From Page to Screen: The Godfather

“What makes a good book and what makes a good movie are two completely different things” — Seth Grahame-Smith, author and screenwriter.

“Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They’re both fruit but they taste nothing alike” — Stephen King, author and screenwriter.

One thing I really enjoy doing is reading a book that’s been turned into a movie and then comparing the two. The best is when you can read a recent bestseller before the movie adaptation hits the big screen which I’ve done with many, many books/movies over the years.

When I was a budding reader, it was a great way to get me to dive into more challenging books. I remember reading Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” when I was in fourth grade, the year after the movie just came out in theaters. It was a little dense for a 10-year-old but the love of movies helped me push through the scientific text.

Some people hate comparing a book to the movie. In their mind, the book will always be better. The movi, due to time constraints, will often leave out characters or scenes that they liked in the book. And often something gets changed because it doesn’t translate to the big screen.

I enjoy the experience because I like to see what the movie director does differently and how they translate the written word to the visual medium. It doesn’t bother me when there are changes. I understand it’s a different art form and changes have to be made and many times the book author writes the screenplay anyway and so these changes have their blessing.

I think people often say a book was better than the movie because reading a book is a much more enriching experience than just watching a movie. You get to use your imagination and you spend so much time with the characters. You start to feel like you really know them.

There are many times I feel like movie screenplays have improved upon the story told in a book by eliminating unnecessary characters and cutting back on long backstories. This isn’t true in most cases, but some.

On my new movie Web site, GradeAMovies.com, I’ll be writing an occasional series where I compare books to their movie adaptations.

First in the series, is a book I recently finished, “The Godfather,” a 1969 novel that became one of the most celebrated movies of all time.

Mario Puzo’s book was on The New York Times Bestseller List for 67 weeks and sold over nine million copies in a two-year period. The movie came out in 1972 and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, spawning two sequels that both were nominated for Best Picture as well (Part II is the only sequel to win the top award).

Puzo worked on the screenplay for the film concurrently with director Francis Ford Coppola (and they compared versions to come up with a new draft). As a result, the film adaptation stays true to the story and themes of the published work with some of the best movie quotes being lifted verbatim from the novel.

Marlon Brando was author Mario Puzo’s first choice for the role of Vito Corleone, even though the movie studio wanted either Lawrence Olivier or Ernest Borgnine.

But there are some key differences between the book and the movie and I’d argue the movie wisely made some proper cuts.

First off, the book is actually quite smutty. It’s not so different from a pulpy grocery store rack read.

Sex is a prominent theme in Puzo’s novel and it almost feels like a mass-produced harlequin novel with Fabio dressed as a pirate on the cover.

For example, when Sonny Corleone decides to have sex with one of the bridesmaids at his sister’s wedding, it’s a 30-second clip in the movie. In the book, they go into graphic detail, talking about the size of his member extensively. That bridesmaid doesn’t get a name in the movie, but in the book she’s Lucy Mancini, a single woman that has an embarassing problem. I don’t mean to be crude, but the book has long passages about the large size of her vagina and she eventually meets a surgeon who corrects it for her.

(Side note: she ends up marrying the surgeon and he creepily gets excited about the prospect of performing surgery, having sex with her afterwards and then writing up his observations for a medical journal. Truly gross).

Mancini is actually a prominent character in the book and her trysts with Sonny become more regular. While I appreciate Puzo’s attempt to give some backstory on the female characters and not just the men, his attempt is clumsy. In the book, all of his female characters see their role in life is to please men. There are times when a woman speaks up and expresses her opinion, but most of the time they wait around for the men. Vito Corleone’s daughter, Connie, portrayed by Talia Shire in the movie, is regularly beaten and abused by her cruel husband and when she pleads for help the only one to step up his her brother Sonny.

I understand that this book came out in the late 1960s and the story takes place in the 1940s and 1950s, but it’s still frustrating to read when portrayed in this way in a book. Especially when Coppola’s film, released only 3 years after the book, portrayed women as much stronger figures (especially in the sequels).

Another major difference is that the book goes into many side stories about characters loosely connected to the Corleone Family. Johnny Fontaine, the famous singer who asks Vito Corleone for a favor on his wedding day (leading to the iconic “horse-head in the bed” scene) gets chapter after chapter of his own stories that take place in Los Angeles or Las Vegas, thousands of miles from the Corleone sage on the East Coast.

In his story, Fontaine is an aging singer who has lost his voice. It’s weakened and he can’t sing for a long period of time. He’s acted in a few movies but he incurred the wrath of a famous movie producer who refuses to give him a part in a movie that would resurrect his career. In the book, he gets the part, wins the Academy Award for Best Actor (after some rigging by the Corleones) and then Don Corleone finances his new movie company and Fontaine begins producing movies himself. His voice is later repaired by the same surgeon that operates on Lucy Mancini (a disgraced doctor who is banished from his previous job for performing abortions and now has to settle on being a mob doctor in a casino).

Johnny Fontaine had an important scene in the movie but he’s a major character in the book which tells his entire story.

Again, Puzo likes to intimately describe sex scenes when he talks about Fontaine’s skirt chasing that breaks up his marriage. It’s not as graphic as the scenes with Sonny but still doesn’t treat women too kindly. I did appreciate Puzo’s portrayal of Fontaine as a broken man who never appreciated his vocal gifts or his first family when he had them but now was a drunkard full of regrets.

Fontaine’s side story was interesting but never really connected to the major plot and would have been better as a spin-off sequel book.

Finally, the biggest difference in the book is the portrayal of Kay Adams, the love interest and eventual wife of Michael Corleone. In the book, she’s a smart, college-educated girl from a good family who abhors crime but is so madly in love with Michael that she overlooks everything he does. Even when Michael goes away to Italy (where he falls in love with a woman who is eventually killed by a car bomb) and never writes or calls Kay, she hopes to hear from him. She’s more worried than angry and she doesn’t seem to blame Michael. She keeps saying that he’s not like the rest of his family and eventually when Michael indirectly tells her that he’s taken over the family business and she has no right to ask about it at all, she smiles and accepts it.
In the novel, Kay flees to New Hampshire with their children and then she eventually speaks to Tom Hagen who reveals some of the family secrets and why he does some of the things he does. In the end of the book, she accepts Michael’s way of life. She converts to Catholicism and proceeds similarly to the way Vito’s wife Carmela had done.

In the movie, Diane Keaton, known for playing strong women (as we will see in a few years in Annie Hall), portrays Kay as conflicted but not a door mat by any means. She is suspicious and not afraid to speak up. She’s smart enough to know what’s going on and while she’s relieved when Michael denies the killings, she sees the capos address her husband as Don Corleone and the look in her eyes show she’s not OK with it. This growing divide is further explored in The Godfather Part II, when Kay reveals that she aborts her husband’s unborn child because she doesn’t want to bring another soul into this family of crime. In the movie, this is shown as the ultimate betrayals of Michael Corleone and is far from the obedient wife as shown in the novel.

Diane Keaton would win a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Annie Hall in 1978 but she never was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Kay Adams in The Godfather series, despite her prominent performance in the sequel.

There are other differences. Characters like Luca Brasi, Al Neri and Captain McCluskey are given detailed backstories in the novel while they only appear briefly in the movie. The history of Vito Corleone’s life in Italy and his arrival in America take place in the novel but don’t appear until the movie sequel with Robert DeNiro portraying young Vito.

All in all, I feel the movie did a great job adapting the book and the choices they made were the correct ones.