The Eighties were a weird time in entertainment. Popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations for the first time in movie history. Regulations about advertising to children were relaxed, leading to animation adaptations of toys and anything that a toy could be made from. The latter meant popular movies became fodder for cartoons, even if the film wasn’t originally meant for children, like Rambo and Robocop. Lost in Translation has already looked at one animated adaptation from the era, Back to the Future. Another series, though, was more successful.
The Real Ghostbusters ran from 1986 until 1991, undergoing a title change to Slimers and the Real Ghostbusters in its third season. Despite being tied to the film, Ghostbusters, a court case between Filmation and Columbia/Sony forced the adaptation to change its name as Filmation had the name first, leading to adding The Real to the title. The Real Ghostbusters was licensed out to DiC, who farmed out the animation to several Japanese studios, giving the series a unique look. While Columbia had the rights to the movie by virtue of being the production company, the studio didn’t have the rights to the actors’ appearances, leading to main characters who had a passing resemblance to the original cast. One episode, “Take Two”, goes as far to explain the differences – the movie is an in-universe adaptation of the characters’ lives. Venkman even goes so far to remark that Bill Murray doesn’t even look like him.
The cast was small, cosnisting of five voice actors total. Arsenio Hall, best known now for his talk show, was starting out in his career when he voiced Winston Zeddmore, the guy the Ghostbusters hired when business picked up during Gozer the Gozerian’s invasion of New York. Maurice Lamarche, who has played roles such as the Brain on Pinky and the Brain, played Egon Spengler, scientist and inventor. Lorenzo Music, best know for playing Carleton the Doorman on Rhoda and Garfield the cat* in the cartoon based on the comic strip Garfield, portrayed Peter Venkman, scientist and all-around smarmy dude. Laura Summer got her first work as a voice actor playing Janine Melnitz and almost every other woman in the first two seasons. Frank Welker, who has made a career out of being a non-human voice, including Megatron in the original Transformers, among others, played Ray Stantz, scientist and inventor, Slimer, and a large number of other ghosts and supernatural creatures. Summer was replaced by Kath Soucie with the name change to Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, but, for the purpose of this review, the renamed series will be treated as a separate work to come later.
Adapting Ghostbusters to a weekly format wasn’t a problem. The nature of the movie allowed for further adventures for the team. Ghostbusters was a business; the team could easily continue busting ghosts in an adaptation. Indeed, the “ghost of the week” plot carried the series. The series also treated the events of the movie as occurring in-universe. Peter did get slimed by Slimer at the hotel and the team did fight Gozer the Gozerian in the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man The goal to adapting well is to bring the core of the original, in this case, Ghostbusters into the new medium, even with all the restrictions on the adaptation. A number of elements of the movie just wouldn’t fly. Venkman’s lecherousness was toned down, but didn’t completely disappear; his casual cruelty was removed. Janine kept her crush on Egon until executive orders in Slimer forced the writers to excise it. Repeatable violence isn’t allowed, but very few children would have access to backpack-sized unlicensed nuclear accelerators*. The Ghostbusters also only shot at ghosts to pull them into their traps, reducing the potential harm further. The action could thus match what was shown on screen, complete with slime.
The main characters, despite not being allowed to look exactly like the original actors, did have enough details in common to make it easy to see who was who. Egon had glasses and the hair style, along with Lamarche’s Harold Ramis impersonation. Peter kept some of Bill Murray’s smarmy charm**. Summer recreated Janine’s accent. Ray still had his weight. Winston was still the workman of the group, the one who was more down to Earth. Equipment matched what was shown on screen. And to add to the accuracy, the design of Slimer in the 2016 reboot movie was partially based on his appearance in the cartoon.
As mentioned above, the series could have kept to a “ghost of the week” plot, mirroring the jobs the Ghostbusters had in the movie prior to the containment system shutdown and the fight against Gozer. The writers, though, went beyond that. The first episode, “Ghosts R Us”, had a trio of ghosts working a scam to drive the Ghostbusters out of business. The team fought Samhaim, the spirit of Hallowe’en, in “When Hallowe’en Was Forever”, written by J. Michael Stracynski of Babylon 5 and Thor fame. Even with “ghost of the week” plots, not every ghost was busted. Several were able to move on after completing a task that kept them tied to the land of the living.
Going beyond the above, the writers delved into myth, legend, and classic literature. Samhaim was but one character based on myth and legend. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appeared in “Apocalypse — What, Now?” Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was adapted as “The Headless Motorcyclist”, updating the legend for modern times. The team accidentally busted the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in “Xmas Marks the Spot”.***
Then there’s the adaptation within the adaptation, “Collect Call of Cathulhu”(sic). Written by Michael Reeves, the episode goes beyond just using the trappings. The episode acts as an introduction to the Cthulhu mythos as created by HP Lovecraft and other writers. Guest characters are named after other writers who had contributed to the Mythos; Clark Ashton after Clark Ashton Smith and Alice Derlith after publisher August Derlith. Lovecraft himself is name-dropped as the creator of the Mythos, with his writings in Weird Tales cited in-character by Ray. Cultists of Cthulhu appear, along with Spawn of Cthulhu and a Shoggoth. The episode even quotes Lovecraft, specifically “The Nameless City” – “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” The episode climaxes with the awakening of Cthulhu, a being that, to quote Egon, “makes Gozer the Gozerian look like Little Mary Sunshine”, and the Ghostbusters fighting to just stop the Elder God, using the Mythos as a guide.
Even when not using classic literature for plots, the series has references to works that would be unexpected in a TV series aimed at a younger audience. In “Ragnarok and Roll”, the spell used to begin Ragnarok is the Elven inscription of the One Ring from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphisis is referenced in “Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster” as Janine reads out some of the jobs that have come in; “And some guy named Samsa says he’s possessed by the ghost of a giant cockroach.”
The Real Ghostbusters puts an effort into continuing the story from the movie, even while explaining away the differences. The series sets itself up as an alternate continuity where the original movie is a movie about the animated characters. The characterization builds from what was shown in the movie and expands on what was originally shown. The Real Ghostbusters is a worthy adaptation, taking into account the limitations imposed on it by the medium and expanding the ghosts thanks to not needing special effects beyond ink and paint.
* In an interesting twist, Bill Murray would later voice Garfield in the movies based on the strip.
** And if a child did have one, repeatable acts would be a minor concern.
*** While almost every TV series has had an episode based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, few had the Ghosts of Christmas running a gambit to teach a main character about the meaning of the season while still having Scrooge around.