Rereading The Godfather, or watching The Godfather Parts I & II (but never Part III) is like going back home to have an old-fashioned family visit . . . that is, if your family sprinkles their sentences with words such as pezznovante, cazzo and sta’zitt’, and if they have a taste for wine and the thrill of the crime. Hey, ya gots to make a living, right, mi’ amico?
Mario Puzo, the brains behind the typewriter, wrote the bestselling novel of the Corleone family back in 1969. A later Puzo novel, The Sicilian, used Michael Corleone as a secondary character, and is only minutely related to the Godfather story. Puzo wrote three produced screenplays based on The Godfather and its characters: Parts I & II, clearly and stylishly based on his original novel, and the forgettable Part III, an original story concocted by Puzo in tandem with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppolla.
The less said about that one, the better.
After Puzo died in 1999, his estate authorized two new and original novels that primarily took place in the years immediately after Part II, The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge, both by Michael Winegardner. Despite Winegardner’s skills as a writer and novelist, these were lackluster sequels at best, as he concentrated on secondary and minor characters from Puzo’s works, plus a main character of his own creation. There was little familiar in these books, and Michael Corleone was used sparingly and inefficiently. Returns was so dull and leaden, I didn’t even bother to read Revenge, because it was mostly the concluding story of the author’s new character.
I just didn’t care.
He wasn’t la nostra famiglia, caspisce?
However, when he died, Puzo left behind an unproduced screenplay: The Family Corleone
. And now the Puzo family offers up a novelization of at least a portion of that screenplay, written by Ed Falco.
Seriously, this story should have been Godfather III.
The Family Corleone takes place between 1933 and 1935, years from which we previously knew little or nothing about Vito Corleone. This novel details Don Vito’s first war with the other regimes — referenced in Part I with Clemenza’s line to Michael: “Probably all the other Families will line up against us. That’s all right — this thing’s gotta happen every five years or so — ten years — helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one.”
The secondary plots revolve around Sonny and his teenage pals from an Irish gang, and how Santino Corleone, at 18, made his bones and joined his Don’s Family; and the story of Luca Brasi’s psychopathic rise, suicidal fall, and his acceptance into the Family as perhaps its most lapdog-like, yet most murderous button.
Ed Falco is a decent writer, and here his prose is highly reminiscent of Puzo’s: serviceable, devoted to storytelling; plain and simple. His writing is as rustic as the sunburnt Sicilian landscape.
But with the Godfather legacy, writing, or prose, simply isn’t as important as story. If the critical success of Part II proved anything, it’s that the backstory, like all family stories, of times long gone, of adventures long past, is just as important as the present action — and it must lay the foundation for future tales and legends. The Family Corleone nicely fills in some gaps from the previous chapters, for instance, with its elaboration of the character of Genco Abbandando, who Vito Corleone’s legitimate olive oil is business is named for . . . but who was he? What did he ever have to do with the Corleones? There were hints about Genco in Part II, and a deleted scene available on the remastered DVDs, but Falco fills out Puzo’s background expertly. As to Michael, who in the mid-1940s becomes the new Godfather after the bullet-ridden murder of Sonny, the heir apparent, he is present only as a young teenager, reading American history books under the covers while Fredo taunts him about his book-learning. Michael soon gets an early civics lesson that will eventually influence his thinking as the new Don.
If there’s any problem with this book, it may have also been a problem with the screenplay, and how much they both dwell on the doings of New York’s rival Irish gang and their haphazard, amateur war with the Italian mob. Soon, the scenes away from the Corleones become tiresome, and the characters forgettable. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Godfather Returns, The Godfather’s Revenge, and the film, Part III, it’s to STAY WITH THE CORLEONES. No Vatican intrigue, no unheard-of or original characters, and do nothing that pulls our attention away from the Family.