The first Godfather films are still widely thought to be two of the best films ever made.
Released in 1972, the first film received the deserved accolades, winning three Oscars for its efforts. Part two doubled this total and possibly became one of the first sequels ever considered better than the original. Since then the first two Godfather films’ legacy has grown and grown over the years, perhaps helped by the final instalment of the trilogy being such a disappointment.
From its inception, the story of the criminal underworld in which Corleone family operated seemed destined to be told to the masses. Parama Pictures had already jumped at the chance to buy the rights to the novel, ‘The Godfather’, by author Mario Puzo before even being published. Purely based upon an unfinished manuscript, the film company thought a film based on the story brought forward to a modern era could make a quick profit.
After the novel was released in 1969, it quickly became a best-seller, subsequently leading to Puzo, together with film’s director Francis Ford Coppola, taking an active role in writing the screenplay. This partnership kept the adaptation close to the novel and continued for the rest of the saga.
It’s now public knowledge the novel was written with commercial success in mind.
Puzo had been in deep financial trouble. The time for him to ‘sell-out’ had come. During this period the mafia were frequently in the news; the public were completely fascinated with gangsters and the power they possessed in society. Puzo had already introduced that world into, what is considered, his best literary work, ‘The Fortunate Pilgrim’. The novel tells the tale of immigrants from the farms in Italy coming to New York. Although receiving good reviews, books were not selling. Publishers told Puzo putting more mafia in the book would make it more likely to be a success. A novel centred around the mafia was his best chance to connect with an audience on a large-scale.
In writing The Godfather, without doubt, Puzo revolutionised the genre of mafia fiction. Nobody had thought to portray the mafia from their own perspective in such a way that was authentic and exaggerated, romantic yet brutal. The Godfather was completely unique. Part of his genius was Puzo’s ability to make many of the characters incredibly likeable. Of Italian descent himself, the characters Puzo was writing were those of his own people. Much-loved characteristics of Don Vito Corleone were based on Puzo’s own mother’s wisdom, ruthlessness, and unconquerable love for her family. It all still comes across in the Don’s famous, profound dialogues that can’t help produce a smile. Generally, this was the opposite of how Italians were stereo-typically portrayed in American culture. As the Godfather’s popularity grew it led to Americans, and the rest of the world, to embrace Italian culture.
A colossal thirty to forty million copies of The Godfather are now estimated to be sold.
However, the book is rarely entered into the conversation as one of the best of all time, possibly because the films will forever overshadow the novel. Reading it today, it seems like a fairly ordinary novel about the mafia. It’s an enjoyable read, especially if you’re a fan of the films; leaving some less relevant subplots out of the film was probably the correct decision. Puzo had seen himself more as a storyteller than an author, even saying himself if he had expected so many people to read it he would have written it better.
Since the phenomenon, any fiction based around the genre is instantly compared to The Godfather, which has kept the standard for gangster related fiction high. This resulted in multiple flop projects. The culture of the mafia is a melting pot for a writer, with many elements to play with. Work that can stand in its own right alongside The Godfather is usually very successful. Goodfellas and The Sopranos are perfect examples of this. Puzo had set the standard very early and very high, so high everyone ever since, including himself, has struggled to meet that standard.