What Can We Steal From Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather?

Title of Work and its Form:  The Godfather, film
Author: Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola from Puzo’s novel.
Date of Work: 1972

Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD.

Element of Craft We’re Going to Steal: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
The Godfather is one of the many films you REALLY MUST SEE if you want to be a writer.  The structure is solid, the characters are lush and fully rendered and there’s violence with actual consequences.  If you watch the film, you’ll even get a great recipe for tomato sauce!  The film tells the story of the Corleone Family and how the initially reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino) becomes the don.  Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) does his best to conduct business in an “honorable” fashion, resisting the push deal drugs.  (After all, the numbers racket and prostitution don’t hurt anyone in the way drugs do.)  If you haven’t seen the film, just go see it.

Right now, I’m only talking about the very beginning of the film, so there shouldn’t be any spoilers.  Puzo and Coppola’s screenplay accomplishes a LOT in the first five minutes.  Best of all, the scene is as simple as it is powerful; it’s just Don Corleone talking with Bonasera, the owner of a funeral parlor.

What are the first words?  “I believe in America.”  In reality, “America” is an idea as well as a tangible entity.  “America” means something different to everyone in the film.  Bonasera describes how his daughter has been raped by two men who get a slap on the wrist.  Bonasera begs Don Corleone for justice, hoping he will use his resources to have the rapists killed.  “America” failed him.  He tried to live by the rules and trust our nation of laws, but his daughter didn’t receive justice.

Don Corleone is offended by Bonasera.  He laments that Bonasera has never treated him like a true friend.  Bonasera has never asked him over for a simple cup of coffee and has foresaken the fact that Vito’s wife is his child’s godmother.  Only after he discusses personal matters does Don Corleone discuss business.  We learn in the first few minutes of the film that, to Don Corleone, personal relationships are more meaningful that official legal ones.  America seems to be a place where a pure sense of justice can be more easily forged than in the Old Country.  The Don isn’t bloodthirsty; he calmly refuses to have the men killed.  After all, “[Murder] is not justice; your daughter is still alive.”  Only when Bonasera submits to Don Corleone, by kissing his hand and calling him “Godfather,” does Vito agree to do the requested favor.

The scene is so powerful because the big themes of the film emerge from a relatively small discussion between two people.  The viewer is immediately immersed in the BIG THEMES of The Godfather without being beaten over the head with them.  The intimate scene is also immediately contrasted with a much larger, more public one: the wedding of the Don’s daughter.  The juxtaposition allows us to understand the Don’s morality in the larger context of the world he inhabits.  

What Should We Steal?:

  • Start a story with a calm but meaningful scene that introduces your central themes.  It can often be tempting to start our stories with BIG acts and EXPLOSIONS and FIREWORKS.  Sure, the Don ends up ordering an assault, but the calmer introduction here allows the audience to become comfortable with the Godfather’s unique world before the fireworks happen.  (I’m thinking the scene between Sonny and his brother-in-law.)
  • Allow your characters to have complicated ideas about the world and unexpected concepts of morality.  In a boring story, everything is black and white.  Mobsters are monsters who only care about money.  The bad guy is bad just because he is bad.  In The Godfather, the characters have motivations that are sometimes unexpected.

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