The Godfather appeared at a turbulent time, when racial tensions flared, crime rates rose, young people indulged in sex and drugs, and an unpopular war in Vietnam made citizens lose faith in their government. The Godfather, with his solid family and supreme power on both sides of the law, loomed in the public imagination as a figure ironically sympathetic and even nostalgic. Seldom has a literary character had such a major impact on popular culture.
The novel stayed on bestseller lists a record sixty-seven weeks, and more than twenty million copies were sold, though academic reviewers largely ignored it and press notices usually treated it sensationally, not seriously. The book inspired scores of imitations in both fiction and nonfiction, such as Peter McCurtin’s The Mafioso (1972), Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father (1972), Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor (1982).
The 1972 movie based on the novel broke box-office records, received critical acclaim, and launched a screenwriting career for Puzo. He won Oscars for the screenplays of both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974), and he scripted eight other films, most notably The Godfather: Part III (1990), The Cotton Club (1984), also about ethnicity and crime, and two Superman movies.
Critics praised the artistic brilliance of Puzo’s first two books: The Dark Arena (1955), a melodrama set in occupied Germany after World War II, and an autobiographical novel The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), which included some Mafia material. Yet sales were slow, and when an agent suggested amplifying the Mafia theme, Puzo began The Godfather, writing from research without actual contact with real Mafiosi. He later admitted writing it to make money, without fully using his artistic gifts. Puzo returned to his crime theme in subsequent novels, Fools Die (1978), about Las Vegas, Hollywood, and the world of publishing, The Sicilian (1984), a picaresque tale, and The Last Don (1996), which draws complex correlations between industrial tycoons and their underworld counterparts.
Even though the Corleone family is involved in organized crime, they still have certain codes of conduct that are very important to them. What does this say about the family, especially Don Corleone?
Don Corleone holds onto certain values from the Old World that he maintains while conducting his business and his personal life. In this way, he is able to make his two spheres co-exist. This is because Don Corleone cares about his family very deeply, and he understands what he has to do to maintain his humanity. He draws certain boundaries between his professional family and his real family. Meanwhile, Michael does not have the ability (or the desire) to draw these boundaries. Because of this, Michael slowly loses himself - his ruthlessness misplaces his compassion.
What is the difference between the way Don Corleone and Virgil Sollozzo conduct their business?
Don Corleone conducts his business under a certain code. He is a businessman and knows the value of certain connections. He believes that a connection with Sollozzo, who is a narcotics dealer, would ruin certain political relationships that he has worked hard to build. Additionally, in Don Corleone's mind, the narcotics business is much more harmful to society than any of his gambling deals, and he cannot live with that. Sollozzo, meanwhile, is solely focused on profit and will do anything to cement his place in the New York world of organized crime. He does not accept Don Corleone's refusal to work with him and instead, tries to have the Don killed, catalyzing the war between the Corleones and the Tattaglias. While Don Corleone is certainly not a coward, he has established himself by doing things a particular way and he is not open to change at this point in his career.
Describe Michael's transition from separating himself from his family business to taking control of it. What spurs this transformation?
At first, Michael is not interested in joining the Corleone family business. He comes to Connie's wedding in his military uniform, which makes him stand out physically. He enjoys the fact that he does not fit in - it is his choice, as he tells Kay at the wedding. He even brings Kay into the Corleone family photograph, showing that he does things on his own terms and is not susceptible to pressure. After Don Corleone is shot, Michael quickly sees that he has no choice but to step in - or his father's life will be in danger. The scene where Michael goes to hospital and sees that his father is all alone is a visual manifestation of his choice. Only Michael is cunning and ruthless enough to quell the forces that threaten the Corleones, and he knows that. Sonny is hot-headed and impulsive, Fredo is impotent and ineffective, and Tom Hagen is overly cautious.
Coppola introduces the audience to most of the Corleone family during the Wedding sequence at the beginning of the film. What do we learn about the main characters - Don Vito, Sonny, Michael, Clemenza, etc... from these opening scenes? How does this scene set the stage for the rest of the film?
Coppola introduces Don Vito as an omniscient figure with the power to solve problems for his worshippers, but only if they pledge their loyalty to him. He is intimidating but elegant, keeping his claws hidden. Sonny behaves in a hot-headed and impulsive way, threatening the FBI officers and breaking the photographer's camera when they capture his public misdeeds. Fredo is so drunk that he can barely stand up, rendering him useless. Michael, in his military uniform with his WASP girlfriend, stands out from his family although he clearly loves them. Clemenza is lighthearted and rowdy, enjoying himself and the wine. Tom Hagen proves his devotion to his work by leaving his wife to go into Don Corleone's office. Barzini refuses to have his photograph taken, as if he is hiding something. Luca Brasi, meanwhile, is stiff, awkward, and bear-like. All of these brief representations set the scene for the character development later on in the film, and is an effective way of familiarizing the audience with the large cast of characters.
A recurring theme in the film is the difference between "business" and "personal". Which characters are able to separate the two most successfully? What happens to those who cannot separate their emotions from their work?
