The Godfather Turned Trash Genre Fiction Into Great Art
Re-released in theaters this weekend on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. It is a triumph of American cinema, rightly considered a classic. It is also a spectacular fusion between high art and low culture.
Watching The Godfather today it is almost impossible to separate the film from its reception and its legacy. It had such a monumental impact that most viewers passively absorbed it before sitting down to watch it. Its mythical status is anything but consecrated. However, hindsight distorts perception. In reality, The Godfather is remarkable as an illustration of the power of adaptation, to take a decidedly trashy bestseller in an often-derided genre and produce a creative triumph.
Mario Puzo did not write The Godfather as a bold artistic statement. Puzo had already written two deeply personal novels by this point in his career, to critical acclaim and disappointing sales. With growing gambling debts, Puzo’s biggest ambition to sit down to write The Godfather was to create a populist thriller that would turn the page and sell. Puzo had no illusions about The Godfather like a work of great art. Instead, it was a decidedly pulpy and often quite sinister gangster book.
Reading The Godfather is an interesting experience, especially in the context of its status as raw material for a masterpiece of American cinema. The book contains quite a few elements that were thoughtfully cut from the film adaptation, including an extended (ahem) subplot about the size of Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan) penis. This is not a recurring joke. It’s a real subplot that (um) fits perfectly with the other subplot about his mistress and her oversized vagina.
At the request of Robert Evans, the studio’s head of production, Paramount took over the rights to The Godfather before the book is finished. The studio was skeptical of the material’s potential. By the late 1960s, the old-school gangster flick had taken the traditional western route. After decades of stereotypical genre films, these pulp archetypes were considered outdated. Brotherhooda star-studded Sicilian mafia drama from Paramount, bombed in 1968.
Throughout production, it never seemed like Paramount had much confidence in The Godfather. Wanting audiences to “smell like spaghetti” and perhaps fearing the (inevitable) backlash from the Italian-American community, Evans hired a young director named Francis Ford Coppola to direct the film. At the time, Coppola’s filmography included a slasher filmed in Ireland, two softcore porn films, and more respected movies few people had actually seen.
Like Puzo, Coppola was not initially drawn to The Godfather as a bold artistic statement. His production company, American Zoetrope, was massively indebted to Warner Bros., and his friend George Lucas had to convince him to take the job. The production of The Godfather would be a nightmare. Coppola described the production of The Godfather as “the worst experience” of his career, which says something about the director of Revelation now.
While The Godfather quickly became a bestseller, Coppola couldn’t even finish the book, at least at first. Apparently, her dad told her, “Of course, it’s a trashy book, but do this picture and then you can do all the art movies you want.” At Coppola, as at Puzo, The Godfather was originally intended as a pragmatic means to an end rather than a bold artistic statement. It seemed unlikely that anyone involved in the film’s production initially believed it would become so monumental.
Paramount first tried to treat The Godfather like any other genre film, to produce it as something trashy and disposable. At one point, they commissioned Puzo to write a screenplay set in contemporary America “with hippies in it”, to help avoid the more costly period trappings. When Coppola began post-production, the studio insisted on a runtime of two hours and ten minutes, with Evans fighting for a longer cut.
It’s easy to understand Paramount’s logic. Like cowboy movies before them, gangster movies were widely seen as cheap and disposable. Just five years ago The GodfatherWarner Bros. founder Jack Warner fought against his own studio’s production of Bonnie and Clyde, seeing it as a throwback to the studio’s outdated classic gangster films. Warner Bros. even briefly withdrew Bonnie and Clyde upon its release following particularly brutal criticism from The New York Times and Newsweek.
Those who work on The Godfather fought pitched battles against the studio and against cynicism, hoping to make the best movie possible. Coppola fought for the cast he wanted, ahead of the one preferred by the studio. Cinematographer Gordon Willis described the shoot The Godfather like “trying to serve dinner sitting on the deck of the Titanic”. At the heart of it all was a single romantic ideal: even the trashiest source material in the pulpiest genre could make a work of art.
