Stranger Things and the art of Pastiche

There be spoilers ahead

Last week, I binge-watched Stranger Things on Netflix. It’s been awhile since I mainlined a tv show like that, but Stranger Things is worth it.

The plot involves a boy going missing in a small Indiana town, a mysterious government facility and a girl with telekinetic powers. There’s teenage parties and a monster that stalks the town. Basically, it’s a combination of many different eighties movies and books, most notably Poltergeist, ET and Stephen King books. Look at the main logo for example, a pitch perfect recreation of eighties horror titles. It’s also brilliant. A gripping mystery that builds to a fantastic climax, with unique, interesting characters.

Pastiche is difficult to pull off. Often dismissed as lazy or cheap, it can feel forced if the references are just regurgitated wholesale, or not transformed at all. By drawing attention to style of others it can make your new art feel derivative. On the other hand, if done correctly, pastiche can transform the work of art into something new. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are good examples of fantastic films that were created as works of pastiche. Both of them are playing homage to black and white serials of the thirties, whilst transforming their touchstones.Just look at all the influences Star Wars drew on to create it’s sci-fi pastiche. In no way is Star Wars diminished by the use of pastiche, but instead feels unique.

This is a long way to say that Stranger Things does pastiche very well indeed. The story is compelling in it’s own right, even without the eighties references. The characters are interesting and feel human in a way that’s hard to pull off. The pastiche elements means the story pays homage to it’s influences whilst combining them into something new.

There’s a number of things the scripts do really well that elevate it above simple copying. Although it uses elements from other films, such as the bikes from ET, it is these elements that make it something really special. I just want to highlight a few:

  • Starting in the middle of the action. One of the great pleasures of Stranger Things is the mystery that is presented right from the opening. A scientist is chased by something down a mysterious corridor in a government facility. Then, a child is captured and then seemingly vanishes into thin air. It’s a mystery that propels the rest of the action. We find out what has happened previously to get to this point, over a long time. The story starts as late as possible to create mystery and to kick start the action. There’s an alternate way of writing the series where we follow Eleven first, then move onto the mystery of Will. It would lose a lot of it’s impact if we saw the events chronologically. By starting in media res, the story has immediate action and suspense as the audience wonder exactly what has happened.
  • Interesting, flawed characters. When we first meet Jim Hopper, he is hungover and sleeping on the sofa. He smokes and takes a drink before putting on his chief of police badge. This conflict creates a multi-dimensional character, as well as changing audience perceptions. Later, we find out that he has lost a daughter, adding another aspect to him. He’s inconsistent, but in a human way. He has multiple desires that often conflict with each other. In the last episode, he sells out eleven and the boys to escape the facility. We understand why he does it and it shows he is a flawed hero. Most of the characters are like this, with multiple dimensions and obsessions. Even the douche Steve has motivations to care for Nancy and eventually redeems himself.
  • Characters that change. Nancy starts the series as a high school teen, obsessed with boys and rebelling against her image as a teacher’s pet. We think, due to the generic conventions, that her story is going to be limited to this arc. In slasher films, she would probably die off quite quickly. However, that is not what happens. She turns into a monster hunter, setting elaborate traps for the creature that haunts the town. The pastiche allows this, setting up expectations and then thwarting them. Nancy’s change is well paced and seems realistic throughout, as we see all the stages of her transformation.
  • Suspense. I alluded to it earlier, but one of the joys of the series is the gradual drip feed of information that builds to a larger picture of what is going on. It’s well paced but still keeps you guessing. Throughout the series, you know slightly more than of the characters, allowing suspense to build in encounters with the monster, or when the government agency comes knocking. It’s tense because you care about the characters and their fate and the danger that faces them seems insurmountable.

All of these elements are hard to pull on their own. But to combine them with the pastiche of eighties films and create something new from the ashes is very impressive indeed. The series works on multiple levels and the pastiche helps to elevate it to something truly special.

Let me know what you think