February 7, 2009

Mario Puzo Godfather Lessons: Comparing the Book to the Screenplay

I love the Godfather movies, even III, even The Saga (you know, the one where they cut and pasted I and II together, chronologically), and sure, of course, the Director's Cut.

But I'd never read Mario Puzo's original work, The Godfather, thinking it would make me like the movies less or that I wouldn't like the book, having seen the movie. Hey, I already knew that Sonny had dark hair in the book -- and James Caan is Sonny to me. I didn't want my head messed with, if you know what I mean.

Then, last weekend, I was at the library roaming thru the AudioBooks, and there was a brand new green box, filled with the unabridged version of Puzo's The Godfather. I'm not sure why I picked it up.

But, boy howdy, am I glad I did. Before I had finished the first CD, I was at the bookstore buying a copy. I could only find paperback, and I'm still not satisfied: I gotta have the hardback. I need it! The highlighting soaks thru the paperback version.

And, for a writer, there is so much to learn here. Plot, character, voice, setting. Amazing stuff.

Like what, you ask?

Well, first ... the book gets you hooked right off the bat, but it doesn't start off like the film. On paper, you're down at the NYC Criminal Courts, with Bonasera the undertaker. Remember him? Next, you're over in Hollywood with Johnny Fontane and his second wife, a beautiful movie star with violet eyes. (I'm still thinking she's an homage to Ava Gardner even if she does have Liz Taylor eyes.) Enzo the baker shows up, another locale, another thread drawing you in. Bang, bang, bang.

So different from the movie. But Mario Puzo wrote both the book and the screenplay and there is master storytelling here. Puzo Lessons begin on the first page: he's got Bonasera's story down in less than 1000 words and then he flips coasts to take us into drunk Johnny Fontane's Beverly Hills mansion. Puzo Lesson on get-er-done: edit down that word count.

I understand the characters more - and I'm barely into the book. I get Tom Hagen more than I ever did, same thing for Kay. Heck, same for Enzo. Puzo Lesson on people: have them all fully dimensional, no matter how secondary they may ultimately be to the plot. Don't skimp on your prep.

Puzo also takes the time to insert wisdom in these pages. Nice little zingers are scattered here, things that are in the Quotation books now. Puzo Lesson: good writing involves a level of wisdom, as well as that old adage "write what you know." Puzo knew NYC because he was from NYC. And, Puzo had learned a number of life lessons during his career as a reporter before this book ever came to fruition. This all shows.

Puzo built a world that so many loved to enter - and still do. How that was built, how those characters were developed, what he thought was important and why, reveal themselves in a fascinating way through this process.

The Puzo Lessons

Maybe part of all this is listening to his words, and then reading them. That does give nuance.

But another part of it is comparing what Puzo built in the book and how he revisited it for the movie. Especially for the first film.

Another nugget: Puzo's interview by Larry King. (He saw The Godfather as a family story, not a crime story. Interesting, right?)
Post a Comment