In our Genius Character Reveals series we examine scenes and moments where a film or TV show reveals a tremendous amount of character information in a compressed amount of screen time. This instalment focuses on Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the chief of the police department in the sleepy town of Hawkins, from the Netflix hit STRANGER THINGS.
Jim Hopper and STRANGER THINGS
The 1980s in Hawkins, Indiana. In this small town, a young boy goes missing. Is it connected to the strange government facility on the town’s outskirts? Frustrated by the lack of official progress, his friends decide to investigate.
Meanwhile, a young girl with a shaved head who can’t speak but has mysterious powers arrives in town, on the run from sinister murderous forces.
Who is Jim Hopper?
Jim Hopper is the chief of Hawkins Police. He grew up and attended school in Hawkins, but moved away to a big city where he worked in the police force.
After the death of his daughter, Sara, from cancer, he and his wife divorced. He moved back to Hawkins, becoming its police chief, and descended into alcoholism.
How is Jim Hopper’s character revealed by the action and dialogue?
A child’s drawing on the wall. It shows a man, a woman and their child stood in the sun outside a house.
The news plays on TV. An anchorwoman says they’re getting reports of surges and power outages across the county. This affected hundreds of homes in east Hawkins. The cause is still unknown.
The camera moves around, revealing a table of beer cans, a half-eaten sandwich, a full ash tray, and other junk.
Jim is asleep on the couch. Wearing jeans and shirtless. A dog bark wakes him, and he checks his watch and groans.
Standing on his patio by the lake, still shirtless, jeans undone, he smokes. He takes a shower to wake himself up, still groaning.
In between smoking, he brushes his teeth. He takes some pills, swallowing them with beer.
Finally, he does up a light brown shirt, puts on his gun, holster and belt, and fixes his police badge to his chest.
He puts his hat on, grabs his keys and exits. The TV news is still playing.
What do we learn about Jim Hopper in this scene?
The child’s drawing immediately establishes a contrast and a mystery. Who and where is this child? Is it related to the opening scene just prior to this one, showing Will Buyers being chased out of his house by a strange creature?
Before Jim Hopper is even shown on screen, there’s the potential for this question to connect him with the story, either through plot or theme.
Jim Hopper’s morning routine is not the healthiest. It’s certainly not appropriate for raising a child.
This leaves a few possibilities. He’s lost custody of the child somehow, or the child has died, but either one promises some important backstory to be revealed later, piquing the audience’s interest.
A dog wakes Jim Hopper, rather than an alarm. He’s given up on life in some ways.
The beer cans and his sloppy appearance (sleeping in his clothes) seemingly confirm this. His shirtlessness, especially when smoking on the deck, emphasises that he’s out of shape.
The pills suggest Jim Hopper has some kind of medical condition. But again, washing them down with beer is not the healthiest way to keep up with his medication. The audience starts questioning – are they prescribed, or is he’s abusing them?
The reveal of the shirt, the gun and the badge is crucial. Jim Hopper is not taking care of himself. And yet, at the same time, he appears functional in a day to day way.
After Sara… I saw her too. And I heard her. I didn’t know what was real. And then I figured out that it was in my mind, and I had to pack all that away… otherwise I was gonna fall down a hole, that I couldn’t get out of.
At home he’s a mess, but when he puts on the uniform, he becomes professional. He’s burying something, some trauma that is eating away at him but has yet to spill out into his day life.
This reveal creates some unease in the audience. The kids can’t necessarily turn to adult authority figures for help. There’s no safety net.
In this story, in this world, adults aren’t infallible – physically, mentally or morally. They aren’t saviours. They’re broken people with their own problems and their own trauma to deal with.
Why is this great, succinct screenwriting?
STRANGER THINGS is an ensemble show. Ultimately, some characters prove more popular for others, and it’s up to the creators and show-runners whether and how to respond to that.
For the very first episode, before all those expectations set in, every character’s on an equal footing. Every character is a blank slate.
Part of the cross-audience appeal of the show is how it follows three different age groups: kids, teens, and adults. Creating three dimensional characters in all three categories is one of the advantages of telling this story over multiple episodes, rather than in a single film.
Seeing Hopper’s home life, or lack of home life, is incredibly important for understanding his actions in the story that follows.
He’s not a villain but a flawed human being, ill-equipped to deal with the fantastical threats facing his town.
This simple, dialogue-free montage creates two main contrasts. He has a drawing by a child, but no child. Those paternal instincts and memories are there, but they have no outlet.
He drinks and smokes to excess, perhaps also damaging his body with pills, and yet he’s a policeman, appearing as an authority figure for everyone else.
His struggle, which runs across STRANGER THINGS, is in reconciling these.