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. 

Featured Movie of the Month: Amelie

February 2020

The Oscars have just wrapped up and the big winner of the night was “Parasite,” which has the historic distinction of being the first foreign film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Others have been nominated. In my lifetime, I remember “Life is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and recently we saw “Roma” come very close to winning.

While some people argue that “Parasite” wasn’t the best movie of the year (I think it’s pretty dang close), I think most people were happy because a foreign language film finally won best picture (“The Artist” might have had a French director and cast and producers, but it had very little dialogue and it was set in the United States and the very few spoken words in the movie were in English. In fact, a few American actors appeared in the film and it did not qualify for Best Foreign Language film that year).

Director Bong Joon-Ho of “Parasite” said something very powerful when he accepted his award at the Golden Globes this year: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

I couldn’t agree more.

While subtitles can be a hindrance at times (they require more concentration and might be harder on the eyes), they shouldn’t be a huge barrier. So many countries have amazing movies to offer and you shouldn’t limit yourself when it comes to artwork.

That’s why this month I wanted to highlight the first foreign language film I truly loved: “Amelie.”

This 2001 French romantic comedy is the highest grossing French film every released in the United States. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best foreign film, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best production design and best sound editing.

This lighthearted film follows a young woman who secretly orchestrates the lives of the people around her. She helps other people find their true selves but she neglects her own needs and wants and instead retreats into her world of imagination and fantasy.

I saw this film in theaters when I was in high school and I marveled at the screen. The colors. The symmetry. The characters. Later I would see this same artistry in films released by Wes Anderson but that director had not hit his stride yet at this time (The Royal Tenenbaums had not been released yet).

It was a revelation.

This might not be the world’s greatest movie but I sure did love it.

It’s hard to not be drawn in by this film. The music by Yann Tierson is gorgeous and I’ll listen to that soundtrack to this day. Never has accordion music sound so lovely. The plot keeps moving and it’s never boring. And the overall message of this film is that the world is a beautiful place and people are generally good. Who doesn’t want to curl up and watch that?

Some call this film corny or sappy. Oh, well. Perhaps it hit me at the right time. I was either 16 or 17 at the time. I was idealistic and full of hope. And here’s this story of a beautiful French woman with a childlike wonder of the world who just wanted to make people happy. She didn’t know her place in the world or what she was supposed to be or do. But she wanted to help others. When you’re a high schooler figuring out your way in life — getting crushes on girls in your classes and dreaming of the future — this kind of movie is very appealing.

One thing I think I found appealing about this movie is I could relate to Amelie, the protagonist played by Audrey Tautou. Not to sound sexist, but it’s strange for a high school boy to relate to a 25-year-old French woman. But her struggles are similar to what many of us face.

In the movie, she finds a collection of photographs in a book and she falls in love with the collector. She catches a glimpse of him when she attempts to return it and her love overwhelms her and she gets scared. She’s never had a real relationship. She doesn’t know what to do. So instead she plays a cat-and-mouse game with her would-be paramore and keeps avoiding her possible happiness. The idea of having what she wants in life scares her. She seems content to sit on the sidelines. She’s happy to pull the strings and help the love lives of others but doesn’t want to take control of her own life.

Amelie has a friend who advises her throughout her journey. A neighbor in her building called Mr. Glass (not the Samuel L. Jackson character). He’s a man with bones so brittle that he has to cover his television set with pillow cushions tied to it so he doesn’t hurt himself. She brings him gifts on occasion to cheer him up and he paints a portrait, again and again. It’s a famous painting he’s trying to recreate and he’s trying to get it just right. She looks at the woman in the painting and he tells her what the woman in the painting is thinking. Really, she’s talking about her own feeling and fears but she can’t admit them to anyone else, even a friendly hermit with nobody else to tell.

The old frail man tells Amelie she can’t be afraid of having her heart broken. She’s young and she should take the chance. Even if it doesn’t work out, she’ll be OK.

“Your bones aren’t made of glass, you can take life’s knocks,” he tells her.

Again, that quote hit me at that age. For a high school boy (almost a man), trying to get the courage to ask a girl out or to tackle the things in life you want, there’s always this fear of failure.

And it doesn’t go away in your twenties.

I would watch this movie again and again. In college, it was a mainstay in my DVD collection (this was pre-streaming). I would watch it when I was sad or when I was home sick. The themes still resonated with me but on a different level as my life progressed.

Now in my mid 30s, I watched the movie again recently before my trip to Paris with my wife. The film had a different effect on me in my current stage of life. No longer do I have the fear of jumping into something new or different. I don’t have fear of failure. I’ve started a business. I got married. We had a child. I ran for elected office. I’ve learned the lesson that I don’t have bones made of glass. I can take the knocks.

But I still loved the movie. I enjoyed seeing the character discover the truths in life that I eventually discovered myself and reflecting on my own journey to become who I am today.

When we went to Paris, we stayed in the Montmartre region. This is the neighborhood where Amelie was filmed and most of the movie takes place. It’s a part of Paris with narrow cobblestone roads, local butchers/artisans, sloping hills, vespa scooters and a Red Light district in Pigall if you turn on the wrong strong (the famous Moulin Rouge is in this area).

