of the teen coming-of-age drama, horror movie, mother’s quest to find her lost child, sheriff’s battle with his past demons in a quest for redemption, the outcast’s search for sociality, etc, etc. It’s very hard to name much there that’s original: what they are all doing—and what we, through them, are doing—is inhabiting different worlds, cinematic and otherwise, weaving them together into one, oddly seamless, show.
And that’s the thing that really interests me about Stranger Things: when have we last seen such a lack of anxiety when it comes to influence? This show is so supremely unbothered about how and where it steals from its predecessors, so thoroughly at ease rifling through the archives. Compare it to the vexed and anxious way a show like Mr. Robot oh-so-knowingly appropriates Fight Club or Psycho, and the consequence of doing so: those appropriations have meanings, so tremendous energy is released with each fission and fusion of cinematic reference points. The same with the 2016 Ghostbusters, which gets so bogged down in referencing its own franchise history—everyone gets a cameo!—that it cuts into the moments of out-and-out movie pleasure that made the original so successful; for every transcendent Kate McKinnon moment, there is a pointlessly leaden and dragged-out Bill Murray scene. And Game of Thrones! That show has spent it’s entire running time trying to have its “I Love Tolkien” Cake and eat it too. But these are just the examples that came to mind because I’ve seen them relatively recently. I could name others: now that pretty much every movie or show is an adaptation or re-boot or re-imagining of an old classic—which is both how it feels and how it is—almost everything we watch is at least self-conscious about the process of adaptation, and often quite stressed out about it. Influence induces anxiety.
But not with Stranger Things. The show knows how thoroughly it has pilfered from the archive; it also knows it doesn’t care. It even riffs on its lack of interest in getting uptight about where things come from. Take, for example, the scene in which one of the lesser cops suggests that Mirkwood “sounds made-up”: while the boys instantly admit the reference to Tolkien—that in a literal sense, it’s “made up”—they also clarify that “it's a real road. It's just the name that's made up.” And when Dustin gets pedantic—it’s from The Hobbit, not The Lord of the Rings—Lucas speaks the show’s ethos: IT DOESN’T MATTER.
This is something we’re at risk of missing if we play the game of origin and adaptation, if we play authenticity detective about which parts are invented by true artists and which parts are stolen by hacks (or debate whether art can be remix or must be original). Those kinds of dichotomies tells a story about what we tend to think Real Art is supposed to be, or at least what, by our metaphors and our framing questions, we are most easily in the habit of presuming it to be: novelty and advance. Art is that which moves the conversation forward, which tells us something new, which has something new to say, something like the legal burden for fair use: you can use something old, but only if you make it new. Thus, we find ourselves asking: is Stranger Things “simply” a redux of all the 1980’s stuff, is it “just” a rehashed pastiche of “mere” nostalgia? Or is it, you know, actually good?
Cue Dustin, frustrated: IT DOESN’T MATTER.
What’s striking to me about this show is that it manages not to get caught in this (ultimately circular) debate; it’s neither a knowing postmodern adaptation nor an out-and-out nostalgia piece, preserved in amber. The princess is a boy and the lost warrior is a girl, but it’s not a gendered re-boot or update. And despite its top-to-bottom rootedness in the milieu of the early 1980’s, it’s not really a period piece. For all its wild recycling of tropes and images and plotlines from a broad swathe of genre history, Stranger Things doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just telling a fun story, using whatever texts come to hand. And while I’m not against overthinking this—let us never allow “just telling a fun story” to go uncritiqued—there’s something to be said about the show’s insistence on under-thinking it.
Here’s why: it’s about play. We have good reasons to overthink TV shows, to take them too seriously: it helps us reclaim from them all that they take for granted, all the ideology in which we find ourselves implicated as we enjoy works produced by a capitalist, patriarchal, racist culture, etc. If your fave is problematic, it’s worth thinking about why, not because you or it are bad and should feel bad, but because our world is fallen and all is vanity and what does humanity gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun, etc. Or something like that. Art has baggage; criticism is about rummaging through that bag to see what’s inside, and what you want to do with it.
