With all the gloom and doom facing us these days, I hate to say that I was momentarily pleased with a superficial piece of news announced on the Today show recently. The winner of a contest to write the sequel to Mario Puzo’s 1969 blockbuster novel The Godfather was chosen. The brave author is Florida State University professor Mark Winegardner, 41, who beat out three dozen other authors who sent Random House their new plots featuring the Corleone family. I say “brave” because Mr. Winegardner has quite an act to follow, seeing as The Godfather has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and led to a pair of classic American films that won nine Oscars. And after my initial excitement, I have to admit that I now view the tentatively titled The Godfather Returns with a jaundiced eye.
Literary sequels are a mixed bag, to say the least. The 1991 sequel to Gone With the Wind, Scarlett, sold well but was reviled by critics, and Cosette or the Time of Illusions, the sequel to Les Miserables, has not been well received by Victor Hugo’s estate or the French public. When Puzo died four years ago, most Godfather fans thought that would mean the end of the Corleone saga. But the Puzo estate and Random House decided it was time for a sequel (“just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”), and went looking for a novelist to do the job. Winegardner, for his part, promises to be “entirely respectful of the characters and the place they hold in the American imagination.”
For lovers of all things Godfather, this is the biggest news since we learned in 1989 that Part III had started filming. Sadly, the hype and expectations of that film fell far short. The lowlights of the third installment (incest, no Tom Hagen, an opera-singing son, an eyeglass assassination, Sophia Coppola) heavily outweighed the highlights (Andy Garcia, killing Sophia Coppola). And so, for the last 13 years, Godfather fans have been left with a bitter taste in our mouths, relieved only by the release of the DVD in October 2001 and by the sweet memories of I and II.
Obviously, Godfather fans have experienced disappointment. When it comes to Part III, crushing disappointment. In terms of the literary sequel, opportunities are rife for a massive letdown. Can Winegardner measure up to Puzo as a novelist? Can he come up with the amazing twists and turns worthy of “The Godfather”? Can he understand and convey the everyday lives of mafioso? The early indications are that Winegardner can be a competent successor. He is director of FSU’s creative-writing program and the author of several acclaimed novels, including The Veracruz Blues and Crooked River Burning, neither of which were blockbusters, but which were well-received by the critics.
Winegardner is of roughly the same age and level of experience that Puzo had when he wrote The Godfather in the late 1960s. And the German-Irish Winegardner (“let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend!”) can learn about the Mafia the same way that the Italian Puzo did: by visiting the local library. I would also venture that when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of writing, Winegardner may even be able to surpass Puzo’s ability. Those who have read The Godfather know that the novel is not without its faults. Entire chapters about Johnny Fontane and Lucy Mancini can be skipped over without losing anything. One is struck, almost offended, by the tawdriness of the storyline. Detailed descriptions of the male and female genitalia fill many pages. Even director Francis Ford Coppola said he was shocked by the book’s trashiness when he first read it (interestingly, though, the Random House editor in charge of the sequel, Jon Karp, said that the publishing house rejected one author because he was “too pulpy”). Nevertheless, Puzo’s opus remains a fascinating tale of family love and loyalty, and is absolutely critical to understanding and appreciating Parts I and II.
So his novel was not exactly a literary masterpiece. That’s not the point, as Puzo’s book was still an important contribution to popular culture. Good or bad, The Godfather popularized the Mafia and brought mobsters to the people, spawning dozens of copycat movies (many bad, some decent, a handful excellent) and, more than 30 years later, The Sopranos. Godfather references and sayings are commonplace on television — in dramas, sitcoms, in political punditry — and in everyday life. It is virtually impossible for The Godfather Returns to have such an impact, and, in fact, it may very well be considered passé.
But what most concerns me as a fan of The Godfather is Winegardner’s intention to write about the time period between the end of Puzo’s novel, 1954, and the beginning of Part II, 1958. “That’s [four] years, there’s a lot of turf there to be explored,” says the author. Which is great — what fan doesn’t want to read about the family’s move to Las Vegas, Michael asserting himself as America’s most powerful Don, or the “heart attack” of Peter Clemenza? The obvious problem, though, is that such a time frame sets serious constraints on any sort of cinematic adaptation. In three or four years, who is going to play these well-known, even beloved characters on the big screen? Surely not a 60-year-old Al Pacino, or a 70-year-old Robert DuVall (the actors who played Fredo and Clemenza are dead). Would Hollywood dare to have newer, younger actors portray Michael, or Kay, or maybe Frankie Pentangelli? Would (or could) Godfather fans accept this?
Puzo’s novel foreshadowed Part II in that it provided flashbacks, or at least background information on the Corleone family. Hence, we observe, among other things, young Vito’s life in Sicily, and we learn how Sonny witnessed his father murdering Don Fanucci. A sequel to The Godfather would do well to contain flashbacks on the young Corleone brothers during the 1930s and 40s: A charismatic and ruthless Santino, a brooding and pathetic Fredo, and a thoughtful, quiet Michael watching his family from a distance, hating The Don, but loving his father, all while the Corleone empire thrives and grows. Robert DeNiro could even play the Don at 40 years old. This is a concept that, with careful consideration, could convincingly and powerfully be put on film. But it needs to be in the sequel to begin with.
Winegarden himself understands that there are great expectations for his latest novel, but he seems to have a much more mature outlook on it than I have. “Either the book comes out and people like it, or the book comes out and people don’t like it. And I say: ‘That’s okay, sorry you feel that way,’ and I’ll write another book. There’s no downside,” he recently was quoted as saying.
And despite my personal trepidation, Godfather fans are not monolithic. I would imagine that many of my fellow fans are looking forward to what new murders and intrigue the sequel will bring. One Godfather aficionado who might be interested in The Godfather Returns, although he has a lot on his plate right now, is Saddam Hussein. It is well documented that The Godfather is Saddam’s favorite movie, which comes as no surprise, considering the book’s plot often turns on family members’ killing each other. Unfortunately for the Iraqi dictator, The Godfather Returns is tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall of 2004, so chances are Saddam won’t be around to read it. Good news for Winegarden: one less critic.
— David Hickey attends the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law at night, and is a full-time student of The Godfather.