As Pablo Picasso says, “Art is theft.”
Stranger Things is without a doubt one of the most successful TV shows ever made.
But something I find even more fascinating about it is the sheer amount of inspiration it took from a variety of books and movies from the 80s.
From the visual style to the music, themes, characters, storylines, and even specific scenes—the direct influences can be seen everywhere.
And the best part? That is exactly what creativity is truly about. Check out my video for some examples, and let’s dive deeper into it.
Where it all started
If you get your hands on the original pitch deck for Stranger Things, you will notice that a lot of things have changed since then, including the name, which used to be Montauk.
What’s interesting, however, is just how open and honest the creators of the show are about their inspiration.
As they put it, the show was going to be a love letter to the golden age of Steven Spielberg and Steven King. The feeling of fear and wonder from E.T., the helpless dread from Jaws, the horror from It, and the adventure of Stand By Me.
When they needed to describe a certain character or a situation, they referred to one from a movie they love. They even designed the pitch deck itself to look like a classic Stephen King book to make sure they clearly communicate the exact tone they want to achieve.
So how much of the show ended up being shaped by those influences?
The answer is—a lot.
The influences on Stranger Things
The character of Eleven, for example, goes through the same experiment as the one from Altered States (1980), and the way they test her abilities is identical to the movie Firestarter (1984).
Just like E.T. (1982), she is found by a group of friends who hide her from the government and end up in a big bicycle chase only to be saved by the most incredible display of her abilities.
A lot of the other characters are based on one, or a combination of a few different characters from 80s classics. The town chief James "Jim" Hopper, for example, is clearly inspired by chief Martin Brody from Jaws.
Sometimes they even recreate entire scenes like the abduction one from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and the list of direct shot-by-shot similarities is long, including Alien (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Exorcist (1973), The Terminator (1984), and many, many more.
So, is it stealing?
So, does that mean that Stranger Things is just a rip-off?
Well, no. In fact, that is what creativity is truly about.
When people call something “original,” nine out of 10 times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.
Steal Like an Artist is a fantastic book by Austin Kleon that talks about the fact that nothing is original. Basically, all creative work is built on what came before it, and the people who embrace that inspiration are the ones who end up with something great.
In 1994, in an interview with Empire magazine, Quentin Tarantino said that he “steals from every single movie ever made” and he certainly meant it. You don’t need to wait too long with any of his movies to see a direct reference to a classic from another period.
George Lucas would agree, too. In the 1970s he wanted to make a movie adaptation of the Flash Gordon (1936) movies and serials. According to him, it was a fantastic story with a lot of potential, but no matter how much he tried, he was never able to secure the rights.
So instead, he wrote his own space opera that takes place in a galaxy far, far away, and the rest is history.
He took a lot of inspiration from the source, but he also made it his own by building upon it and combining it with other ideas.
What to avoid
Now, it is important to say that stealing is not the same as copying.
To steal like an artist means to take the things that inspire you, and reverse engineer them until you figure out what it is about them that makes them work.
When you are just starting, it is inevitable that you will end up trying to imitate your idols, but as Conan O’Brien says, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
And that is exactly what the creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, did.
Back in 2011, they wrote a script for a movie in which they were trying to emulate the signature tone and filmmaking style of M. Night Shyamalan. Eventually, he got his hands on the screenplay and liked it so much that he invited them over to help him out with a show he was working on and even gave them some mentoring along the way.
Because of that experience, they felt ready to develop their own project and wrote the pitch deck for the show that would become the global phenomenon we know today.
And that is what it all boils down to—taking the best parts from the things you love and combining them with your own unique perspective.
In the end, I will leave you with this quote from Francis Ford Coppola:
“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can't steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that's how you will find your voice.”
Let us know your thoughts in the comments.