Stranger Things Shows The Power of Inspiration Over Adaptation

By  · Published on July 27th, 2016

How the Duffer Brothers Captured the Spirit of our Favorite Stories By Only Keeping What Worked

A few years ago, I wrote a piece arguing that the future of video game movies lies not in the faithful adaptation of their source material but instead in a complete deconstruction of the original. While the piece may have been a little rough around the edges – thus the lack of a hyperlink – it’s a piece I’ve found myself thinking about from time-to-time this past summer. The need for faithful adaptations has kind of crippled our summer movie season. Blockbuster reboots, sequels, and remakes are trying so hard to capture the essence of the original film that they often forget to tell an original story. There is an opening for screenplays that pick and choose freely among the movies and television shows they admire, all without feeling beholden to any preexisting license or property. And no single film or television series has done this as well as Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Stranger Things was an utterly unique experience for me. While plenty of shows draw on the culture of previous decades, Stranger Things demonstrated an uncanny knack for knowing the difference between being inspired by and married to another story. Every trip to the Upside Down bears the same nightmare imagery of a video game series like Silent Hill; every desperate small town authority figure acts like they have stepped directly from the pages of a Stephen King novel. This fluency in the style of eighties and nineties storytelling is what led Variety to focus an entire article on Netflix’s new approach towards nostalgia, a strategy that has them aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram of Generation X and millennials. A cynic therefore might say that Stranger Things is little more than an attempt to hook twenty- and thirty-somethings on the content they used to love as a child

There is probably some truth in that from a studio perspective – I’m sure Netflix wasn’t exactly losing sleep over the similarity between Stranger Things and, say, the films of Steven Spielberg – but I’m not entirely sure this is the right point to make when it comes to storytelling. The Duffer Brothers are not trying to pass off their influences as their own creations, but neither are they focused more on pastiche than storytelling. Their goal with Stranger Things is something considerably more ambitious: to create a series that adopts the language and symbols of major Hollywood franchises without bumping up against the audience entitlement that has sunk so many other adaptations. Somehow, despite all odds, they’ve succeeded; they’ve given us exactly what we want without giving us a say in how it was done. And it makes me want to stand up and cheer.

You could build this argument around any one of the properties that Stranger Things references, but since this is my article, let’s go back to the aforementioned Silent Hill. If you have never played the video games or watched the films, the premise is both simple and terribly complex: the reopening of an old wound causes the main character to seek out the small town of Silent Hill, where he or she finds quickly becomes stuck in the space between two worlds. In the real world, the town is dead and shuddered, with only a few half-crazy people moving among the ruins of the small town. In the other world, though, the world we might recognize as the Upside Down, misshapen monsters stalk their prey and the pulsing tissue of an alien presence covers every wall. These two worlds are both separate and equal; as the character explores an abandoned schoolyard, he or she may find themselves suddenly plunged into the nightmare realm. Same rooms, very different ambiance.

Silent Hill tells a unique horror story steeped in very human emotions. In each storyline, the audience soon realizes that the nightmare realm – the Upside Down – can be seen as a projection of the grief and terror hidden in each protagonist’s past. Sound familiar? Stranger Things may prove beyond shadow of a doubt that the Duffer Brothers could write and direct an incredible Silent Hill movie, but instead they chose to deconstruct the aspects of Silent Hill that fit neatly into their own narrative. The nightmare realm of Silent Hill is a huge influence on the design of the Upside Down, but of equal importance is the way that the Duffer Brothers link the alternate reality to the deepest feelings of grief. Every character in the film feels that they have caused someone to fall into harm’s way. Joyce carries the weight of not being there when her son needed her the most; the sheriff has never come all the way back from his daughter’s sickness and death; Nancy knows that Barb’s disappearance, despite all evidence to the contrary, is entirely her fault. The Upside Down may not be the literal representation of guilt we see in Silent Hill, but it serves as an open wound nonetheless.

Stranger Things is an Utterly Bingeable Campfire Story

And this is what makes Stranger Things so genius in its execution. A few steps to the left and the Duffer Brothers could have served up half-baked nostalgia; a few steps to the right and we would have been given a movie that served as adaptation of other media in all but name. The Duffer Brothers have made, in my very humble opinion, perhaps the best possible version of a Silent Hill series without getting bogged down in the backstory and audience expectations of the original series. They identified everything important from the games and added it to a story they were writing from scratch. There are no invasive callbacks (Ghostbusters), no awkward marriage of original material and modern aesthetics (Star Trek Beyond), no overwrought fan service to remind us of our connection to the franchise (Independence Day: Resurgence). What worked was kept; what didn’t was lost. Without the burden of adaptation, the Duffer Brothers managed to make something that felt exactly right.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)