Some More Thoughts on Hollywood and the Novel

Godfather001[1]As I work on my next post for Poisoned Pen Press–“Mysteries for Literary Snobs”–I pause to return to our consideration of Hollywood adaptations of novels.

While authors have long been happy to sell the motion picture rights in their novel, they tend to strike a condescending pose when asked about Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway wrote that when “you see what happens to [your book in Hollywood], it’s like pissing in your father’s beer.” Raymond Chandler, while happy to sell the motion picture rights to The Big Sleep and other novels, wrote, the “strangling limitations” of Hollywood make it “a blind wonder if it ever achieves anything beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom.” And Ben Hecht, the respected literary figure and legendary screenwriter, with a dazzling array of credits from original screenplays and masterful adaptations of serious novels. wrote: “I’m a Hollywood writer, so I put on my sports jacket and take off my brain.”

Nevertheless, we can all think of motion picture adaptations that are actually superior to the novels on which they are based. One such example is Francis Ford Coppola’s extraordinary adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather.

In fairness to Puzo, he wrote the novel with no literary pretensions. A 2009 Wall Street Journal article by Allen Barra on the 40th anniversary of the original publication opens:

In 1969, an obscure middle-aged novelist and pulp magazine journalist named ­Mario Gianluigi Puzo hit the literary jackpot. He wrote “The Godfather,” he later told Larry King, “to make money.” By his own admission, it wasn’t well written. “If I’d known so many people were going to read it,” he famously said, “I’d have written it better.”

The novel was, by any measure, a blockbuster. It spent more than a year on the bestseller list. It has sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of the biggest selling American novels of all time. But, alas, it won no awards, as the early reviews predicted.

By contrast, the movie version, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Screenplay, finishes near the top of virtually every film critic and film society ranking of best movies. For example, it occupies the #3 slot on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, right behind Citizen Kane and Casablanca. And by any measure, including, I would bet, even Mario Puzo’s, the movie adaptation is superior to the novel. Here’s the final scene, which resonates on so many levels. Enjoy.

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