A couple of weeks ago in a whiskey fueled night of philosophizing, my friends and I were sitting around discussing what our “Top 5” list of movies would look like. There are very few slots on such an important list so the decisions had to be made carefully. One constant for all three of us – The Godfather. As a result of that evening, one of my fellow list makers loaned me his copy of The Godfather…the book.
The Godfather is ubiquitous in American culture. Even if you’ve never seen the movies or read the book, you know about it. When Tom Hanks explains what going to the mattresses means in a romantic comedy (You’ve Got Mail) it was just one small example of how pervasive the story of the Corleone family has become in our society. Lots of copy-cats and tributes to this masterpiece have come and gone but much of what we think about the American gangster comes from the life and times of the Don, Sonny, Tom Hagen, and of course Michael.
The book starts out in exactly the same way as the movie, with the wedding of Connie Corleone. If you remember this scene, it setup much of the personalities that were to carry through the whole story. Don Vito Corleone, a man of reason, is shown to be just that on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Reading the novel after having already seen the movie so many times was a strange experience. It was like reading the novelize version of a movie in that every scene follows the movie almost to the letter. The difference here is that the book came before the movie.
How does the book stack up? Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a good book but it’s not the greatness that the film is. This might be the only time in my life where I can say the movie version is better, more descriptive, more detailed, and more forceful in emotional impact. Reading scenes that demonstrate Michael’s turn from a life outside of the family business seemed dulled and less impactful than watching Al Pacino become the new Don of the family. The written version of Sonny Corleone is one dimensional, Tom Hagen far less Robert Duvall-ish, and Don Vito Corleone not as powerful as Marlon Brando made him. Reading this book made me appreciate the movie so much more. If the movie never existed, this book would be brilliant. But the movie does exist, and it brought this story to a completely different level. There is almost no way to compare the two after you consider the brilliant direction from Francis Ford Coppola and the truly awesome acting power from the cast.
Despite all this, keep in mind that I still think the book is great. In fact, there are parts that I wish made it to the movie. For example, Johnny Fontane, family friend and Hollywood crooning sensation is a much more prominent character in the book and has more time devoted to his personal story. I really liked the Johnny Fontane in Puzo’s work, but the movie version is sort of a bit part. Johnny Fontane’s story was so interesting that I think a separate book or movie could have been made about him. Oh wait, stories about Frank Sinatra already exist...
I’ve seen the movies many times, but it’s been a while since I last saw them. After finishing the book, I want to re-watch them to see just how great they really are. To me it’s a fitting tribute to the book that the movies eclipse the book the spawned from. I don’t know how Mario Puzo felt about this, but I’ve got to believe it had to be an amazing experience to watch his book come to life in a film I consider my number one.