“Moonstruck”: A Play as a Film?

Yesterday I was watching the old 80s wonderful classic “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage. I remember seeing it with friends when it first came out, and we were just mesmerized by the love story and how beautiful Cher looked at the opera. The warmth of the characters, the top rate acting, the specificity of the setting, and the ongoing reference to “La Bohème” all still make it such an appealing film decades later. While watching, I was curious as to who had written the script, as I found the dialogue to be quite strong and nuanced. I found that it was none other than John Patrick Shanley who had written the wonderful play (and directed and adapted it into the wonderful film) “Doubt.” As I watched “Moonstruck,” I read Shanley’s biography online, and there were some things that made it evident to me that Shanley has a background in playwriting. It is these playwriting hallmarks that detracted from an overall strong film.

First, the film spans just a couple of days. In a play, we might expect there to be a short time span, or just scenes that clearly demarcate a couple of time periods or that carefully show the passage of time. We are not going to see how little Kaitlyn ages from age 3 to 18 in five minutes onstage the way we would in a film. Therefore, we don’t get to see how Loretta and Johnny’s relationship developed (which is not the greatest sin, given that it was a short time.) However, we feel shortchanged to see Loretta and Ronny’s romance in such a short time; we want more, we want more dialogue with them, but their scenes are cut with scenes with Loretta’s father and her mother. Also, we want to know more of the backstory about Ronny, his broken engagement, and his issues around the loss of his left hand. A film allows us more time thanks to the highly visual elements that are integral to film. Such big conclusions, emotionally speaking, are reached but we need more time to get there. 

The direction feels a bit slow, almost in real time, the way it would be in a play. But I believe that the pacing needed to be a little bit faster, given that the characters were New Yorkers and had a sense of urgency about everything they were going through. Loretta’s mother is keen to find out if her husband is having an affair; Loretta is torn between her duty to her fiancé and her love for his brother; the community wants Loretta to plan her wedding, which is set to take place in one month. And most of all, everyone is expecting Johnny Cammareri’s mother to die at any moment back in Palermo.

Finally, like in a play, everyone is on stage at the end. This feels a bit forced in a film, as though it is staged rather than organic. There could have been different scenes to resolve the various crises in the film, but instead everyone is gathered around the kitchen table for a breakfast of oatmeal and makes their confessions or resolutions.

The scene at the opera works best, for it is something that could only happen through the magic of film, to see the grandeur of the setting and hear the gorgeous music from Puccini’s classic. We need to simultaneously be able to see Loretta and Ronny as well as her father and his mistress Mona. We need to see the Kandinsky murals, the sparkling Sputnik chandeliers, the expression on the singers’ faces, and Cher’s tears as she is moved by the beauty of the performance. Also done nicely through the film is the image of the moon, which is so crucial to the story. It is, after all, called “Moonstruck”!

It is important for those who are adapting stories or plays to make full use of what a film does. To make use of montages or visual scenes to show the passage of time and not just dialogue. To add a sense of out-of-the-ordinary to the plot by amping up the settings and effects. To use what the audience sees to fill in backstory. These are just a few things a screenwriter must consider.

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