Thursday, January 18, 2007

I finished off "The Godfather Returns" which turned out to be very good. (Spoilers ahead.) The book was well-paced, with a strong narrative voice that was tinged with wry humor. Winegardner did a nice job fleshing out the characters with backstories that, for the most part, complimented their portrayals by Mario Puzo in the original novel, and Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola in the three films.

"The Godfather Returns" describes events that take place between the first and second films, and, briefly, between films two and three. (For those of you who have never read the original novel, the first film follows it rather closely, dispensing with a few secondary plot lines. Also, the flashback scenes from the second film come from the Puzo novel.) Winegardner is careful to avoid continuity errors--the one or two minor inconsistencies between his novel and the first film are probably owed to discripencies between the film and the original novel, which I read years ago.

I do have one or two quibbles. In "The Godfather Returns," we learn that Kay did not actually have an abortion, as she told Michael toward the end of "The Godfather, Part II", leading to their divorce. Instead, she reveals that she did have a miscarriage, as Tom Hagen had told Michael, but that she was so angry at Michael because she had to suffer through it alone that she lied to provoke him, to hurt him. This haunts Kay because she learns that her doctor has been killed in what appears to have been a botched burglary. When she confronts Michael, he all but admits that he was responsible, and then she confesses her lie. Thus, Kay's deception led to the death of an innocent man.

I'm still torn about this. The scene in the film in which Kay tells Michael she is leaving him is, I dare say, one of the most powerful ever recorded on film. The audience is as stunned as Michael to learn that Kay has betrayed him so completely. The camera is focused on Michael as Kay explains why she had the abortion, and Al Pacino does nothing but dart his eyes back and forth, opening them wider and wider, until finally, like a coiled snake, he strikes, viciously slapping Diane Keaton as Kay. It's one of the films defining moments, and I just don't know if I like to think of its context changed in any way.

Winegardner also chooses to have the book mirror several historic events. The Corleones are connected to a powerful Irish political family called the Sheas, whose patriarch was a former bootlegger who rose to respectability as the ambassador of Canada. His son, the governor of New Jersey and a war hero, is elected president. The president makes his younger brother the attorney general.

Michael, through an old friend, becomes involved with the CIA in a plot to assassinate the Cuban president (whose is never referred to by name.) There's an equivalent in the book to the famous Apalachin Meeting, which resulted in the police raid that confirmed the existence of the American mafia. And Winegardner makes Johnny Fontane, loosely based in the original novel on Frank Sinatra, even more of a doppelganger for Ol' Blue Eyes: Like Sinatra, who helped JFK's campaign only to be frozen out by the Kennedy family, Fontane is cast aside by the fictional President Shea and his father. Fontane has his own Rat Pack (though Winegardner is careful not to call it that) and references are made to him putting on large arena concerts in his later years, something Sinatra did as well.

This all seemed, well, a bit lazy to me. It's as though Winegardner cribbed from a history book about the 1950s and '60s, merely changing the names. And while the original novel and the films drew upon real events and people--Hyman Roth is Meyer Lansky, Michael's business deals in Cuba are wrecked by the revolution--"The Godfather" was never meant to be an authentic portrayal of the Mafia.

Yet somehow it all worked, in large part because Winegardner never neglected his characters. As distracting as his attention to historic details could be, Winegardner did an admirable job weaving them into the world of the Corleones, and demonstrating how they helped to propel Michael Corleone down his dark and lonely path. Winegardner remains true to the message at the heart of "The Godfather" saga: What does it profit a man tif he gains the whole world, and loses his soul?

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