The folly of calling Stranger Things 'unoriginal'

Immature poets imitate, but mature poets steal.

My hometown of Honolulu had a famous haunting back in the 1950s. According to accounts, young ladies would go into the bathroom at the Waialae Drive-In Theater and find a woman with her head bent down, coming her hair in front of the mirror. When the young lady got close, the mysterious woman would sweep her hair back -- revealing she had no face. Her skin was smooth as an eggshell.

The stories caused a sensation at the time, with articles appearing in newspapers and people calling sightings in to radio shows. The fact that the drive-in was next to a graveyard fueled speculation about the ghost’s identity. When the theater got demolished and replaced with a storage facility, the ghost moved across the highway to new digs at Kahala Mall, where she continues to scare teenagers today. Her new bathroom is, of course, down a lonely hallway adjacent to the mall’s multiplex.

If you’ve read Japanese folklore -- or are a fan of Japanese film -- you’ll recognize this faceless entity as the Noppera-bō, a ghost famous for haunting the Akasaka road outside Tokyo. Interestingly, this area of Tokyo contributed heavy Japanese immigration to Hawaii -- and when those families came, the Noppera-bō hitchhiked with their collective consciousness. Thus, an apparition that used to scare travelers during the late 19th century is now spooking 21st-century kids.

But it isn’t the same story, exactly. Though the central ghost remains the same, the other elements -- the movie theater, the women’s bathroom, the mirror -- are 20th century additions. In the original, a man traveling at night sees the woman crying by the side of the road, and when he flees at her appearance, he tells his story to a kindly soba seller -- who also reveals he has no face. Like so many stories, it’s a remix updated for new generations.

I belabor this point because I want to point out that the recasting classic plots and borrowing material is a natural part of human storytelling -- so second-nature that it can even occur by accident.

Which brings us to the Netflix show Stranger Things, a charming shape-shifter that borrows its look, tone, and plot elements from 1980s films. While the series has inspired fans, its also rallied opposition that claim it’s just a patchwork of influences, or worse, an indication audiences don’t want “original” stories. While “remix culture” is absolutely a force in current media, I’d argue the show’s detractors are being shortsighted. There’s nothing wrong with a remix provided it’s done well, and indeed, many 1980s films we consider “original” are in fact remixes of older material -- including works Stranger Things uses for inspiration.

First off, the there’s quite a few problems with “originality” as a creative concept. “Immature poets imitate,” T.S. Eliot once said, while “mature poets steal.” Shakespeare lifted plots from Italian prose stories and Roman legends, possibly even basing Hamlet on an earlier lost play. Borrowing elements of other stories or burying homages within a work is nothing new. For centuries writers, performers, and filmmakers have used elements of previous work in order to convey a tone or feeling. In fact, I won’t belabor this point since anyone who’s taken to a college-level English class has beaten this horse until nothing remains but hair and gristle.

It’s absolutely true that Stranger Things takes this loot-and-reference to an extreme. The show has enough Easter eggs, replicated camera shots, and references to flesh out a drinking game. That’s part of the fun. Yet the fact that the show hooks people who didn’t grow up steeped in ‘80s film proves it operates on its own, rather than coasting on the goodwill of its predecessors.

Indeed, the idea that Stranger Things just cobbles together elements from the more-original films of the 1970s and 1980s hits on a specific type of generational blindness. The era of Spielberg, Lucas, and John Carpenter was no more “original” than our own -- and many classic films from this time are themselves remixes of earlier material. George Lucas cobbled together several Kurosawa films and Frank Herbert’s Dune in order to make Star Wars, and then added the climax from WWII aviation film The Dam Busters. Hell, he even lifted the opening crawl from Flash Gordon serials and openly advertised the film as a throwback to the series. Raiders of the Lost Ark stole part its famous truck chase from Stagecoach and wholesale lifted the traps and rolling boulder in its opening from Scrooge McDuck comics. Indy’s costume (and several of his set pieces) come from Secret of the Incas. Carpenter’s The Fog resembles old Tales From the Crypt comics, and the invisible monster in Predator -- a major Stranger Things inspiration -- recalls the invisible fiends in H.P. Lovecraft’s work, which were in turn inspired Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 story “The Damned Thing” (which had its own predecessor in the 1859 story “What Was It?”). Even today’s obsession with nostalgia isn’t particularly new, since the vaunted 1980s had its own slate of back-to-simpler-times 1950s and ‘60s fare such as Animal House, A Christmas Story, and several Stranger Things inspirations, including IT and Stand By Me. Spielberg’s early films, the ones the series pulls from, are callbacks to Ray Bradbury’s books about about growing up in the 1920s. It’s turtles all the way down, as they say. Excavate any city and you’ll find another city beneath it.

