Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Thematic Question of Stranger Things

Let’s look at the second scene in the pilot for “Stranger Things”. After a scary glimpse of a monster killing someone in a government lab, we cut to four kids playing “Dungeons and Dragons” in a basement. Mike, is both the creator of the campaign and dungeon-master:
  • MIKE: Wait... do you hear that? Boom! Boom! BOOM! That sound... it didn’t come from the Troglodytes. No. It came from something behind them...
  • Mike slams a LARGE TWO-HEADED MONSTER MINIATURE onto the map.
  • The boys stare. Shit.
  • LUCAS: We’re all gonna die.
  • MIKE: Will, your action.
  • Will swallows. God, he wishes it wasn’t his turn.
  • WILL: I -- I don’t know --
  • LUCAS: Fireball him --
  • WILL: I’d have to roll thirteen or higher --
  • DUSTIN: Too risky. Cast a protection spell--
  • LUCAS: Don’t be a pussy! Fireball him!
  • DUSTIN: Protection spell -- !
  • MIKE: The Demogorgon is tired of your silly human bickering. It steps toward you. BOOM!
  • MIKE: Another step. BOOM!
  • DUSTIN: Cast protection!
  • MIKE: It roars in anger --
  • Will rolls the dice. Too hard. The dice scatters to the other side of the room. It lands in front of the bedroom door.
So what all does this exchange do for the story?
  • It foreshadows the fact that Will is about to be attacked by a real monster.
  • It makes us love Mike, for whom this overly-dramatic performance serves as a comically vain moment of humanity.
  • It introduces and differentiates the personalities of the rest of our ensemble.
  • It provides the thematic question.
The good vs. good thematic dilemma that fuels “Stranger Things” is innocence vs. experience, represented here by the debate between protection (protecting both your safety and your innocence) vs. fireball (endangering yourself and your soul by killing). Will is forced to choose. It’s always great to begin a story with this sort of thematic question asked out loud, which not only establishes the theme, but resonates throughout the rest of the story.

This quickly leads to another thematic dilemma: After Mike is called upstairs, Will finds the die and discovers that it was a seven. Lucas asks, “Did Mike see it?” Will shakes his head, so Lucas says, “Then it doesn’t count.” When they get outside, however, Will confesses to Mike:
  • Will: It was a seven.
  • Mike: Huh?
  • Will: The roll, it was a seven. The demogorgon, it got me. See you tomorrow.
Interestingly, this last exchange doesn’t happen in the script, reversing the meaning of hiding the roll. In the script, Will’s deception tarnishes him and seems to bring on his death, in a classic horror-movie sort of way (He chooses evil, therefore evil is done to him). In the finished version, it seems after Will’s disappearance that he was maybe too good to live in this world. The horror genre always invites us to blame the victim, one way or another.


Anonymous said...

“The Horror Genre” can’t always invite you to blame the victim, no matter what the movie does. People will always blame the victim, no matter what happens.

Jesse Baruffi said...

Yeah, I wouldn't say it's about making you blame Will for his misfortune so much as creating a situation in which the best of them, from the kids' perspective at least, is the victim. When the kid who least deserves it suffers, it makes the others more likely to act against their own interests and the rules of society to try to save him. Otherwise, leaving the problem to the adults would seem like a much more rational solution.