Alright, are we ready for this? Here we go…
I’ve seen the Godfather films countless times and figured I’d better finally read the book. Like any book that has been adapted to the screen, it added depth to many of the characters that the movie glanced over. Understandable. I was, however, not prepared for the fact that the films add depth to areas of the story that the book glanced over. What follows are my thoughts on the story, described in both the films and the book. It’s simply to great to limit to one media.
The brilliance of the Godfather is not in the entertaining thuggery of mafia life, but in the character evolutions at the hands of power; a power attributed to Destiny. It is a merciless Destiny deaf to the wills of the characters she touches.
Puzo paints mafia life, as conducted by the Corleone Family, with the benign strokes of business and integrity; virtues adopted by all “legitimate” American entrepreneurships. In fact, Tom Hagen and Puzo describe the mafia as being run by men who simply choose not to adopt the rules of a society set up by men other than themselves. They would not be under the rule of men who, really, were no different than themselves. After all, the businesses conducted by the Dons, though morally degenerate, are businesses of harmless vice; as they view it. And just because some law, written by some men, said it was illegal, didn’t mean anything to them. Even murder was something done as business, not personal, not unlike conducting a US sanctioned war overseas to protect the American way of life. The opening scene between Don Vito and Amerigo Bonasera sets this theme concretely in the reader’s mind so that they may judge the Family’s actions under such a light. The American legal system had failed Bonasera in providing justice.
If Vito Corleone was indeed destined to become a “man of respect”, one must acknowledge the style by which he did so. Of course, he is not innocent of murder, extortion, bribery and general racketeering, but he wielded that power by “helping” others which thereby placed them in his debt. His currency was favors as evident, for example, in his helping Bonasera and his financing of Johnny Fontane’s movie production which led to Fonatane bringing his childhood friend Nino to Hollywood and making him a star; exactly what the Don wanted. And Johnny did it because HE wanted to. The Don never had to command it.
Yet when we look at the world of characters aided by the Don – Fontane, Lucy Mansini, etc. – it is a world of death and immoral behavior. Yet these lives were shrouded in the benign “caring” of Don Vito Corleone. One might argue that he enabled such degenerate livelihoods but it seemed, to me, that the Don simply concerned himself with his actions; that he was doing right by his kin and he would let his kin conduct whatever life they saw fit. The responsibility for that degeneration fell on those leading those lives, not the Don.
However, this is what the reader, or the general public within the story, may have seen – the obvious. What made the Don’s power so genuine and authoritative was his hidden genius. The Don held puppets on a string without the puppets even knowing it. Don Corleone would often say that every man had a Destiny and it seemed that Don Vito cultivated his power from wielding that of Destiny, rather than try and wield a power of his own making. He would influence men’s destinies by trading in favors and fear. Anything done for him, or paid him, was with complete consent by those paying. For a time, while reading the book, I wondered if the Don himself was behind the death of Appolonia since it was the pivotal point in Micheal’s life when he was ready to be “his father’s son”. Was this the Don’s ultimate goal? Probably not…but I wouldn’t put it past him. That’s power.
Destiny is also credited with the apparent 180-degree flip of Michael Corleone’s character. How did a college graduate and war hero, who wanted NOTHING to do with the family business, end up as the most ruthless and cunning Don of his time or his father’s time? From the planning of the McClusky and Solozzo assassinations and throughout his time in Sicily, Puzo pointed out Micheal’s uncanny similarity to the Don. In most cases, the noted similarity was the cold anger and calculating demeanor. Even when Michael lit Enzo’s cigarette at the hospital with sure, steady hands, the reader knew the beast was lying in wait.
Yet, in Micheal’s mind, I wonder if he viewed his killing of McClusky and Solozzo simply as one act, one stain on his clean character; a justifiable stain as it was done to save his family, his father. But when his Sicilian wife Appolonia was killed, and he tells Don Tomassino that he’s ready to be his father’s son, I wonder if he finally realized that he would never be able to escape his destiny; that the only way to preserve his family’s safety was to turn himself into the monsters that he would protect that family from. But he would have to be more monstrous than the monsters he would emulate. That would be the only way to beat them. It would be the only way to save his family from the destiny they were sure to follow. In this sense, Michael tried to take hold of strings in his world. But, again, it would seem that Destiny, in the same manner as the Don, was making Michael do exactly what it intended.
I find the Godfather story to be an insightful take on human power and control. What is it that we want to control? Why do we want to control it? Is it really us wielding the power? Being set in the world of mafia is simply an added bonus, something badass. But that is only a device, a jargon with which we see Man’s weakness and ability to wield power over one another at any cost and by any means.