“Play” is something different, a function of taking things less seriously. Stranger Things feels dedicated to that sense of play, to the insistence on underthinking which makes play possible (and for which the “childhood in the 80’s” thing almost serves as a kind of symbol in its own right). The innocence, then, is not the innocence of prelapsarian children, untainted by whatever it will be that taints them; it’s the necessary ignorance of those who know that it’s just a game, who know that it’s made up, but suspend that knowledge so as to play the game, and enjoy it. Of course the show is stealing from every film and TV franchise it likes enough to plunder. But if you want to take the show seriously enough to ask those kinds of questions, then it’s worth starting with the show’s seriousness about un-seriousness.
The show’s relationship to its “sources” reminds me of nothing so much as the careless plunder of fantasy role-playing games themselves, Dungeons and Dragons being only the most prominent. Such games are a mode of storytelling where creatures from eight different incompatible mythologies are likely to wander through the same space, each lovingly reimagined in terms of whatever homegrown mythology the dungeon master happens to be deploying at the time, and each—this is key—dependent on the players’ united suspension of disbelief. Everyone knows that the Balrog is a monster invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, and that the elf/dwarf/halfling/human/orc racial palette of most fantasy RPGs is directly burglarized from Middle Earth; but to enjoy the confrontation between the Balrog’s orc army and your party of elves and dwarves—for it to work as a game—the last thing you want to remember is who holds the artistic copyright.
Or take the Demogorgon himself, the name given to Stranger Things’ primary antagonist: there is one derivation of the creature that goes back to mistranslations of “demiurge” and brings us from Latin epic up to Milton and friends; in a knowing, scholarly way, you can trace how this reference gets taken up by knowing, scholarly writers, each at least partially aware of who used the creature before and each expecting that you, the reader, will read with that in mind. But there is also another derivation of the creature, one that describes the creature’s career as a Dungeons and Dragons monster, and which is animated by the necessary ignorance of all of those previous origins, which reduces it to a name and a general feeling. The two are separated by a vast aesthetic chasm; the first requires you to know, the second not to know.
Obviously, the Demogorgon of Stranger Things belongs to the second category, because it bears no necessary relationship to any of the other Demogorgons; it just is whatever it is. And this is how monsters in D&D work: once a name was taken from whatever texts it was taken from, it became its own thing, as likely to be encountered as a Balrog or a vampire or Tarrasque or a Rakshasa, or just something Gary Gygax dreamed up while playing with weird little toys from Hong Kong.
Lovecraft, Norse mythology, Tolkien, whatever: where was it originally from? IT DOESN’T MATTER.
This emphasis on play, on taking things and seeing what can be done with them, is more than a narrative principle of the show, however; it’s also a way of thinking about its underlying sociality. The plot of the show—and its generic framing—are structured by the monster, by threats, and by danger. But its heart is in the problem of groups, the things which collective ignorance make possible. This is a show, put bluntly, about playing together, about forming groups and finding ways to make those groups work and cohere, and about not being too bothered about origins, or past grievances. It’s also why the show resolves in the way it does: at the beginning, all the characters are part of different stories—each taken from different genres and social strata, disconnected and distrustful—but at the end, as the story winds to its conclusion, everyone ends up on (more or less) the same team, all playing the same Dungeons and Dragons game that only the children had started out knowing they were playing. And as their stories converge, their efforts unite, each is enriched by each other. If there is a message, it’s that our differences are what make us precious to the group. But this is about as far from an original “message” as you’re likely to find, because that, too, is the point: authority and authorship are related terms, as etymology and an interest in origins will tell us. But to get past that, we have to get past that: play is about productive coexistence, about finding shared texts and practices and finding space within them to thrive, and about not caring very much about where things come from, or why.
It’s a real road, only the name is made up,