I read The Godfather many years ago, but I can no longer remember whether it was before or after I saw any of the films. I do know that even at the time, I recognized the book was no kind of great literature. But it was a gripping story. So recently, after rewatching (for the umpteenth time) Coppola’s film of Godfather 2, I decided to give the audio book a listen – especially since the reader is Joe Mantegna, a favorite actor of mine.
Within about ten minutes, I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
The Godfather isn’t a mediocre book – it’s downright bad. Well, perhaps that’s not quite fair, or at least not a sufficiently nuanced observation. It’s cleverly plotted, and as I mentioned before, the plot is compelling. (That comment isn’t meant to endorse the subject matter, or Puzo’s take on it – I recognize the politics of Godfather are complex, and I don’t feel equipped to unpack them. By compelling story, I mean only in the sense of a page-turner.)
But, my God – the writing is atrocious.
Puzo traffics in shorthand stereotypes. The female characters are the worst (almost to a person, they’re dumb and conniving) – but even Vito Corlene, the Godfather himself, comes off as a cardboard cutout. The prose is so flat-footed that what should be sure-fire set pieces – the infamous horse’s head incident, for example – are downright boring.
It turns out my negative opinion is widely shared. Puzo himself admitted the writing quality was iffy. A Wall Street Journal article by Allen Bara captures so well my feelings about the book that I don’t need to take it apart further.
And yet – I’m inclined to recommend reading (well, maybe skimming) it, at least to those who have any interest in filmmaking. Godfather the novel is pretty much meretricious tripe – but what Francis Ford Coppola did in adapting it in the first two parts of his film trilogy is absolute alchemy.
Time and again, Coppola finds a way to ameliorate the source material. He knows exactly how to frame a scene or a shot, giving a moody sense of depth that exceeds anything Puzo offers. In Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Keaton… hell, even Talia Shire, Coppola has actors whose personal charisma fleshes out the stock character sketches. The almost Rembrandtian beauty of the cinematography (by the great Gordon Willis) adds layers of its own, as does Nino Rota’s now classic score.
Most of all, Coppola knows what parts of the novel to leave in – and what to cut.
Among the excised material is most of the Johnny Fontaine subplot, an embarrassingly transparent portrait of Frank Sinatra, where Puzo’s gossipy, “industry insider” writing hits its lowpoint. More than anything, this reminded of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, another mostly trashy potboiler novel which to its modest credit tells a gripping story. I wonder what kind of movie Valley of the Dolls might have been in the hands of a Coppola? Not the campy trainwreck it was, that’s for sure.
As for the audio book… for what it’s worth, Mantegna, a marvelous actor, is also a good reader. It’s a special pleasure to hear the Italian pronounced so well, and in general he does enough but not too much with the character voices. I regret only the choice – perhaps inevitable – to adopt the hoarse, high-pitched, wheezing tone for Vito Corleone that was such a distinctive note in Brando’s performance. For Brando, it felt like an organic feature of his characterization – for Mantegna, it’s just an imitation.
Also, maybe a tacit recognition that it’s only The Godfather films that anybody cares about anymore.