Even half a century away from this context and this conflict, there is something reassuring in all of this. It’s a reminder that it’s possible for populist entertainment to succeed as wholehearted artistic achievement. To the output, The Godfather was a resounding success from all points of view. The film made more money in six months than carried away by the wind had in over three decades. It received rave reviews. It won the Best Picture Oscar.
It is interesting to ask whether a feature film like The Godfather would be possible today – a pulpy populist blockbuster with strong artistic vision and assured confidence. Much has been written in recent years about how the superhero movie is the logical descendant of the western. It might be logical to consider the gangster film as an intermediate evolution between these two quintessential American genres. After all, to paraphrase, superheroes have always been outlaws.
The obvious counter-argument would be that cowboys and gangsters have at least some real-world relationship, while superheroes are fully invited. This ignores the extent to which the cowboys and gangsters depicted in classic American cinema differ from actual historical reality. Although Puzo based various characters and events in The Godfather on second-hand accounts of gangsters, he candidly admitted that he didn’t know any gangsters.
“It’s a kind of poetic epic (;) it’s not my realistic film about the mafia”, explained Coppola a few years after the release of The Godfather. “But a realistic mafia movie couldn’t be made from Puzo’s book. It’s a fairy tale. Coppola was quick to recognize and accept criticism that The Godfather offers a fantastic version of organized crime, admitting that “the real mobsters are animals”. Ironically, The Godfather may have influenced the real gangsters more than it reflected them.
Accept that the gangsters of The Godfather are no closer to reality than any of the costumed avengers that dominate contemporary cinema, is it possible to imagine a modern studio blockbuster replicating the success of The Godfather? It often seems that contemporary pop culture would be actively hostile to any filmmaker with a strong enough vision to try something as bold and ambitious as Coppola and his collaborators did with The Godfather.
Writer Tom Shone has made a compelling case that director Christopher Nolan has grown closer to his Black Knight trilogy, constructing an ambitious and epic parable of contemporary America through the prism of a pulpy and often dismissed genre. However, it’s also worth noting that recent years have seen a reasonably vocal anti-auteurist backlash against Nolan, often rooted in criticism of the ambition and personality he imbues into his big-budget hit projects.
Todd Phillips’ Joker could also be considered a comparable film. It won the Golden Lion at Venice, grossed over $1 billion at the box office, and was nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, the Joker became only the second character after Vito Corleone to win two different actor Oscars for the same role. However, even ignoring the strange moral panic and intense backlash that accompanied the film’s release, Phillips’ work was largely an imitation of films from the 1970s and 1980s like Taxi driver and The king of comedy rather than something particularly new or ambitious.
There is an instinctive tendency to react against genre films that dare to go out of their way. Some fan groups reflexively freak out when filmmakers make adaptive changes to the source material. Online pundits are giving (unseen) reviews of movie run times, ignoring the fact that when studios tend to cut projects like this, they end up with movies like Joss Whedon. Justice League. In 2003, AO Scott fired Ang Lee Pontoon and the Wachowski sisters Matrix Reloaded as “pretentious”, and it’s a word that comes up often in these arguments.
Let us try a thought experiment. Imagine a movie from a director with a modest resume at this point, including low-budget schlocky horror early in his career. This film belongs to a genre that has always been treated as disposable entertainment. It features a gripping supporting turn from an actor in his 40s who’s been through a number of public professional breakdowns, his face transformed by prosthetics. It looks very dark. It looks violent. It drains in just under three hours.
Is that Francis Ford Coppola The Godfather where is it matt reeves The Batman? The difference, of course, is that The Godfather is a time-tested classic of American cinema. However, there was a time when it was just an expensive adaptation of trashy source material from an unproven director into a tired genre that lasted much longer than it all deserves. Luckily for everyone involved, Coppola and his collaborators didn’t condescend to the material, but instead found a way to elevate it.