Going by T.S. Eliot’s standard, the real measure of a work isn’t dependent on what artists re-use, but whether they use that material to create a new and different product. As an audience, we know this on an almost primal level -- why else would we look at Quentin Tarantino, whose films are a collage of borrowed elements, and deem his work “original”? Stranger Things does borrow wholesale, but the central emotional conflict -- the multi-generational search for an abducted child -- provides a stable center for it to stand on its own. Is it high art? Lord no. But if you’re looking for an example of Hollywood’s epidemic of remakes and sequels, this isn’t it.

To be honest, I think discussions about what audiences “prefer” often say more about the litigants than the actual case. In short, film commentators occasionally indulge a false narrative about how the plebs do so love their bread and circuses. Take this piece over at Vox, which argues that the success of Stranger Things proves that audiences would rather have familiar stories with a twist than truly original ones, like indie film The Lobster.

This is a terrible comparison. To be brief, The Lobster is a dark sci-fi film about a society that sends people to a reeducation facility if, for any reason, they become single after the age of twenty-five. Once they reach the drab, government-run hotel, they have forty-five days to find a “matching” partner or the government surgically alters them into an animal. It’s no doubt an original concept (it has its own influences and issues, but I digress) and I frankly hope it nets a few Oscar nominations. However, I couldn’t really recommend it to a wide audience because it’s an alienating, dark, often outright cruel film. It makes Children of Men look like The Sound of Music. Movies like that rarely become runaway hits, and it’s disingenuous to draw conclusions about the audience by juxtaposing its performance with Stranger Things. They possess different tones, different mediums, and different distribution platforms. One is a disturbing, limited-release theatrical feature, while the other is a crowd-pleasing, on-demand TV show everyone can stream right now. It’s comparing apples to durian.

That being said, I understand the frustration critics and film buffs occasionally express about what proves popular. It’s a natural instinct to feel disappointed that a new, different movie -- or in my wheelhouse, a game -- didn’t get more traction. Believe me, I get it. Being a fan of Korean thrillers, I regularly do a little don’t they know better? head shake when the Taken films or weak-sauce Jason Bourne entries rake in millions. But whatever, people like what they like.

Yet I’m actually not convinced that audiences shun “original” films or concepts. Indeed, films with unique visuals and bold narrative visions turn into hits all the time (provided they’re not morbidly depressing). The Lobster may have done only a pretty good $15 million at the box office, but more whimsical indies like Amélie have turned into juggernauts. Two years ago the startling neo-noir Nightcrawler raked in four times The Lobster’s business, and the second-largest movie this year was the non-sequel, non-derivative Zootopia. The most successful TV show in the world is a dead-serious fantasy epic, and we’re building theme parks around a startlingly unique (if aging) film series about wizard school. Mad Max: Fury Road, which was almost an anti-sequel, sold itself on a jaw-dropping trailer rather than anemic brand loyalty. Hell, last year people spent over a billion dollars to watch DiCaprio eat raw buffalo liver and Damon farm poop potatoes. Even games are on a high note -- I spent this weekend playing a space exploration game where you win bragging rights by finding the cow-dinosaur with the most legs. Despite swimming in superhero movies, audiences seek out unique narratives all the time, and we don’t need to pretend otherwise.

So the next time you begin arguing that people just want more of the same, at least go one step deeper and ask why nostalgia such a hot seller right now. You could certainly make a case that legacy properties are comforting -- harkening back to a time when politics were less fractious and mass civilian death wasn’t a weekly televised occurrence. You could make an article out of that, and it would be an interesting article.

At least it would be more, you know, original.