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Good Novels That Turned Into Pretty Good Films, part 3

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The Godfather

The Book

Published in 1969, the novel The Godfather had a huge impact but for much different reasons than the famed film adaptation which followed in 1972. It has since become a modern-day classic.The book was a massive success not just because of its study of the Sicilian Mafia, but because of its frank and overt sexuality (it popularized a now-common term for fellatio).  Perhaps the most infamous scene regards a female character who gets a type of plastic surgery which widely became known as "the Godfather tuck". It was on par with Henry Miller and had many Americans gasping, swooning and clutching their pearls so to speak.

The overall plot of the book is well known obviously because of the movie. The story is told through the eyes of Michael Corleone, the son of Don Vito Corleone, a Sicilian immigrant who has become the head of one of the Five Families of New York. Michael has returned from World War II as a Marine Corps hero and wants nothing to do with his father's "business". The story revolves around a potential mob war brewing over drug trafficking and betrayal, and Michael slowly becoming more and more involved.

While Don Vito and Michael are classic characters, it's really Santino "Sonny" Corleone who jumps off the page. Puzo depiction of what has become over the decades a caricature – the mob family – is purely masterful. I couldn't find a page where in my mafia-saturated mind I found something to be a gross stereotype.

Where this novel differs from its adaptation is in its final pages and the decisions that Michael makes. I won't spoil the ending but it involves Kay's, Michael's wife, reaction to Michael taking over the family business.


The Film (click for trailer)

After reading this book, I have to imagine there were quite a few Hollywood producers and directors drooling at the chance to adapt it for the silver screen. This is a perfect example of a novel that was made for film despite its length (400+pages). The action portrayed in the book is perfectly translatable to film and the character monologues and backstory were perfect for cutting.

The film follows the storyline set forth in the novel, only excising the sex scenes, the fate of Michael's bodyguards in Sicily, the extended story of Johnny Fontane and Don Vito's back story (which is depicted in Godfather II). In fact, much of the novel was actually filmed but never used and can be found in The Godfather Saga.

While normally I would go ahead and outline the plot and characters for a film like this, in this case it's unnecessary. The Godfather is one of the greatest, best-known films of the last 50 years in American cinema. The film grossed over $250 million worldwide and won various awards, including three Academy Awards (Brando refused to accept his), five Golden Globes and one Grammy, as well as giving many Americans a "real look" into the world of the Sicilian mafia. Anything I add would be superfluous.

What went on behind the scenes, though, was nearly as interesting as what ended up on screen. The Godfather was almost the masterpiece that didn't happen. Coppola had to fight tooth and nail for the movie and his job. And then there were the actors involved. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Brando and Pacino playing the iconic roles but try these on for size: Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas in place of Brando and Rob Redford or Ryan O'Neill in place of Pacino. Those are the actors the studio wanted. They were against Brando because of difficulties on recent movie sets and they were against Pacino because, well, nobody knew who he was, he was "too short" and, ahem, "too ethnic".

But when all was said and done, Coppolla won out (and so did we). Brando was cast on the conditions he would take a much lower salary than previous films, agree not to delay production and perform a screen test. Pacino was only cast after Coppolla threatened to quit. Film lovers around the world should be thankful he held his ground.



The Godfather is perhaps the idyllic example of a novel and its adaptation living happily ever after. The novel is widely regarded as a modern American literary classic, while the adaptation is a modern American film classic. And each achieves that appellation through different means. The novel does it by bringing to life a world most Americans had never been exposed to and creating what have become iconic characters. The movie does it with beautiful cinematography, brilliant direction, a haunting score and, of course, great performances from some of our greatest actors.

While one could not exist without the other, they seem to inhabit two different spheres of existence. They are inextricably tied together and yet both are masterpieces in their own right.


About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.