The Godfather is both a 1969 novel by author Mario Puzo, and a 1972 Academy Award winning film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and is considered by many critics to be one of the best films ever made. With an impressive cast including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, and James Caan, the film is a sweeping epic of the history of a Mafia family in the United States. The book chronicles the journey of Vito Corleone, as he becomes the Godfather, or head of a very important mob family in America, and then focuses on the path of Vito’s youngest son, Michael, as he ultimately assumes the role of Godfather and head of the family’s business.
In the film version of The Godfather, the main focus is not on Vito’s early life, but instead on Michael’s transition from rejecting the life of his father and a life of organized crime, to ultimately embracing this path. The Godfather: Part II, which to many critics is arguably the best movie sequel ever made, continues to follow Michael as his choices alienate him from his beloved wife Kay, but also go back to revisit the early story of Vito, as played by Robert De Niro. In essence the second film covers those aspects of the book not filmed in the first movie.
Both book and film version of The Godfather are fascinating character studies that suggest the seductive path to power by illegal means. In the first film, Michael is dating his girlfriend, Kay, and they attend the wedding of Michael’s sister Connie. There’s clearly tension between Michael and his father. Michael has specifically rejected the path of organized crime, and before the film begins, enlisted in the army during World War II. Though Michael loves his family, he wants no part of the business and is adamant to Kay that this will always be his choice.
Events, however, change Michael’s mind. An attempted murder of his father brings out Michael’s murderous side, and he agrees to a meeting with the drug lord Salazzo, and a police captain, for the sole purpose of murdering them both. Family protection runs very high in the Corleone family, as does the age-old principal of revenge. Michael’s actions force him to flee the country to Sicily, while his brother Santino (Sonny) acts as temporary don to the Corleone family. Sonny is quick-tempered and absolutely terrible as a don, and he is murdered, set up by Connie’s husband.
Meanwhile, Vito recovers some of his health, but an all-out war has started between the various mob families (the five families), while he has been recovering. He ultimately “makes the peace” to end the war, and is able to bring Michael safely home from Sicily, and in that time, Michael, whose Sicilian bride is killed, has committed fully to the “mafia way of life.” Vito grooms him for taking over the job, and the two plot revenge on those who created the mob war in the first place.
Michael reconnects with Kay on returning from Sicily, and convinces her to marry him, assuring her that he will attempt to turn the family’s actions toward legitimate business. But the illegality of organized crime is not easily escapable, and Michael is unable to extricate himself or the business from a continued path of corruption. Kay stays trusting for a while, but leaves Michael by the end of the book, and by the end of the second film.
As Michael becomes increasingly more corrupt, he orders the death of his brother-in-law, and later in The Godfather: Part II he orders the death of his own brother, Fredo. He has become completely merciless, incapable of forgiveness, and intensely corrupt. Though he gains power, he loses virtually everything else. The mob way of life is inconsistent with having normal family relationships.
The filmed version of The Godfather was met with considerable excitement, since many enjoyed Puzo’s book. Casting was genius, particularly casting Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. In an interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, Pacino relates how Coppola’s decision to cast him was met with opposition, and for a time during the early days of filming, Pacino expected every single day that he’d be fired. This, movie critics argue, would have been a considerable mistake. Though the film features the incomparable Marlon Brando, The Godfather is really driven by the story of Michael, and it is Pacino’s interpretation of the part that makes the film so very chilling and effective.