Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Godfather Returns

One of the byproducts of my recuperation (see here if you're interested in the details about that) is that I'm having a chance to actually read some of the books on my always burgeoning "to-be-read" pile. This one's been on the stack for a couple of months now but it turned out to be quite a page-turner and I finished it in just over a day.

The Godfather and The Godfather, Part 2 are two of the most accomplished pieces of filmmaking ever. They're layered with clever dialogue, intricate storylines, complex characters, stellar performances, gorgeous sets and scenery, and meticulous attention to detail, suspense, pathos, and even humor.

Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather, is not quite as accomplished. Don't get me wrong, it's a fun book...an atmospheric potboiler (said here with affection not derision)...but it's a bare skeleton of what Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola created for the screenplays of the films. More often than not, films made from novels are pale shadows of their source material...having to shed a lot of detail and characterization to fit the demands of an entirely different medium...but in this case the opposite is true.

Mark Winegardner's prequel/sequel, The Godfather Returns, sets a high bar for itself as it seeks to fill in the spaces left not from the book but rather from the two now-classic movies. The Godfather (the movie) covered a period going up to around 1954, while The Godfather, Part 2 covered the turbulent period from 1959-1962 (with flashbacks to young Vito Corleone's youth in the early part of the 20th Century.)

Winegardner fills in some of these spaces and, at the same time, fleshes out some of the vivid supporting characters from the films (giving more heft to motivations that weren't completely explored in the films due, one supposes, to time constraints.) Among these are Johnny Fontane (the blatant Frank Sinatra pastiche), Tom Hagen (the adopted ward of Don Vito, played with such subtlety by Robert Duvall in the films), the twin daughters of the late Sonny Corleone (felled by machine guns in a memorable scene in GF1), and the tragic/comic Fredo Corleone, the doomed bumbler who is given a conflicted sexuality to go along with his frustration at being overlooked in the family because of being...well..."not smart" (as the late, great John Cazale so passionately said in this portrayal of poor, sweet, dumb Fredo in GF2. )

And, of course, at the center is the towering, brooding, ever-scheming Michael Corleone, his father's son in ways he thought he never would be. His machinations are seen here reaching into the White House (through dealings with thinly-disguised versions of JFK, his father Joseph, and his brother Bobby) and even back to Cuba (with the attempted assassination of Castro.)

At 400+ pages, Winegardner's book is also a page-turner. He gets a big leg up by having so many characters who already firmly established in the readers' minds (it is impossible for anyone who has seen either or both of the movies, to get the image a young, sloe-eyed Al Pacino out of their minds while reading about Michael, for example) and he uses that advantage to weave a compelling story.

The final fates of characters like Tessio and Clemenza are revealed. Michael's wartime experiences are explored in an extended flashback while some of his many contentious relationships...his father, his wife Kay, his adopted brother Tom, his brother Fredo, his children Mary and Anthony...are given added depth and nuance. And the expected measures of double-dealing, murder, and controlled mayhem that one would expect given the characters and the lives and times they live in are all present as well.

It's a entertaining book...especially for those, like myself, who loved the first two movies (and who thought, Sofia Coppola's unfortunate performance and Robert Duvall's absence notwithstanding, that The Godfather, Part 3, while flawed and certainly not up to the standard set by the first two films, wasn't quite as bad as some made it out to be when it came out.)

1 comment:

John Norton said...

I liked the Godfather book more than the movie, myself. Not by much, but a little. Maybe if I read it before seeing the movie my opinion would be swayed, but since I had seen the movie first the book really fleshed out a lot of the details that were missing.