Forgive me, fellow readers, for I have sinned. It has been… well, I’ve never confessed in the traditional sense, so who am I kidding here? Regardless, before I can properly review this book, a confession of sorts must be made whereby you will better understand the path that led me to here.
Mario Puzo is a name I’ve grown up knowing. My Mom had a small stack of his books on her bookshelf for most of my life, and I’ve almost always known about the classic film based upon this novel. Those books sat alongside another small stack of Stephen King novels, which I did look into but never fully appreciated the way King’s fans tell me I should. Somewhere along the lines, I just naturally equated the two, even though they are very different authors, so Puzo never got his proper due from me.
For me, the journey with Puzo begins with 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Yeah, the one with Christopher Reeve. Puzo wrote that. It’s one of those facts that messes with my mind. The film is one of my favorites, and a part of me was always afraid that nothing else the man had written could ever live up to it. I’m not even sure why that was an issue, being completely different from anything else I knew he’d written, but there was a subconscious limitation that needed to be busted. Fast forward a few decades. As much as I’ve grown up on Star Wars and old monster movies, I love a good mobster story too. Cagney, Bogart, Robinson… these guys led me down the rabbit hole to discover everything from The Public Enemy to The Untouchables. You no doubt see where I’m going with this, but here’s where the confession deepens. I’ve only in recent years gotten around to watching — and appreciating — the cinematic master class that is The Godfather. Again, it’s that apprehension where everyone claims greatness, but can something like that truly ever live up to the hype? Well, yes. Yes it can. The reputation of this film and its sequels are more than well deserved. And yet… in all this time, I’ve still never read the original novel or any other work by Puzo. So you see, I know the name, I know the reputation, and I have… expectations. I walk into this now at a place in my life where I feel maybe I can put aside all of that back there and let Puzo’s work speak to me on its own terms. In some ways, this feels like I’m finally dropping a lifetime of unnecessary stupid. Cue the classic score from Nino Rota, grab the cannoli, and we’ll get this review going.
The basic thread of this story as presented in the novel is more or less what you see on screen, which is to say the film is a faithful adaptation, so there goes the idea of separating things out. Objectivity is completely out the window, try as I might, and believe me… I tried. The entire way through this became an exercise in compare and contrast. There are differences between the two, as there always are. All of the through-lines of the family’s actions are here, pretty much as you remember them, from the wedding on forward. There’s more. There’s an expanded subplot dealing with singer-turned-movie star Johnny Fontane, who is very obviously based on one of my all-time faves, Frank Sinatra. If you don’t know his story, his literary counterpart here will potentially fall a bit flat (ok, considerably flat), but at the time it was written, that wasn’t likely to happen. Fans of The Godfather Part II will recall Vito Corleone’s backstory with Robert de Niro in the pivotal role. That story is found in this novel, with Vito being based upon real life crime bosses Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino and heavily contrasted with Al Capone. It’s also the point in the book where I personally found the story gaining traction, mostly because that’s where Vito’s character is expanded upon, thus making him more interesting. By and large, the main thrust of the story is the historical “Five Families” mafia war and its aftermath, wherein Michael eventually comes to power. While we’re led to believe the title refers to Vito, and while it does for most of the story, it’s all about Michael in the end. The primary difference in the shared story between the print original and its screen counterpart regards Kay Adams. In the films, she realizes Michael’s ruthlessness and has trouble reconciling it, which becomes a plot thread through the next two films. In this novel, she completely accepts his choice to take over the family business and all that implies. Interestingly, the storyline from The Godfather Part III that deals with Apollonia Vitelli is also found here, and it caught me completely off guard. I suppose I should have expected it, but I’m apparently getting forgetful in my old age.
The old saying goes, the book is better than the movie. That’s traditional wisdom that readers tend to stand by, yes? George Lucas thought it a bit differently. He claimed that mediocre books made great movies because you could do so much with film to enhance what was there, while great books made mediocre movies because something would inevitably be lost in translation. This last part is the conventional wisdom readers understand, but the first part of this stands in contrast to everything most people understand. It’s something I’ve kept an eye out for ever since. In the case of The Godfather, Lucas is correct, and it occurs to me that this is probably the very case in point where he learned that idea, likely from his friend and mentor, director Francis Ford Coppola. When reading the novel, as I said, there is more than enough similarity that one can’t help but see the film scenes played out. Ordinarily that’d be a good thing, allowing for both familiarity and expansion. But having pursued art and film studies in college, I can also see where the things that made the film the masterpiece it is are missing from the book. The novel on its own is threadbare for the first third or so of the book. And the way it’s written… I’m fairly certain this is the best clichéd cheese 1969 had to offer. I struggled a bit through the first third of this book, wondering if I’d even be able to finish it. Then somewhere along the lines, it’s as though Puzo himself showed up and took over for his ghost writer. Even so, while the writing style improved, still nothing stellar. The dialogue isn’t quite pulp level, aiming for a certain realism within this world, but it still comes across as ham-fisted more often than not just due to the nature of the beast. If you’ve ever truly listened to movie dialogue from the 40s and 50s, that’s the zeitgeist in play here, punched up for a 70s readership, so it has one foot in each idea. The result is a kind of verisimilitude where if you just accept that it’s ok, it will be, but if you can’t buy in, it’ll fight you at all turns. There are whole swaths of narrative that are more tell than show, which stands always as the mark of an improperly developed writing style and one of the red flags of fiction. In spite of that, what’s being related is well-conceived, and that’s where the film is able to take what’s offered and run with it in spectacular fashion as befitting the nature of the medium. This point in particular is, I think, the core of what George Lucas was referring to in how books and movies relate.
