how could Ghostbusters have gone wrong?
November 23, 2011
So remember when I was thinking about Ghostbusters and its very good plot structure? Here’s another exercise: how could it have gone wrong? What’s the alternative to a very good plot structure? Well, I’ve got some ideas. (This is a good exercise for when you’re trying to decide if your story has maybe taken a wrong turn.)
Instead of a simple, classic ghost scene to establish that yes, ghosts are here and exactly what you expect, the film could have gone epic. It could have given us Ivo Shandor leading his cult in a ritual chant atop the brand-new apartment building, then getting dragged away in a straightjacket. It could have given us an opening scroll explaining that the cult of Gozer is waiting, waiting. . . and we still wouldn’t know this is essentially a ghost story.
And OMG, wouldn’t that have been awful? There’d have been no mystery for the audience to solve along with the group. The story would have been repeated when Igon told the others about it in jail. Basically, it would have looked like every Nicholas Cage movie for the last eight years.
Venkman is an awesome main character. He’s kind of an ass, but he’s also witty and charming, and when you get right down to it, a little bit competent. Which is kind of surprising — how many characters in the movie question his competence, and with good reason? But when the chips are down, he’s there. After all, he manages to shoot Dana up with thorazine without killing her. Now imagine for a moment if Venkman had been played by Adam Sandler or Seth Rogan.
This isn’t just a matter of perfect casting. It’s a matter of comedic philosophy. Please keep in mind that making your main character a complete douche will get you laughs, but you’ll lose out on also making your character charming, witty, and sympathetic, like Venkman is. Bill Murray’s Venkman is one of the things that makes Ghostbusters not just a comedy, but a real honest-to-goodness adventure story.
Also, making Venkman a square-jawed hero ala Sylvester Stallone. Just no.
On that note, it could have been made as straight-up action adventure (albeit, with a different cast). It could have taken itself way too seriously, and involved lots of fight scenes and chases with scary ghosts (that didn’t actually look all that scary). In this version of Ghostbusters, Winston would have been killed.
If we’d had any more than that one ghostbusting scene with Slimer, I’m pretty sure the whole thing would have started to drag.
No Walter Peck & Containment Grid
The plot needs the containment grid to fail in order to trigger the final apocalypse at the apartment building. Or, maybe it didn’t, maybe the apocalypse just happens. But that’s bad plotting — we don’t want a plot in which things “just happen,” we want one event to trigger the next event. This is fiction, not real life, and we need to feel like things happen for a reason in order to feel satisfied. Okay, the apocalypse happens, the containment grid triggers it. But what if it had just failed? What if it just went unstable and blew up, rather than introducing the seemingly random Walter Peck to cause the failure? Well then — if the containment grid “just fails,” our heroes suddenly become incompetent noobs who were destined to destroy the city. Not satisfying.
A mutated dragon-looking Gozer leaps back out of the wreckage, requiring another battle. I’m sorry, that’s just silly.