In Praise of Older Books: Part 1

The Godfather: From Mass Market[1] to “Masterpiece”[2]

In the late 1930s, a young woman from rural New Brunswick crossed the border to the United States. She was going to Yonkers (near New York City) to work for distant relatives and their acquaintances as a maid of all work. (Marjorie had gone to normal school[3] and was a qualified teacher, but there was little work for her in the Maritimes and what work there was paid poorly.)

What did she make of New York coming from a subsistence farm, with no electricity and door ‘indoor’ plumbing consisting of a pump in the kitchen?

The New York that awaited her was the New York in which Mario Puzo grew up and, according to “The Godfather,” the city where Vito Corleone was ascending to become a mafia don while his sons, Michael, Santino (Sonny) and Fredo (Freddie) were going to school. Meanwhile Johnny Fontane was trying to break into the music business.

Like anyone who works as a servant, lives in rooms over someone else’s garage, lives in cheap boarding houses with meagre meals… Marjorie heard the gossip. Since she was a Maritime girl, born and bred, she was not greatly impressed by what she later described to those listening to her adventures as ‘Sicilian braggadocio[4].’  She listened, and she came to her own conclusions.

When, decades later, The Godfather was published, Marjorie was not a fan of the book. She argued that it mythologized a nasty reality, the stark reality that in prewar New York the police did little to provide justice and protection for the various ethnic and immigrant communities. Consequently, those communities created their own parallel police and justice structures. However, unlike the Italian immigrants depicted in the book, what most of these communities did NOT do is create a self-sustaining system such as the mafia that delayed or waylaid the socialization and assimilation of immigrants.

Ironically, while members of the mafia, as portrayed in the book, resisted the Americanization of their community, their behaviour had similarities to the American culture they appeared to reject. Specifically, the celebration of the rebel and demonization of authority. Notably this celebration seldom included any “Robin Hood-esque” egalitarian undercurrent.

Most people didn’t agree with Marjorie. The Godfather was a best seller… transforming a heretofore shadowy subculture in the United States to an interesting clan with their own secret signs and symbols. The movie, in turn, not only popularized the book; it also stands on own. The film is a masterpiece of adaptation—to a large degree stripping off those portions of the book that were most unpalatable to the general public and Americanizing what was in its essence a Sicilian story. Part of the film’s genius was in casting choices. The Tom Hagen of the book was German-Irish in background so it was unremarkable to cast Robert Duvall to play that role, but much of the other casting is severely against stereotype. Marlon Brando, the titular Godfather, was born in Nebraska and was of German-Irish-English, Huguenot and Dutch roots. James Caan, whose parents were German-Jewish was cast as Sonny Corleone, the Godfather’s oldest son.

These hires allowed the film to both strongly stereotype the main characters as typical Sicilians and, at the same time, back away from such stereotyping by casting as three of its four principal leads actors who were not associated with Italy or the Italian culture.

I personally do not find the book The Godfather that enjoyable, although the fact that it sat for months at the top of the New York Times best seller list indicates that is not a widely shared feeling. I think the movie improved on the book by shaving off elements that were excessively stereotypical or repetitive. The book is laced with racism and misogyny, even for a book of that time. The movie rasps the rough edge off both.

Finally, for those who don’t know, the character of Johnny Fontane (whose desire for a job in Hollywood led to the famous “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” scene in the film) was a major character in the book, but was for the most part excised from the film. The rumour was that this character was based on Frank Sinatra (who was of Italian background from Hoboken), and around whose head the rumours of being mobbed up always revolved.

Famously, Sinatra confronted Puzo at one point, angry about the way in which he was depicted in the book. Marjorie’s theory was that, based on the rumours she had heard in New York in 1938, what made Sinatra truly angry was not the implication that he was involved with the mob, but that his defining characteristic had been given to Sonny Corleone rather than to Johnny Fontane.

So what do YOU think? Have you read the book? Seen any of The Godfather movies? What do you think of the casting? Do you think the film made a masterpiece out of potboiler?

Both the movie The Godfather and The Godfather 2 will be available on Netflix Canada until the end of August. The book is available in e-book form from and carries the audiobook. Both links support Turns & Tales.

Maggie Young

[1]     Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. (1972) London: Heinemann. 

[2]     Coppola, F. F. (1972). The Godfather. Paramount Pictures

[3]     A post secondary school institution that trained high school graduates to teach in elementary and secondary schools. Those who have read Anne of Green Gables will have a sense of the difficulty of becoming a licensed teacher in an area with no regular high school from which to graduate.

[4]     She had gone to a one room school with no plumbing or electricity but she had a vocabulary that was both extensive and useful.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top