At the beginning of the film, it is clear that Don Corleone has figured out a system by which to separate his business and his personal life. While he conducts business transactions in his darkened office, Connie and Carlo get married in the courtyard with great pomp and circumstance. Additionally, Don Corleone's caporegimes, like Tessio and Clemenza, are akin to family members as well. In addition to employing them, the Don embraces his capos in the same way he does his own sons. This means that Don Corleone's employees have just as much to lose as he does if the Corleones get in trouble with the law. However, his son Michael does not have the same ability to draw these boundaries, which aids his rise to power. Michael has Carlo killed, even though he knows it will hurt Connie. He chooses business at the detriment of his family, a line we never see Don Corleone cross.
Examine the gender roles in the film, both thematically and visually. What role do wives, mothers, and sisters play in the men's lives? How are they portrayed, and what does this mean?
The women all take a backseat to their male counterparts in The Godfather. Even though it is common for matriarchs to be quite vocal and strong in real Italian-American families, Coppola does not show the Corleones this way. The lives of the women in The Godfather are dictated by the men around them. Mama is barely present and very quiet except for when she sings at the wedding. Connie is mostly portrayed as a victim, first of Carlo and then of her own brothers. Apollonia is similarly powerless - her wedding is arranged by her father, and she loses her life because of a vendetta against her husband. Kay, meanwhile, is weak and naive, blindly believing Michael when he lies to her and says he did not have Carlo killed. She only realizes what he has become at the end of the film, when she sees Michael surrounded by his caporegimes. However, her reaction is more one of resignation than anger, and it is clear that she is powerless to do anything about Michael's transformation.
At the end of the film, Michael tells Kay a very big lie. Do you think she believes him? Why or why not? If no, what makes her skeptical?
Kay finds out how to put her love for Michael before her concerns about his involvement in organized crime. After Michael returns from Sicily, he comes to the New England school where Kay works and proposes to her. They walk along an idyllic street, which is the picture of domestic bliss, but Michael's imposing black car follows close behind them. This is the way their lives will always be, and despite Kay's hesitation, she marries Michael. After a few years, Kay, like Connie, learns to be part of the family without knowing the details of the business. However, when Connie accuses Michael of having Carlo killed, Kay cannot handle the implication. Michael knows he has to lie to Kay in order to keep her, but his violent outburst destabilizes her. Kay reluctantly accepts Michael's explanation. However, then Kay sees Michael surrounded by his caporegimes, who address him as "Don Corleone". Then, the door to his office slams shut. At that moment, Kay realizes that Michael is no longer the man she has married, and he has changed because of whatever is happening behind the closed doors of his office - a boundary she will never be able to cross.
Francis Ford Coppola's approach to Mario Puzo's novel was to look at the mafia through the lens of capitalism. How does he do this? Provide specific thematic and visual evidence from the film.
The basic tenets of capitalism revolve around the idea of free enterprise, which is how Coppola structures the Corleone family in The Godfather. From the beginning of the film, it is clear that the Corleones are extremely wealthy and respected in their community. However, as the film goes on, the level of Don Corleone's influence becomes increasingly evident. He has political allies, sources within the police, and the power to do as much as any legitimate businessman. The meeting with Sollozzo in the Genco Olive Oil offices could easily be any business meeting, and Don Corleone makes a strategic professional decision in rejecting the new collaboration. Sollozzo's retaliation, therefore, is just business. He needs to make his way in the world of organized crime in New York, and the way to do that is by exerting influence. Later, Michael proves to Sonny that killing Sollozzo and McCluskey is a vital act in order to preserve the Corleone family. Finally, when Tessio finds out he has been found out as a traitor, he makes sure to tell Tom Hagen that his betrayal was only business - and then accepts the consequences without a fuss.
Compare Michael's relationship to Apollonia and Kay. What do each of them represent to him? How do his two marriages mark different stages in his life?
When Michael marries Apollonia, he is removed from his family and their business. Their relationship is very innocent and pure - she is a virgin until they are married. Shortly after Michael finds out about Sonny's death, Apollonia dies in a car bomb meant for her husband. His business has found its way into Michael's personal life and has now led to the death of an innocent. At this point, Michael becomes steely, resilient, understanding how to protect himself from being too vulnerable. He marries Kay and brings her into the fold of his Family Business from the outset. At first, she fits in well - accepting the fact that she is a second priority for the Don. However, Michael has become increasingly manipulative with his rise to power, and he lies to Kay in order to preserve her love and devotion. Their marriage, therefore, is filled with pain and lies - it is a much more fraught union than Michael's brief coupling with Apollonia.
Examine the scene between Don Corleone and Michael Corleone in the garden, which Robert Towne wrote because Francis Ford Coppola felt that the film needed an emotionally open moment between father and son. How does this scene change the way you see both of these characters?
The Godfather is filled with subtext. Characters (especially Don Corleone and his youngest son) do not easily reveal their true intentions. Neither man is good at making himself vulnerable, even to those closest to him. Therefore, this scene between Don Corleone and Michael stands out as a moment of truth and emotion. The audience feels that Don Corleone has finally passed all his power down to Michael. He says that he has spent his whole life "tryin' not to be careless" - but now, he is drinking a glass of wine, loosening up. Without his position, Coppola offers his viewers a glimpse of Vito Corleone, the man. He may have a ruthless streak, but he has always acted to protect his family and give his children as many opportunities as he could. Michael, meanwhile, softens towards his own son in this scene. He claims that he is happy - and in that way, assuages his father's concerns that Michael has decided to run the family business instead of following a more legitimate path in life.