Monday, February 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ghost Rider

(or "Field Exercise")

Since the 'Ghost Rider' movie came out three days ago, it seems useful to examine the flame-headed vengeance demon's storytelling engine now. Not only is it topical, but it gives us a chance to look at the modifications to a storytelling engine "in action", as it were; in a regular comics series, writers generally have to work around things they've established in previous issues instead of throw them out, but in an adaptation, you can take the engine apart, put it back together, and see what parts wind up lying on the floor afterwards. (This, by the way, is being presented as my entry for Metaphor Of The Year at the 2007 Literary Devices Awards.)

With that in mind, let's start at the same place the screenwriters almost certainly did--the basic concept. As we can see, the movie uses the "Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil" concept, rather than the "Dan Ketch is the host of the spirit of his ancestor, Noble Kale, who is also the Angel of Death, and he and Johnny Blaze are long-lost brothers, and Johnny was supposed to be the Ghost Rider but his long-lost mother made a deal with the devil to keep him from being the host of Noble Kale, but instead he...sold his soul to the devil". Blaze's origin is simpler, clearer, and most importantly, it's more dramatic. This isn't to say they kept it wholesale; rather than have it involve two families of stunt-bikers, the Blazes and the Simpsons, and the incestuous interplay between the two, they streamlined it down to the most basic, clearest, most dramatic premise of all. Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil to save his father from cancer, but Dad dies anyway in a motorcycle crash and Johnny has to live with the consequences.

The movie takes that from Johnny Blaze's 'Ghost Rider' series, but leaves most of the rest behind. The obsession with stunt biking (a legacy of the Evel Knievel craze of the 1970s) is reduced to a mere trapping, the obsession with Satanism (a legacy of the 'Exorcist' craze of the 1970s) is toned down, the look of Ghost Rider and his bike are jettisoned (again, think Evel Knievel), the rogue's gallery is junked (the most notable villain Johnny Blaze had, apart from the Devil, was the Orb, an evil stunt biker with laser beams in his helmet) and most importantly, Blaze's modus operandi changes. In the comics, Roxy's pure love for him stopped Satan from collecting his soul, and he spent his days as a stunt biker and his nights trying to find a way out of the deal. This is a false status quo (more on these in a later column), because it carries with it the implied promise that he will resolve this storyline--but once he does, you have to find something else to do with the character. (Sure enough, once Blaze saved his soul, he wound up with two more status quos--one, where he was a Hollywood stuntman/superhero, and a second, where he wandered the Southwest and fought evil.) The movie just skips straight to the "wandering and fighting evil" phase, because it's (again) simpler, clearer, and more dramatic.

Most of the rest of the movie comes from the 1990s Ghost Rider. The look ("tough biker" rather than "stunt biker"), the powers (the "penance stare"), the gravedigger as confidant (although the substance was entirely different in the comics), and best of all, the enemies come from the later series. All these storytelling elements were viewed, by the screenwriters, as being the better of the two versions (and really, it's hard to argue. Blackheart, son of the Devil, or the Orb? Tough choice.)

Of course, there will be fans who see the new film and insist it's not "faithful" to the original, but sometimes, that's exactly what a good concept needs; Johnny Blaze's story is, at its heart, about a good man who makes a bad decision for the right reasons, and has to live with the consequences (which involve becoming a flaming-skull-headed demon biker). That works, and is always going to work; the "faith" comes in keeping that, not in sticking with every decision made afterwards, good or bad.

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