The thing to keep in mind is that this is the book that put so many of the newer mafia clichés into motion, dismissing a few of the earlier ones in the process and retooling others as it went. Hollywood had long since made such things stereotypical by the time this book was written, but this novel, and the film that followed, brought the realism to it… again, with the caveat that the reader has to want to buy into it. That touch of the old world makes all the difference. There’s a reason behind how this underworld developed that’s more than the simple greed and power that it exemplifies. That’s one of the points of the story, in fact, that separates the old ways from what they’re turning into. Many of the clichés that encroach on the realism show up in dialogue, probably because we already know the best lines as being in the film. The thing is, when you divorce those best lines from the screen performance, which is really difficult to do sometimes, it comes across as weak sauce. That’s anathema in any Italian kitchen. Thankfully, as I went through the audio version of this, I had a proper Italian performance to help things along from Joe Mantegna. That brought the fun level of the book back up for me. Good thing too. I read over certain passages in the paper form in my attempt to separate print from screen, and some of it really doesn’t hold up at all by itself. At times, especially early on, it even comes across as self-parody. And that brings me back around to the insight of George Lucas. Performance and presentation makes this story what it is. And maybe that’s the point. It feels like Puzo wrote a script first and then hammered out a narrative version through the eyes of a screenwriter. That could be why it translates so well to screen, and thus why it’s so difficult to separate the two. Just to make the point of how much the screen version impacts us all, the narrator gives us a halfway decent Vito that feels like a combination of Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro. Or maybe that’s just what I’m hoping to hear. Even if you haven’t seen the film, everyone knows that performance from Brando, and it will absolutely color your perception of this novel. If you don’t hear that voice in your head while you’re reading, there is something inside you that is somehow fundamentally disconnected from the human experience.
I’m not looking to short change what Puzo did bring to the table here. Stories of the Italian mafia abound in cinema, with The Godfather being the film that raised the bar and set a new standard. It couldn’t have done that without this book having been written. Before this novel, such stories were relegated to Italian language books only, largely sold only to that target audience. Like Vito Corleone himself, this is the book that institutionalized a whole new set of perceptions in the world in which it appeared. Books like that, when viewed in their original time and place, have a way of pushing down the walls of perception and changing the zeitgeist. This one certainly did.
Having said that, I’m under no delusion that the film did most (but not all) of the heavy lifting on that front, and the book became a bigger success after the film raked in the accolades. It’s sort of its own self-perpetuating engine at that point, the book feeding the film, which in turn feeds the book, and back again. On its own merits, the story as presented in the novel is rather gripping, but not told well enough to keep me glued until the end. I think it actually served me better to put the book down every so often, so that it had time to marinate in my mind between reads. Puzo writes with an eye towards the blunt and the crass in an effort to make it even more gritty than it already is. Or perhaps that’s just my modern perception of it, reading it as I am an age where political correctness has had a sterilizing effect on art, which in turn makes something like this feel even more visceral. Whatever the case, it seemed like Puzo was trying too hard on this front, but at the same time it wouldn’t have worked at all to tone it down any either. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. For readers who think “trigger warnings” are needed (don’t even get me started), this book is most definitely not for you. You’ll be “triggered” every other page by something, I’m sure.
Anything that might be perceived as elegant or even semi-romantic in the world of Don Corleone is missing, and that’s appropriate to the story. That’s part of what the film made a point of demonstrating, that any such notions in that world are little more than a veneer. Thinking on it, I’m fairly certain Rota’s score did most of that work. It paints that old world with rose-colored glasses, but the lenses are cracked. Ah, the power of a masterful soundtrack. That would be my recommendation, incidentally: when reading this novel, play the music. Seriously, it will add greatly to the experience.
There are two good reasons to read this book. The first is to get the extra scenes and characterizations not found in the film, which for the most part do add nicely to the depth the further you get into the story. The second, and most of all, is simply to say you did. As every reader knows, you elevate your own street cred when you can constructively compare the novel and the film, and The Godfather is one of those stories that’s just worth discussing in any era, not like a great many things today. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, which is called out in the generational split of Vito Corleone and his eldest son, where Sonny was far more brutal and emotional than his father and suffered the consequences as a result. You can still hold that analogy to the mirror of society and make it work even today.
Ultimately, the two presentations of The Godfather, print and film, have to go hand in hand to get the most out of the story. At least, they do for me at this point in my understanding of them. And that’s unfortunate because the film is an undisputed classic for a reason. Understanding that there are always new generations coming to discover this story, my recommendation to the newbies is to read the book first if you’re so inclined to do so because it will really set the stage nicely, even with its shortcomings in writing style. The story it tells is really good and well worth the read, but let there be no mistake: Coppola made that story truly great. It’s just as important to note, however, that Coppola would have had nothing to work with if not for Puzo’s novel. After a rocky opening to the book and in spite of its over-explained writing style, it’s an otherwise solid foundation to a pop culture legacy that pretty much speaks for itself.