The Godfather by Mario Puzo is the fictional novel that the famous movies, Godfather and Godfather, Part II were based on. Vito, Michael, Sonny and Fredo, Mama Corleone and Kate, Johnny Fontaine and Tom Hagen, all the favorites from the first movie and many from the second are here. Indeed, the screenplay for the first movie (and the “flashback” scenes in the second) follow the book very, very closely. The atmosphere of the movies is easy to experience in the book, and the book provides context and background for the action in the movies.
But really, it’s a superhero book.
While reading Godfather I was also reading Slugfest, about the American comics book industry by Reed Tucker. In his description of DC Comics, the foundational firm that created Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Reed Tucker noted DC’s heroes tended to be royalty (or quasi-royalty), independently wealthy, living a fundamentally urban life, a righter of wrongs, with a noteworthy superpower, and demigod-like in their perfection. Then later, almost as an aside, Tucker mentioned one of the writers who got his start writing in the DC house: Mario Puzo.
Michael Corleone, and his father Vito, are classic superheroes. Their superpower is extraordinary wisdom in actions, deeds, and violence. Years ago, when I read the Book of Samuel and Book of Kings, I thought it notable how similar Solomon was to Michael. But properly, the analogous runs the other way. Michael Corleone is Solomon, able to reason even with demons and dispatch his enemies. David is his father, Vito.
In an afterword to the novel, Vito’s son (somewhat tongue in cheeks) repeats the famous statement that Godfather is, ultimately, a movie about family values. It is about family values, in the same way that all classic DC heroes are about family values. Superman and Jor-El, Batman and Thomas Wayne, Wonder Woman and Hippolyta, Michael Corleone and Don Vito, classic DC heroes are embedded within a pre-existing family structure. (This, for what it’s worth is a classic difference against Marvel. Spider-man does not live with his parents though he is a teenager, Iron Man is an alcohol, the Fantastic Four find family in friendships. DC heroes are from before the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Marvel heroes are from that era, and afterwards)
In terms of plot, the Godfather novel closely follows the first film, albeit with some additional material. The “Johnny Fontaine” (Frank Sinatra) subplot is greatly expanded, and for most of the novel serves as an alternative protagonist. The authorial voice provides additional details, such as highlighted Tom Hagen’s jealously of Johnny Fontaine (only hinted at in the film), explaining the sequence of events of Vito’s rise to power (shown but not dissected in the second film), or an examination of the character of Luca Brassi (reduced in the movie to a shadowy, seemingly simple-minded, henchman). The story continues a few beats after the movie, book-ending the novel with sacraments and emphasizing the religious themes of the writing.
Mario Puzo’s work is fantastic, a fun read, mythic in scope, and an early sign of the cultural dominance that comic book superheroes would have in our culture.
I read The Godfather in the Audible edition.