Watching King of the Roaring 20s (1961) and Murder Inc (1960) and struck by the number of similarities to The Brotherhood (1968) that could be found in The Godfather (1972) induced me to examine how well the original novel by Mario Puzo survived the often dangerous transition onto the screen.
There could not be a more textbook example of how to turn a big bestseller into a compelling motion picture. Although director Francis Coppola added texture and style to the bestseller, the film owes far more to the memorable characters created by author Mario Puzo. Apart from some slight structural changes and the elimination of a couple of subplots, the movie follows Puzo’s brilliant structure almost to the letter. And except for a few lines, virtually all the dialogue and many of the most unforgettable lines come directly from the book.
The opening wedding feast is an excellent example of the screenplay approach. The order of the action occasionally alters but the novel’s structure is strictly adhered to. The film’s striking opening line “I love America” by the undertaker is a slight but significant adaptation of that character’s line “I believe in America” in the book. But the screenwriters junk the book’s actual opening section which gives the background to the issues the three characters appealing to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for intervention against perceived injustice from Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and goes straight to the book’s wedding. Here, too, the various elements are taken directly from the book with slight changes. For example, to the FBI men taking down car number plates in the novel the screenplay adds in photographers so that, to demonstrate his temper at an early stage, Sonny Corleone (James Caan) can smash a camera.
Straight from the book: fat Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) dancing, wiping his brow and calling for wine from Paulie (John Martino); Sonny whispering in the ear of bridesmaid Lucy (Jeannie Linero); the frightened undertaker being told off by Vito; the Luca Brasi story Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tells Kay Adams (Diane Keaton); Sonny and Lucy having sex and being interrupted by Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); and the screams that greet singer Johnny Fontane (Al Fontane) and the subsequent scene where Vito shouts at the singer to act “like a man.” Additions are slight: in the book Sonny’s wife is in the kitchen not at a wedding table in dumbshow making jokes about her husband’s manhood, and Luca Brasi rehearsing his speech.
Indicative of the ruthlessness with which the screenplay treats the book is the elimination of a moving scene at the tail end of the wedding where Vito goes to see his dying partner Genco. As indicative of the author’s brilliance is that he invented degenerate film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) and the decapitated horse in his bed. But the storyline, the film’s core, from the attempted murder of Vito, Michael’s assassination of the Turk Solozzo (Al Lettieri) and corrupt cop McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the exiled Michael struck by the “thunderbolt” falling in love, the ambush of Sonny and the stricken Vito suing for peace, is pretty much exactly that of the book. In some case, it’s clear that actors have drawn from Puzo’s characterizations, the chilling way Michael takes control of the Family, how Fredo goes from useless gangster to hotel dandy.
There are occasional additions. In the book Enzo’s hand outside the hospital is shaking but Michael lighting his cigarette is the movie shorthand to demonstrate his icy calm, Sonny’s “bada-bing” isn’t in the book nor is Luca Brasi sleeping with the fishes, though there is something similar “Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean.”
Occasionally, in the novel, for technical reasons, Puzo drifts away from the central characters to provide some more background or detail about a subsidiary person and in this manner we enter into the minds of Paulie, Carlo (Gianni Russo), Kay, Clemenza, McCluskey and Albert Neri just as they are about to play a significant role in forthcoming action. Other subsidiary characters featured more prominently in the novel, in particular Johnny Fontane whom the book reveals develops from Oscar-winning actor to successful movie producer and from manic seducer to more considerate male.
Fontane also helps revitalize the career of another singer Nino who does not appear in the movie at all and plays a role in developing the Family’s interests in Las Vegas. Lucy, who disappears entirely from the film after the wedding, is more significant in the book, finding romance after Sonny’s death with a surgeon and there’s a part of their relationship that would only now be permissible to film. Sicilian shepherd Fabrizio, instrumental in the attempted assassination of Michael, also reappears in the book. The book also devotes more attention to Michael’s new breed, Alberto (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui).
The death of Vito in the garden is almost identical to the book with the grandson present except for Marlon Brando’s improvisation of stuffing his cheeks with orange to frighten the boy. And Michael’s betrayal by Tessio and the subsequent mass murder of all his enemies is also drawn from the book except for Moe Green having been killed earlier (Fabrizio the shepherd slotting into his place in the book’s action). Some slight detail is changed – Barzini (Richard Conte) killed beside his waiting car not on the steps, Tattaglia (Tony Giorgio) murdered in a chalet not an apartment block. Somewhat surprisingly the image of acolytes paying homage to Michael as briefly viewed by Kay has its origins in the book. The two final scenes in the book, both concerning Kay, are excluded from the film, in the first, having run away, she is challenged by Hagen and in the second she prays for Michael’s soul in church just as (in the book) Michael’s mother had prayed for his father
A lengthy chapter on Vito’s beginnings, explaining his early relationships with Clemenza, Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Luca Brasi, was wisely held over for The Godfather Part II.
Having by now read a number of books that were subsequently filmed, my over-riding impression was that in many cases (The Secret Ways, Arabesque) little survived of the original tale or that characters, locations and timescales (The Detective) were substantially altered. In some instances the book’s length precluded a straightforward adaptation. Occasionally, subjects easily dealt with on the printed page were not so welcome on the screen. But, for whatever reason, change appeared inevitable for a bestseller being translated into a movie.
The Godfather almost stands alone as a novel that made the transition with virtually no alterations. All the main characters are present as described by Puzo and the storyline entirely reflects the book. The bulk of the dialogue was originally written by Puzo. While there is no doubting the Coppola’s achievement in putting the book on film, there is equally no doubt that the book leant itself to easier adaptation than most bestsellers.