“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Confession time: I’ve never actually seen the movie The Godfather in its entirety. I know that it’s a classic of cinema, was a landmark in filmmaking, and yet I’ve never actually seen it all the way through. It’s not out of avoiding it- I’d really like to see it- I just haven’t really found the opportunity. I thought I was going to get it on Thanksgiving when AMC was running it on endless repeat, but was thwarted when the rest of the relatives decided to watch Duck Dynasty. Oh, well. I tried.
But I have read the book. And while I don’t think it’ll take its place on the classics shelf any time soon, I do think that it could have, had it not been so rushed in the making. It has good bones, so to speak- there’s a really engaging story here, even if it’s very roughly told, and if I had to guess why the movie is held in such high regard, it’s probably because the movie had the chance to smooth out what the book couldn’t.
The origins of this particular book lie in money, or the lack thereof- Mario Puzo wrote the novel desperate for an advance to pay the bills, and was stunned to hear that the paperback rights to his book had sold for $410,000 dollars.
So it’s fitting, in a way, that the book begins with a (possibly paraphrased) quote from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”
In the context of the events of The Godfather, this quote could take on multiple meanings. If fortune is meant as money, it’s easy enough to see applicability- the Corleone family fortune is founded on the criminal enterprises of Vito Corleone. However if you take ‘fortune’ in a broader sense- such as that of fate or destiny- the opening quote becomes especially poignant. For The Godfather is about power and the rise to great heights of power, and that rise comes at a very bloody cost.
The book begins with various characters ruminating on the various requests they will have to make of the titular character, and how reluctant or willing they are to approach him. From the beginning, Vito Corleone is recognized as the ultimate authority (from what I have seen of the film, this point is driven home still further by Vito Corleone asking in the very beginning why he was not the first resource for one of his troubled relatives). The beginning establishes that Corleone is on top of the underworld; he has the support of politicians and police, and is as top notch as his shady business allows him to be.
The rest of the book is spent chronicling how one rejected deal and a few misspoken words causes that status to fall- and how the Corleone family manages, eventually, to regain the power it had had before.
For something that is essentially a first draft, the novel is surprisingly gripping and well-put together, even though ‘rough around the edges’ is an understatement as far as pacing and subtler literary techniques go. The plot jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, has long moments of non-stop action alongside equally lengthy character asides, and overall is a very unevenly written book. Since I wasn’t bored at all reading the story, I can only wonder what this book might have been like if Puzo had gotten the time to revise and polish the story. As said above, I think the movie is as close to the polished version as we’ll get- and if what I’ve seen is anything to go by, the film is put together with much greater finesse.
That said, I do think reading this book was worthwhile, if only as inspiration along the lines of “Insane success stories actually do happen to authors.” But I enjoyed the story of The Godfather on its own terms; simply put, it’s very entertaining. And though the movie tells the same story with a surer hand, I think reading the original story is worthwhile, if only to see the rough beginnings of a tale that has become an icon of storytelling.