The Godfather: Happy Belated Father's Day, Dad
My dad has wanted me to do a column on <I>The Godfather</i> for
years; he's fascinated by this book he got up at the Francis Ford Coppola
winery in Napa, Calif., which reproduces Coppola's initial notes for the screenplay. Coppola, see, gutted a copy of Mario Puzo's novel, pasted every page of the book into a notebook and then festooned them with notes. A jumble of scrawls in the margins, underlined passages. ...He kept it with him on set, consulting it regularly.
So it's no wonder to me that the movie is so good.
Talking about how The Godfather is a really good movie isn't exactly the major leagues of film criticism--but the fact remains that it is one of the greats, and possibly one of the greatest film adaptations ever conceived. Why? It's faithful to the book--but unafraid to be better than it.
Puzo's novel is cleanly written, and full of material--so much so, in fact, that Book III, which details the Don's backstory and comes in at about 30 pages, comprises almost half of The Godfather Part II (the other half, the 1950s storyline, was written for the film by Puzo and Coppola). But while it excels as a family history and mob story, and ends on a chilling note ("[Kay] said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone") it falls a little short of the mark. For a grand tale of politics, passion and crime, it never quite hits those high notes--which is a damn shame for an Italian story.
It doesn't help that some of Puzo's subplots border on the ridiculous and irrelevant. Take the amazing adventures of Lucy Mancini, maid of honor to Connie Corleone and burdened with a too-big vagina, which Puzo spends more pages detailing than he does on Vito's journey to America. We follow Lucy Mancini and her too-big vagina from Connie's wedding (where her upstairs tryst with the enormous cock of Sonny Corleone makes her think she's found a cure for her sexual inadequacies) to Vegas (where a handsome abortionist realizes that she suffers from a weakening of the pelvic floor and performs the surgery that makes her ready to rock and roll). One could argue that Lucy's vagina is a metaphor for the Old World outlook of the typical Italian family, but it never really comes to fruition and is best left on the cutting room floor.
But what it really comes down to is the sheer power of performances, directing,
the dark shadows under men's eyes. In Puzo's writing, there's a great deal of
exposition, "he thought, she thought."
When I wrote previously about the Three Laws of Adaptation, I have to admit I was thinking about The Godfather. It's a perfect example of how to succeed at adaptation based on these laws.
Take Rule 1: A film adaptation may not, through omission or direct
action, undermine or reverse the meanings and morals of the source material.
Puzo's collaboration, combined with Coppola's regular consultation
of the source material, should be enough to ensure the
adherence. But Godfather goes a step further in not only capturing all the key moments of the novel, but allowing the sequel to pick up on those threads sadly dropped from the first film, including Vito Corleone's slow rise to power, told flatly in Book III and exquisitely dramatized in Part II.
Rule 2: A film adaptation must adequately capture what made the source
material compelling, as long as it does not conflict with the
first rule doesn't fail, as well. Perhaps the loss of Puzo's more graphic sex scenes is felt, but the grand scale of the story--following the family through the generations, tracing the violence brought out by the lifestyle -is still brought to life.
Rule 3's the kicker, though. An adaptation can make the changes necessary
to work as a product of its medium, as long as these changes
do not conflict with the first or second rules. Some of the changes made from book to film have been detailed above--all of them were necessary. The key change, though, is the shift to silence whenever--the majority of the fat trimmed is inner monologue, petty conversation, forcing viewers to extrapolate their own meaning. Coppola's ability to carry moments, give them the emotional heft of a hundred Shakespearean monologues, is something that Puzo's prose can never really capture. And it's why I do not hesitate to say the film is better.
Compare the last chapter of the book--which details Kay's new devotion to the Catholic faith, leading up to the reveal that she prays to God to save her husband--to the finale of the film, in which Michael's vengeance is contrasted with his calm at the christening of his nephew. Both make the same point: that the immortal soul of Michael is in peril. But the film takes it to the next level, the intercutting between sermon and gunfire almost dizzying. An aria of hypocrisy.
Mario Puzo wrote a great pulp novel. Francis Ford Coppola directed an opera.
And it's operas that endure.