Forty years after it was first published, I decided to read Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. I hesitated, in part, because the film, G1, is among my Top 5 films. I really didn’t want to have other images in my head of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny. What could be gained? What would be better?
From that perspective, my intuition was right. But reading the novel as back story was fascinating.
Puzo explains how Sonny was a petty thief in high school, eager to join his father’s “olive oil” business. The Don let him drop out and began teaching him to one day be his successor. Sonny’s “bones” were made as a tough guy, brilliant and brutal. Everyone knew Santino was a hot head, but that was one of the attributes that earned him fear, and respect. The other was that Sonny was built like a horse, and he wasn’t shy about being a stud service. All the girls feared it, and craved it. In the book, the girl Sonny bangs against the door of his house door during his sister Connie’s wedding turns out to be his great comfort. They gave a long-term thing. What Puzo explains is how desperately Lucy needed Sonny’s expansiveness, so to speak, because she had a physical condition that made it nearly impossible to feel, let alone enjoy, a normal man’s ... favors. Sonny was the only man who could fill her up, and when he was killed, she went into a huge funk. But the family honorably set her up in Vegas, where after a time she met a surgeon who fell for her, had her “recalibrated” through a surgical procedure and then spent a lifetime enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Puzo, in the book, mashes up G1 and G2 to explain how Vito came to NY and became the most powerful, feared and respected Don in NY and nearly the United States (except Chicago, where Capone and his business was too volatile). In fact, I think the strongest part of the novel is the detail of how young, shy, reserved Vito Andolini’s reason, fairness, integrity and decency was at the heart of his power. Except when he had somebody whacked, but you know, that’s just business. All of this is the stuff of The Godfather, Part II, but it really helps to understand Vito in G1. Puzo explains that Michael’s eventual killing of the heads of the other New York families and of his brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, was really Don Vito’s idea, but he couldn’t implement the plan because he had made the peace with the five families in order to bring Michael home safely and without legal repercussions. The Don couldn’t be the one to break the peace. So he retired, giving himself the buffer against breaking his word and Michael a way to take full charge of the Corleone business. Interesting, though, is that in the book, Michael is shown to be ever-so slightly reluctant to actually give the signal to begin the killing of his enemies, whereas in the film, he is cold and resolute.
Puzzo’s handling of Michael’s murder of Sollozzo and Captain McClusky is very similar to the film, as is Michael’s exile in Italy. Interesting here is that in the book, Michael fingers the body guard who fled the compound right before his young wife, Appollonia, was blown to bits in a car bombing meant for Michael. In the book, Fabrizzio fled to the United States and opened a pizza shop. But Michael has him found, and he is the first of his enemies to be gunned down on that fateful day.
The book gives much more prominence to Johnny Fontaine, rolling up his story more closely with Lucy Mancini and her Jewish surgeon lover, both of whom are helped by the Don. All but absent in the book is Fredo (referred mostly as Fred or Freddie in the book, which was jarring.) Fredo is resurrected when Michael comes to Vegas to buy out Moe Greene, in a scene reconstructed pretty faithfully in the film. And Luca Brasi is given almost mythic status as the Don’s primary body guard, handler of the most difficult “projects,” and something of a wild beast whose only allegiance is to his Don.
The book became so popular in 1969 in part I think because it was the first novel to really go into the family world of the Mafia and, in this case, show a mob boss as something of a Robin Hood, really a good guy who does what he does because the government sworn to protect him and immigrants like him is corrupt and dishonorable. What better story for those anti-authoritarians of the late ‘60s? It was the same impulse that propelled the film Bonnie and Clyde to such popularity when it broke on the screen in 1967.
But the book is basically a page-turner; entertaining, revealing (if all Puzzo exposed is to be believed) with some nice turns of phrase. Puzzo does offer up Vito’s signature line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” but it’s almost a throw away. Well, how good could it be as you read it as opposed to Brando’s mumble or Pacino’s ice?
Francis Ford Coppola had won in 1971 the academy award for best screenplay for Patton, and you watch G1 after reading the book and it is clear just how good a writer he is. He teamed with Puzo, but perhaps mainly out of collegiality. The structure of the film is much tighter and better focused than the book (as a good film should be). The theme of family and honor is more finely tuned, and the dialogue is just crisper. A lot of dialogue was lifted verbatim from the novel, but even then it’s often improved by Coppola’s fine ear for the rhythm of words as spoken by his cast.
In most cases, the film of a novel, especially a very successful one, is not nearly as good as the original. The reverse is true for The Godfather, in large measure because of the performances of ... well, everyone. And Coppola’s brooding, moody vision of life inside the walls ... life inside the dark secrets and hidden worlds that necessary for the Don to protect his family ... was courageously conveyed by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who was not afraid to "go dark."
The last thing I want to mention is my favorite scene in the movie ... one of my favorite scenes in any movie. The Don is retired, and as he and Michael sit in his garden the Don reviews "this Barzini business.” Puzo splintered (and diminished the power of) the Don’s concern over several scenes in the book. Coppola recognized there needed to be a transition to power scene that showed the love and respect—the favorite status—Vito felt for Michael. And Michael for his pop. He needed a scene, too, that showed just how completely Michael was now The Man. Coppola had written the scene but didn’t like it when he saw it. As Harlan Lebo tells it in his book The Godfather Legacy: he Untold Story of the Making of the Classic Godfather Trilogy, Coppola knew he needed outside help because he had become too absorbed in directing and couldn't devote the necessary time to make it right. he turned to Robert Towne, who did not receive screen credit. He also didn’t receive credit for his work on Bonnie and Clyde, but he finally did get his due, winning the Academy Award for his screenplay of Chinatown. When Coppola and Puzo shared the Oscar in 1973, Coppola did give Towne a shout-out during his acceptance speech, which seemed something generous that Vito Corleone would do, especially given Towne’s scene was used on the Academy Awards telecast to introduce Coppola and Puzo as nominees.
To me there’s not one scene in the book that has the emotion and drama of the film (Sometime read the “horses head” scene in the book and then immediately watch the filmed version.)
I did learn one thing that has been bugging me for all these years. In the transition to power scene, Vito tells Michael that he always thought his son would become a governor or senator. Michael responds in what I always thought was a bit of wistfulness, "Another pezzonovante" ... you know, hey, pop, some other life. But the book makes it clear that he says it bitterly, which I now know means, loosely translated, "I'd be just another big shot, pulling the strings like a puppet master, dictating other people's lives." Pezzonovante is a term used often by Puzo, which is why the puppet string icon is what represents the book and the film. Ironically, in the novel, Michael wishes these things for his own children.
The book was very enjoyable, but read 40 years later, I'm thankful we have the movie to really tell the tale.