AMC’s “The Godfather” 40-year celebration got us thinking

It’s almost hard to believe. Four decades have passed since Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather first hit screens, and people are still talking — and writing — about it. The film is being released into select theaters again for its 40th anniversary, but this week, AMC has been celebrating early, airing the films in the trilogy, and this Saturday will air the “chronological” edit of the Corleone family saga, with the three films reconfigured to tell the whole story in one sweeping presentation.

Stacey, we’ve had a lot of conversations about The Godfather films, as well as the Mark Winegardner books that followed them. Most recently, there was that business with Paramount Pictures seeking to stop publication of a “prequel” book drafted from a Puzo-written screenplay, on the grounds that it would tarnish the franchise.

It’s hard not to call “foul” on that, given what Paramount’s 1990 addition, The Godfather: Part III, did for (to?) the brand’s legacy, at least in the perceptions of the films’ fans. But here’s where it gets sticky — would we really want to see another addition to the story, in print or on film? My hunch is that many fans would respond with an enthusiastic “Sì!” no matter what it would do to the franchise.

And really — how much “damage” did Part III or Winegardner’s books, The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge really do? Here we are, still discussing the Corleones. Granted, the legacy still rests, as it likely always will, on those first two films. But for all of the claims on legitimacy and complaints about quality in some of the latter enterprises, have they really hurt those first two films in any substantial way?

SH: No, they absolutely do not harm the first two films, any more than any subpar sequel harms the original. Did we find The Exorcist any less brilliant after Exorcist II? Is 2001 worthless now because of 2010? Heck, if you really wanted to sully The Godfather experience, all you’d need to do is read the book. Now, I love the book, but not in the same way I love the movie. Whereas Puzo is pulpy and uncomfortably preoccupied with the size of Sonny Corleone and Lucy Mancini’s genitals, the movie is profound and poetic. Moreover, many of the movie’s best lines aren’t in the book. (Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.) The best way to deal with Part III is the same way that networks like AMC have chosen to — just ignore it. I’m not a true hater of III, although I have given up on trying to pretend it’s in the same class as its predecessors. But hey, just choose to believe the story ends with Fredo’s final hail Mary, much like I pretend Huck Finn ends without all that tacked-on Tom Sawyer nonsense.

As for whether there should be more Godfather movies, I can definitively answer no. Now, if Winegardner wanted to write a novel about Vincent Mancini’s reign as Don Corleone in the 1980s and ’90s, I would pick it up faster than Clemenza at a cannoli counter. But I have no desire to see Andy Garcia trying to fill Al Pacino’s shoes.

KP: I think you’ve put your finger on the crux of the matter with regard to Part III and any further cinematic treatments of the Corleone story. We’ve talked before about Part III — unquestionably not in the same league as the first two, but I’m still not sure it’s the abomination it’s usually made out to be. At least not in toto. Yes, it’s wildly uneven in terms of the casting and dialogue, and I don’t need to repeat anything about Sofia Coppola’s role that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over. But a large part of what people respond to in those first two films is the exquisite detail in those period pieces. There’s a heavily romanticized view of the era as well as of the lifestyles depicted in both films. Part III is a different ballgame. It’s 1979 — only 11 years prior to the 1990 date in which the film was released. There’s no way you were going to get that feel in a relatively contemporary setting. It has the sense of being too ambitious for its undertaking, sure. But it does have its moments. The helicopter attack scene, for instance. Really? We all could have done without that? (I’m sure some people would agree. I happen not to.) I just don’t view story extensions like Part III, as well as Winegardner’s books — which, while perhaps trivial by contrast, still make engaging, pulpy reading in the same way that Puzo’s original intended — as necessarily “undeserving” to be part of the story, particularly since Part III in particular was penned with Puzo. Are they a capitalization? Are they exploitation? Sure. But should they be completely disowned for their lack of quality? I’m not sure about that, especially since, as you say, going back to the source, Puzo’s original best-seller, you’ll find no sort of sacred scripture. (I still wonder how audiences would have responded had the scene with Luca Brasi burning his just-born infant child been included in Coppola’s initial release — as well as how many fans of the movie even know about that scene.)

Eh. I’m not really arguing for more films, anyway. But when we initially had this discussion, you brought up the question of what a Godfather film made today would look like. It’s easy to imagine how badly such a product would disappoint — mainly because it undoubtedly would be conceived and delivered as a product. I’m sure the effort would be made to mimic the feel of the original series — its lighting, its attention to detail — but somehow I have the feeling it would end up looking something like Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.

But really, Stacey, you know that this whole discussion is actually a feint for you to tell us what you think a Godfather installment made today would look like. I’m curious to hear what sort of travesty you do envision. Take it away.

SH: Zack Snyder would direct it, and it would contain an hour and a half of story, which would be lengthened to three hours after the slow motion is added. And, of course, it would all be in 3-D. “A New Dimension of Family.”

I kid, nominally. I do think, however, that a new sequel would resemble the quick-pace editing and grittier demeanor of Goodfellas than a tried-and-true, slow burn Godfather film. And just as with III, it would undoubtedly be crushed under the weight of the legacy it’s trying to uphold. The script would be riddled with clumsy allusions to the past films (I’m picturing lots of extra oranges in every scene), along with dialogue made up of little more than constant regurgitations of each character’s mission statement (e.g., “We must keep this family together!”) We, the audience, would be part of the problem, because so much time has gone by that the Godfather films, and what we think they should be, have so calcified in our minds that any new material would inherently seem intrusive. Think of recent long-gestating continuations — the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, um, Godfather III — are they ever satisfying? It brings far more joy to people to pine away for these things than to actually see them get made.

KP: So in other words, you’ll never be happy, right?

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