We ate lunch at the actual restaurant where Amelie works at in the movie. The once quaint restaurant has now turned into a tourist trap. They serve creme brulee there since Amelie mentions in the movie that she loves the sound of creme brulee cracking with a spoon (it’s never served at the restaurant in the movie).

The layout has changed from the film and there are plenty of displays of movie memorabilia and posters. Actually, the food was pretty good and it’s not a bad restaurant but the obvious appeal is that the movie was filmed there.

I know it sounds corny but I enjoyed looking at the bar where the characters overhead conversations and even use the restroom where two characters “fornicated” in the movie (it’s not a X-rated scene, I promise).

There’s something otherworldly about standing in the setting of one of your favorite movies.

There were a few other Montmartre landmarks from the movie that we passed by. We saw the fruit stand where Amelie tortured the merchant. And obviously Sacre Coeur is in a key scene of the movie.

While “Amelie” isn’t the most expertly made movie of all time, it certainly holds a place in my heart. It opened my eyes up to the artistry of foreign films and it made me feel something. That’s what great movies do. The help us reflect on our own lives. This is my first entry in my Featured Movie of the Month series and each month I plan to continue to share movies that affected me emotionally.

2019 Oscars Preview

I’ve been following movies and the Academy Awards for as long as I can remember and for more than a decade I’ve made it a point to see all of the Best Picture nominees prior to the big ceremony. I will release a ranking of my favorite Best Picture nominees and which ones I think will win.

Most years it’s pretty clear which two or three films have a chance to take home that golden statuette.

Last year, I assumed Roma, A Star is Born and Green Book would be the best contenders and Green Book was victorious.

The Shape of Water was no surprise to me the year before that, although Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri had a chance to upset. 

And the battle between La La Land and Moonlight was pretty clear, although little did we know the announcement would be so complicated.

For this year, there’s four or five films that have a chance, which is kind of odd.

Parasite, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Jojo Rabbit all lead the pack when you consider wins in previous award shows leading up to Oscar night. Awards like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTAs, Writers Guild and more are all predictors of who will win. But no clear frontrunner has emerged.

So here’s who I’m predicting will take home the gold this Sunday.

BEST FILM: PARASITE

This will be historic because it’ll be the first time a foreign language film takes home Best Picture. Considering there’s no real frontrunner, I think that history will persuade voters and they’ll choose this genre-bending thriller from South Korea. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if 1917 or Once Upon A Time in Hollywood win since they won best drama and best comedy at the Golden Globes.

BEST DIRECTOR: SAM MENDES (1917)

There’s a good chance that Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite) or Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood) win, but I think the voters will split the vote between best picture and best director and honor Mendes, who previously won in his debut film American Beauty. 1917 is a technical marvel and while it might not have the acting or emotion of Marriage Story or the other nominees, it’s definitely a superbly crafted film that’s amazing to look at.

BEST ACTOR: JOAQUIN PHOENIX (JOKER)

Like the rest of the acting categories I’ll mention later on, he’s been sweeping the award show circuit and his win is nearly guaranteed. Not only did he give an excellent performance in Joker, but he’s long overdue for this award after giving amazing performances in Walk the Line, The Master, Her and more. Personally, I also really like Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story and he’s an Indiana native but I think he’s going to have to wait for another year.

BEST ACTRESS: RENEE ZELLWEGER (JUDY)

I watched this movie and while I didn’t love the film I was impressed by her performance. She inhabits the role of Judy Garland and she’s been sweeping the awards circuit. Personally, it felt a little Oscar-baitey to me and I would have preferred Saorise Ronan in Little Women, but Zellweger will likely take home her second Oscar on Sunday.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: BRAD PITT (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)

Brad is due. Again, another actor who’s been sweeping the awards and he’s been around for so long and has appeared in so many Best Picture nominees and his only Oscar win so far was as a producer for 12 Years A Slave. He’ll finally win an acting Oscar and it’s fine by me since he gives a career-best performance and shines in a film that I really liked but I didn’t love. Despite any of my issues with the movie he was in, Pitt was electric on screen and I applaud his win. I am disappointed though that Willem Dafoe wasn’t nominated for The Lighthouse, a small black-and-white indie film released by A24 this year. You’re glued to the screen when he acts in this film and Dafoe is past due for an Oscar win (I was disappointed that he lost Best Actor to Gary Oldman two years ago. Dafoe was fantastic in The Florida Project that year).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: LAURA DERN (MARRIAGE STORY)

This might be the only win for this fantastic movie made by Noah Baumbach, husband of another Best Picture nominee director Greta Gerwig. Dern brings her character to life and shines in only a few scenes and she’s also sweeping the awards leading up to the Oscars (notice a pattern?). I don’t see her having much of a threat but Scarlett Johannson could upset. I’m happy that newcomer Florence Pugh received a nomination but she won’t win. I was surprised that Jennifer Lopez was snubbed for Hustlers. I wasn’t surprised but disappointed that Zhao Shuzen wasn’t nominated for The Farwell. She was the heart of that movie.

MY PERSONAL RANKINGS (1 BEING MY FAVORITE):

9. JOJO RABBIT

8. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

7. THE IRISHMAN

6. JOKER

5. 1917

4. LITTLE WOMEN

3. MARRIAGE STORY

2. PARASITE

1. FORD V FERRARI