“The book,” it is often said, “is always better than the film.” But is that always true?
No, it’s not and, if you need proof, just read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and then re-watch the movie. Or re-watch the movie and then read the book. Either way, you’ll be left with the conclusion that, while the novel did lay the foundation for what became the greatest movie ever made, the novel itself is still a bit …. off.
The Godfather was originally published in 1969 and, before I write anything else, it should be noted that Mario Puzo himself never claimed that the book was meant to be a great work of literature. Puzo had previously written three novels and one children’s book. One of those novels was a pulp paperback that he wrote under a pseudonym for a quick payday. The other two novels were both meant to be works of “serious literature” that examined the human condition. Puzo considered his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, to be his best and most poetic work. The only problem is that, while the reviewers were respectful, hardly anyone read Puzo’s “serious” fiction. As such, The Godfather was Puzo’s attempt to write the most commercial book possible, a page-turner that would climb the best seller list and help Puzo pay off his gambling debts. The Godfather certainly did that, spending 67 weeks on the New York Times’s Best Seller List and selling over 9 million copies in two years. Producer Robert Evans was so sure that the novel would be a hit that he even paid for the film rights while the book was still in the galleys.
Reading the book, especially after watching the movie, can be an odd experience. The film itself is largely faithful to the book. Just about everything that happens in the movie can be found in the book. Michael, Sonny, Tom, Fredo, Vito, Kay, Barzini, Sollozzo …. they’re all here. Usually, characters are more complex in the original book than they are in the subsequent film adaptation. In this case, the opposite is true and reading Puzo’s somewhat leaden prose really does make you appreciate the depth and nuance that actors like Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale brought to the characters. (Perhaps the most extreme example is Kay Adams, who was written as a dull nonentity with none of the nervous likability than Diane Keaton brought to the role.) To be honest, perhaps the only character who comes across more vividly in the book than in the film is Luca Brasi. The book goes into the details of what Brasi did for the Don in the past and, as a result, it’s much easier to understand why everyone was so terrified of him.
But, as I said, all of the events that can be found in the movie can also be found in the book. However, there’s also a lot of things in the book that we’re left out of the film and it’s easy to see why. In the film, for instance, Johnny Fontane shows up in only two scenes. Tom Hagen goes to Hollywood. Jack Woltz ends up with a horse’s head in his bed. And that’s it for the film industry. (In the book, the horse’s head is just placed in Woltz’s room as opposed to his bed. Francis Ford Coppola later admitted that he misread the passage where Woltz finds the head.) In the book, however, the Hollywood scenes go on forever. Large sections of the narrative are handed over to Johnny Fontane and his best friend as they party in Hollywood. It gets frustrating. You want to read about the Corleones but instead, you’re reading predictable Frank Sinatra fanfic.
When the book’s not getting bogged down on Fontane, it’s getting caught up with Lucy Mancini and her quest to find a man who is as well-endowed as the late Sonny Corleone. Lucy was Sonny’s lover. He was the only man who was large enough to satisfy her. After Sonny’s death, Lucy is given a casino in Las Vegas. It’s while in Vegas that Lucy meets Dr. Jules Segal, an abortionist who explains to Lucy that she can’t achieve sexual satisfaction because her vagina is too big. Fortunately, he can help. Or, as he puts it, “Baby, I’m going to build you a whole new thing down there, and then I’ll try it out personally.” Awwwwwww!
Anyway, for whatever reason, Francis Ford Coppola decided not to include any of this when he made his film version. And it’s for the best. When it comes to The Godfather as a book …. well, the movie’s great. And the sequel’s even better! The book really makes you appreciate what Coppola and his amazing cast and crew were able to accomplish.