Some spoilers ahead, or details some people might consider spoilers.
Plenty of ink has been spilled recently in praise of the new Netflix series “Stranger Things” for its pitch-perfect depiction of a small town in the early 1980s and its deft tribute to iconic ‘80s films like “Goonies,” “Nightmare On Elm Street,” and “E.T.”
That praise is well-deserved and entirely true, as far as it goes. But the show’s deeper genius is its unabashed sense of wonder and imagination, born from the willingness of its creators, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, to stick to their artistic vision and cast a group of children in a dark, scary TV series obviously meant for adults.
The eight-episode show is set during the height of the Cold War in a fictional Indiana town, where a man-eating monster has appeared from another dimension and a boy has gone missing. As of this week, it’s poised to become the most-watched Netflix series of all time.
‘Stranger Things’ Wouldn’t Work Without Children
Like a lot of brilliant projects in Hollywood, the show almost never saw the light of day. The Duffer brothers were rejected 15 or 20 times by various networks before landing a deal with Netflix. One of the common criticisms they heard from network executives was that their show featured four children as lead characters. “We were told you cannot put kids in the lead roles of a show that’s not intended for a kid audience,” they said in a recent New York Times interview. One executive told them it either had to be a kids show or a show about the police chief, Jim Hopper (played by David Harbour), investigating paranormal activity in the town.
But the brothers wouldn’t compromise because they knew what so many TV executives didn’t: the show wouldn’t work without the band of kids at the center of the action. It’s those kids’ natural sense of wonder that draws the audience into the strange world of “Stranger Things.” They accept without question that a parallel universe, the “upside-down,” is not just theoretically possible but actually real, and their missing friend, Will, is over there, somehow. They accept, too, that it’s up to them, not the adults, to bring Will back.
Neither do they doubt that Eleven, the mysterious girl they find in the woods the night Will disappears, can move objects with her mind. They see her slam a door shut from across a room and conclude, rightly, that she has superpowers and that maybe she can help them find Will.
Their imaginations, primed by endless hours of playing Dungeons and Dragons, are ready to accept what so many adults in the town cannot—at least not without evidence. Will’s mother, Joyce (played to perfection by Winona Ryder), is dismissed as grief-stricken and crazy when she tries to explain to other grown-ups that her son is still alive and that she’s communicating with him. When Police Chief Hopper stumbles upon evidence, he does so only because he’s looking into a possible cover-up of Will’s disappearance.
It Takes Imagination To Perceive Reality
Not that there aren’t plenty of other shows out there that invite viewers to stretch their imagination, from “Game of Thrones” to “The Walking Dead” to the upcoming and much-hyped “Westworld.” Indeed, we’re told constantly that we live in a Golden Age of television. And perhaps we do. But not many shows invite us to see the fantastical or supernatural from the perspective of children—and children, no less, moving through a grown-up and often very dark world.
Filmmakers and television executives should consider why “Stranger Things” has struck such a nerve with audiences. The fact is, stories that imbue the world with a sense of childlike wonder speak to deeper realities about human nature—life and death, joy and sorrow, faith and love. There’s a reason C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” have such staying power from one generation to the next: they are timeless myths, fantastical worlds shot through with meaning. That their heroes are children—and Hobbits, who are basically children—is no accident. Children can see the world behind the world, the world as it really is.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved story, “The Little Prince,” opens with a passage in which Saint-Exupéry describes a drawing he made as a child of a boa constrictor eating an elephant whole. He is disappointed when he shows it to some grown-ups, who mistake the drawing for a hat because they lack the imagination to see it otherwise.
Grown-ups, he explains, don’t understand the things that matter most in life simply because they can’t see them. They lack the innocence and faith that imagination demands, and instead they let the things of the world cloud their vision. After all, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”