More than 50 years ago, a former public relations officer of the US Army Air Forces during World War II decided to write a novel that, he hoped, would make money. Married and with five children, he had racked up debts and also written two critically appreciated novels The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) that had tanked in the book-seller’s marketplace. His postwar jobs weren’t paying well, and so he turned to mafia stories.
That man was Mario Puzo, and the outcome of his populist aspirations was The Godfather. First published by American publisher GP Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of the Penguin Group since 1996) on March 10, 1969, the instant sensation of a gangster classic has sold more than 30 million copies since.
Set in the US between 1945 and 1955, The Godfather introduced the reader to the Corleones, an American crime family. The novel packaged elements in its simple, racy prose that kept the reader engrossed: crime, family ties, loyalty, passion, while nosediving into the world of the mafia.
The Godfather’s popularity, for one, owes itself to Puzo’s delineation of characters with distinct personality traits.
Don Vito Corleone, the family patriarch, and an orphaned Sicilian immigrant who builds a mafia empire, is generous, sympathetic and fiercely loyal to family and friends.
Sonny, his eldest son, is irrepressible, brash and irritable. Fredo, the second son, is weak, suffers from an inferiority complex, and, is a womaniser. Michael, the youngest, resents his family business and seeks a regular life. But destiny has a different plan. It decants him into unpredictable situations and propels him to becoming the successor of his father’s empire.
Connie, Don Vito’s only daughter, is a victim of her husband’s physical abuse — which would lead to a major turning point in the novel. Tom Hagen, who has been informally adopted by the don, is a mild-mannered and balanced lawyer, who serves as the consigliere to the Corleone family.
Its classification as a crime novel notwithstanding, Puzo believed that The Godfather was more of a family novel. A significant part of the novel hinges on family ties, but its raw energy comes from the Corleones’ rivalry with other gangs, which results in gang warfare and loss of lives.
What makes The Godfather outstanding is Puzo’s reading of the criminal mind. Justice is dispensed by murder. Blood is a big expense, Don Vito knows that too well. Legality, of any kind, is equally amiss in the business dealings.
“I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster…never been in the rackets,” Puzo confessed in his autobiography The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions in 1972. When he actually met a few real-life criminals after the book became immensely popular, they refused to believe that he had written the novel without interacting with anybody of their kind. Puzo believed that The Godfather, followed by The Last Don (1996) and Omertà, published posthumously in 2000, constituted his mafia trilogy.
The book seemed tailor-made for adaptation for the big screen. Paramount Studios approached several directors, among them the Spaghetti Westerns man Sergio Leone, Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967). Finally, Francis Ford Coppola got the job — for a reported salary of $1,25,000, which he accepted without finishing the book.
Released in 1972, The Godfather was critically and commercially successful. It would be followed by The Godfather: Part II (1974) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). The first part received 10 Oscar nominations, winning three for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, which he declined as a mark of protest against the manner in which American Indians were portrayed in Hollywood and television) and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Coppola and Puzo). The losers included Al Pacino (Best Supporting Actor as Michael), James Caan (Best Supporting Actor, as Sonny), Robert Duvall (Best Supporting Actor, as Tom Hagen) and Coppola for Best Director.
The second part was also nominated for 11 Oscars, winning six, which included Best Picture, Best Director for Coppola, Best Supporting Actor for Robert De Niro (as Vito Corleone during the flashback) and Best Screenplay (Coppola and Puzo). The third part, a lesser success, still managed to get seven Oscar nominations. That was, relatively speaking, very disappointing.
The world’s most famous fictional mafia family appeared in later novels, too. Puzo wrote The Sicilian, which is considered to be the literary sequel, in 1984. In 2004, Mark Winegardner wrote The Godfather Returns, the sequel of The Godfather and The Sicilian. He followed it up with The Godfather’s Revenge (2006). Ed Falco wrote The Family Corleone in 2012 based on an unproduced screenplay by Puzo. The last sequel of the bestselling classic hasn’t been written as yet.
Puzo’s financial concerns were a major reason for writing The Godfather. On August 2, 1996, he famously told Larry King on the latter’s talk show, Larry King Live: “I always wish I had written it better…I went away to Europe and left the manuscript with my publisher and I said, ‘I’ve got to do one rewrite’, but when I came back they had sold the book for $450,000 to a paperback publisher and I didn’t dare rewrite it….”
Perhaps, he was fortunate, since a rewritten manuscript might have had better literary quality — at the expense of the pulsating energy and power of The Godfather.
(Biswadeep Ghosh is a Patna-based journalist and writer).
This article appeared in print with the headline: Making of the Mafia