Moon Knight, Jesus, and Why Adaptations Succeed Once in a Blue Moon
What do Moon Knight, Jesus, and The Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman all have in common? Yes, that sounds like “A Rabbi, Priest, and a Rabbi walk into a bar” joke,[i] but there’s a more interesting answer. I realized there is a “rule” around a good adaptation. We’ll look at the rule, two examples in media, and how to understand our feelings about adaptations.
I had just finished reading Vol. 1 of Moon Knight: Midnight Mission and I liked it, but something felt off. So I tried to shake the feeling and grabbed another book I’d been reading called Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. At that moment, his words leaped off the page and explained my confusion with Moon Knight.
Moon Knight: Missing Mission
In writing Midnight Mission, Jed Mackay had the hero start a mission (i.e. shelter) in order to protect people at night – hence the name. In this city there is more than just your average after-dark crime, there are also supernatural threats. Moon Knight and a small team receive reports and patrol the streets making sure the community is safe.
I don’t know a lot about the character Moon Knight but having read some of the ’80s comics, watched the 2022 Marvel show, and reviewed creator Doug Moench’s inspiration for the hero, I understand the basics. The moon god Khonshu resurrected mercenary Marc Spector in order to protect people at night. Spector has three other personalities which sometimes help him solve cases, but they also add volatility and inner conflict to the hero.
So MacKay’s idea of helping people at night fit the character’s lore. And the Midnight Mission plot arc was interesting, therapy was put in a good light, there were empowered females, and layers of layered baddies. Additionally, Alessandro Cappuccio’s art was by and large intriguing and I appreciated his subtle details.[ii] Nevertheless, something bugged me but I couldn’t place it.
Adaptations in the Screen Trade
Then as I read William Goldman’s Adventures, it clicked. The nonfiction book is Goldman’s personal journey of becoming a storyteller and screenwriter. The quote that gave me my realization was where he explained believable storytelling in a good adaptation:
There’s no time in a screenplay where we can lose [the audience]. Because movies keep going, going, going – it’s not like a novel where you can go back and reread a section or a paragraph. We must grab them and make them listen to us. Once their mind begins wondering about matters foreign to our story, we’ve lost them.[iii]
When I read Moon Knight, the fact that Spector’s other personalities never showed up was a huge missing piece. The series mentioned Spector’s Dissociative Identity Disorder and all four of his personalities are named,[iv] so why leave out those crucial components?!
I’m sure Mackay discussed the omission with Marvel, but regardless of the reasoning, in my humble opinion, it’s not faithful to the Moon Knight character and therefore was the wrong call. Talking about the personalities but never showing them was like dangling a moon pie in front of the reader but letting it melt before we ever tasted it.
Especially frustrating was that I couldn’t quite place what bothered me through the beginning of the series. But, as Goldman said, once I began “wondering about matters foreign to our story,” they lost me. I mean, I didn’t quit reading and I enjoyed aspects, but my overall feeling was one of distraction and frustration at what wasn’t there. So is there ever a good reason for an adaptation to omit something the reader is probably expecting?
Son of God: Jesus’ Adaptation to the Timeline
While reading Adventures I got the rare but sweet double shot of epiphany. The first lightning bolt was reading Goldman’s words and associating it with the vague issues I had reading Moon Knight issues. The second shot hit immediately after: I had just seen a portrayal of Jesus which was technically not historically accurate.[v]
The scene is in the film Son of God where Jesus gives a parable about a Pharisee (religious leader) and a tax collector. Jesus alternates between speaking to the crowd, locking eyes with Matthew the tax collector, and locking horns with a pompous Pharisee. But when we read Luke 18:9-14, it never says a tax collector or Pharisee were present. Not only that, the scene portrays this moment as Matthew’s calling even though historically that happened two years earlier.
It’s possible most people wouldn’t recognize the chronological discrepancy here. But now that we know about it, does it distract us or pull us out of the story? It shouldn’t and here’s why. We don’t actually know the precise details around Matthew’s calling, so it could have been identical to this scene (just occurring earlier). God only knows.
Additionally, most audiences recognize visual media can’t show every detail of a story. Especially one as complicated as the Gospels, not even The Chosen (may they have 100 seasons). As Goldman says: “Movies are compression.”[vi] Also, the scene is not unfaithful to the ministry of Jesus or the message behind these verses. Finally, the film isn’t called The Chronologically Accurate Lifetime of Jesus Christ.
Original Intent: Feelings into Words
Have you ever been excited because something you like is getting made into a movie or TV show, only to be disappointed? Just yesterday someone told me, “Watch News of the World before you read it because the movie is good, but the book is better.” Sometimes we can name the specific problem(s) with an adaptation and other times it’s a feeling.
Goldman clarifies that people have an “emotional connection with the source material” so an adaptation should stay as close as possible “to the author’s intention.”[vii] Knowing that, when we feel disconcerted about an adaptation, we can ask, “Did they stray from the main themes of the source material?” Then we may be able to pinpoint what was left out or what changed from the original intent.
The story modifications in Son of God didn’t bother me. Despite the story being infinitely more important than a comic series, the changes were in keeping with the heart of the source material. If they had left out the tax collector but had Jesus confront a Pharisee’s arrogance, it would have made Jesus seem angry with no love or guidance on how to be humble. And if Jesus had only told the tax collector he was humble, there would have been no contrast of justice or lesson on the pitfalls of pride.
I don’t think Goldman’s words would have impacted me greatly if I hadn’t just read Moon Knight: Midnight Mission. But the words came right when I needed them (as God often does) and they gave me a rule. More than a revelation that drove me to write this article over the course of a week, I now have a tool for the future, a litmus test, to honestly ask myself what bugs me about an adaptation. I recommend Son of God and Adventures in the Screen Trade. But find a Moon Knight comic that sticks closer to the source material - he’s a cool hero you only find once in a blue moon.
[i] Jesus was a Rabbi, Moon Knight is a priest, and Goldman was Jewish, which counts for something. Double points if you knew Moon Knight’s father was a Rabbi.
[ii] For example, Issue 4: “Blackmail” visually increased tension by sporadically showing clocks counting “up” to 12:00 am as danger grew, but Spector verbally announced the arrival of midnight just as peace was restored.
[iii] William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, Futura Publications: a division of Macdonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, London, UK., 1983, p. 322.
[iv] DID is mentioned on p. 25 and the personalities are named on p. 28 of the first issue of Vol. 1
[v] You may be thinking Goldman’s rule applies to screenplays, so Son of God fits but not the Moon Knight comic. But Goldman says his words are true of any adaptation. And when a new writer (Mackay) takes a creator’s (Moench) source material and makes it their own, that’s an adaptation.
[vi] Ibid Goldman, p. 314.
[vii] Ibid Goldman: first quote, p. 313; second quote, p. 320.