I must have seen the film "The Godfather" half a dozen times. It remains one of the supreme pieces of storytelling in cinema, not least for the way that Michael Corleone, at the beginning of the film a returning war hero who wants nothing to do with his Mafia family, has turned into the successor to his father, the next Don Corleone.
Reading Mario Puzo's original novel, a bestseller that came out three years before the film, I'm struck by how many of the iconic scenes from the film are straight from the book. Copolla, after all, was a late attachment to the film.
"The Godfather" tells the story of Vito Corleone, Don of one of the New York Mafia families. The novel begins just before the wedding of his only daughter Connie, taking place at his home. We are given sketches of several characters who are going to ask the Don for a favour on his daughter's wedding - a favour no Sicilian can resist. The wedding itself is a lavish affair, and brings together the whole family but also the wider Corleone "Family" the enforcers of this criminal underworld. Drawn together by blood ties that stretch back across to Sicily, and over decades, the New York of 1945 - familiar to us from the ticker tape parades of Pathe footage - remains a place where communities still live in ethnic enclaves and where the law often holds less sway than the Mafia. Yet its also a parallel world. Outside the wedding the policemen patrol taking car number plates to see who is attending the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter. We are introduced to Sonny, the hothead elder son, who whisks a way a bridesmaid for the start of an affair on his sister's wedding day, to Fredo, the softest of the three sons whose portrayal in the movie by the wonderful John Cazale is the one character in the novel that is expanded in the movie; and finally to Michael, a returning war hero who defied his father by fighting for country rather than family - something incomprehensible for a Sicilian, used to the corruptions of state power - who brings with him his girlfriend, Kay, an All-American girl.
This long book is a massively successful page turner - but what is so compelling about it, even for one so familiar with the film is Puzo's absolute control of describing this alternate society that exists besides normal American society. Its rules - such as the "omerta", vow of silence - to its roles, with layers of deniability between the "Don" and his captains and the operations underneath - are made clear and vivid from the start. Here we are seeing a man at the height of his powers, a Ceasar receiving tribute. Yet what is equally brilliant is that such a world doesn't happen by accident, and doesn't remain unchanged through luck. The "families" of New York - swelled by Italian immigrants and soldiers returning from war - are at a critical point. The illegal gambling and alcohol, and strongarm smuggling that served them so well from Prohibition through and past the war, may not be enough in the new world. Drugs are the new "cash crop" and younger hotheads are wanting a piece of the action. The "older heads" are only a generation or two from their arrival in America. Corleone himself is named after the village he came from, having being smuggled to America after his father was killed. His own "early life" when he challenges the local hoodlum is sharply drawn (but the story is excised from the film narrative and used in "Godfather II".)
Yet when his refusal to join the drug trade leads to another attempt on his life, there is another war. A war that claims many casualties - including his own elder son, betrayed by his sister's husband - as well as crooked policeman McCluskey, which brings down the whole weight of law on the Mafia operation. The reason that gangsters stories so fascinate in movies and books is because of how they reflect the dark side of the society we live in. The human frailties that lead to prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling create a skewed morality where the illegal activities are "taxed" - but not by the state but through their enforcers both in the underworld and the police. With the whole book taking place within the enclosed world of the Corleone Family Puzo created a superb alternate society, where issues of fidelity, love and honour are played out daily, but without the more distant codes of a more advanced society. Michael Corleone who avenged his father being shot goes to a Sicily he never knew and lives a different life there for a couple of years before circumstance - his discovery and betrayal, the explosion that kills his Italian peasant wife, the death of Sonny - bring him back to face his destiny.
Set primarily in that 10 year period after the war the book is a brilliantly constructured story, that I was surprised to find as compelling to read as to watch. Puzo writes in a cool, objective prose that though it rarely develops into poetic raptures, is fresh and journalistic and adept at knowing how to tell bits of the story. When something bad happens we have often been elsewhere with one of the other characters and only then get the full truth of the story. It seems to me a book that is a genuine classic in its genre, as much for its writing as for the originality of the subject - which has now become such a cliche. In Vito and Michael Corleone he has created two of the iconic characters of the late 20th century. Hard to imagine reading this in 1969 without thinking of Brando or Pacino in the main roles, but so perfect are both of them for it, that reading the original novel there's nothing that seems wrong about that casting.
Not all of the novel makes it into the movies. I can see why the extended bits in L.A. and Vegas are excluded, featuring the singer/actor Johny Fontane (much closer in the book to Sinatra than in the film) as they feel like short stories almost, but in the book they are there for a good reason - to set up for the move West of the Corleone family and the rise of Las Vegas that will follow. I suspect that the hard boiled L.A. noir of Ellroy takes a little from Puzo's book as well as from the noir thrillers of Chandler etc.
I started reading this on a tired Friday night when I wanted an easy read, and it proved to be an inspired page turning choice, every bit as compelling as the film. The novel is highly economical with its storytelling and this is also what comes across in the film, yet every character has a reality to them that makes it far more than a potboiler. "The Godfather" was, of course, the invention that made Puzo. There are later novels that revisit the scenes but of course it was the filmed story - in "Godfather II" and less so in "Godfather III" - which occupied much of his career.
I loved Puzo's style. I thought it was the kind of writing that if an all-American or Brit writer tried to emulate would come across as incredibly pretentious. But Puzo handles it with a kind of classic elegance that you don't see anywhere else. Worth a read.
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