I have seen all “The Godfather” films a million times and both parts one and two have become favorite films of mine over the years - but I never read the novel from which these great films were derived. After seeing yet another rerun of “The Godfather” saga on TV recently, I figured it was about time that I finally read the novel.
I have read Mario Puzo’s two novels that preceded his best known book: “The Dark Arena” and “The Fortunate Pilgrim”, both of which I enjoyed very much, particularly “The Fortunate Pilgrim” which could be looked at as something of a precursor to “The Godfather” although one has nothing to do with the other. “The Fortunate Pilgrim” was a very well written story about Italian immigrants living in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City during the Depression era. There were some allusions to the Mafia in that story but the focus was mainly on the matriarch of the family, struggling to keep her family together amongst the old world and the new. A critical success, “The Fortunate Pilgrim” didn’t sell very well, which is unfortunate because it is a far superior novel than it’s follow up.
Puzo himself claimed he had consciously set out to write a “bestseller” when he began “The Godfather.” After all, he was a government clerk with five children to feed and his previous novels weren’t selling. He set out to change that and according to the author he had a meeting with a publisher, regaling him with Mafia stories for about an hour and showed him a ten page outline. The publisher gave him a $5,000 advance and told him to go write the book. “The Godfather” is what he produced.
I’m sure most readers here are aware of the plot since I am going on the assumption that many if not all those reading this saw the film. The film follows the novel fairly faithfully, although there are some differences, but more or less, what you see in the film comes directly from the novel, dialog included. What surprised me about the novel more than anything else was its clumsiness and repetitiveness of the writing. It is far less stylized than his previous two novels and there are many instances where he breaks a lot of what would be considered today’s “rules” of writing. There is an awful lot of “telling” rather than “showing.” (There were some instances of this in his previous novels, but far fewer examples than you’ll find here). The other flaw the novel has is that it sometimes digresses into subplots concerning the character Johnny Fontane and Sonny Corleone’s mistress Lucy Mancini, digressions that weren’t truly necessary to move the story forward and seemed more like a distraction than anything else. But these are minor quibbles, really. Despite its flaws in style it is a remarkable story - told in the tradition of Balzac (who Puzo quotes at the very beginning of the novel) and Dostoevski. This is probably the only time that I found an instance where the film is superior to the novel. It isn’t a bad book by any means but I think the film’s brilliance and artful way of depicting the time, place and story influences my opinion more than anything else.
If you haven’t read any of Puzo’s novels, I would strongly recommend you read this novel’s predecessor, “The Fortunate Pilgrim”, which depicts Italian-American immigrant life in a far superior way - and the writing itself is far superior as well.