After watching The Godfather and The Godfather Part II for the sixth or seventh time, I decided to read the novel. The book, published in 1969, was a big bestseller and has now sold more than 20 million copies. But I wondered: The Godfather films are classics – does the novel hold up?
Nope. This is one of those rare cases in which the artistry of the film clearly surpasses that of the book. Puzo is an indifferent, even clunky stylist. He also tends to wander from the main story, at one point spending pages describing the events around an operation to shrink the vagina of Sonny’s former mistress. (I'm not joking.) The film does make use of some of the best of the book’s dialogue, but Coppolla (along with Puzo as his co-screenwriter) was shrewd enough to pick out the gems in the midst of the more prosaic back-and-forths. (Plus I couldn't find the canolli line in the book.) And of course the actors must be given credit for not only stimulating those frissons an audience feels at many of the famous lines (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” just doesn’t have the same punch in the book), but also the relationships between the characters that give the story texture. For example, in the book, when Tom Hagen and Sonny discuss the best way to respond to the shooting of Don Corleone, Hagen argues that Sonny is foolish to start an all-out war. In the film, the same lines are delivered by Robert Duvall with impatience and irritation, reinforcing our view of Sonny as a hothead and too immature to replace his father. This resonates later when Michael ousts Hagen as consigliere; as Hagen has shown previously that he may have been more capable than Sonny, there is a sense that Michael has an ulterior motive.
To watch the films then read the book is to understand the difference between merely a good idea and its artistic execution. Puzo’s rendering of Don Corleone’s death:
"Quite suddenly it felt as if the sun had come down very close to his head. The air filled...