Many people have seen The Godfather. The Francis Ford Coppola-directed movie is frequently cited as one of the best — if not the best — films of all time. And rightfully so, it’s a family movie disguised as a crime drama masquerading as an inside look at the mafia. Layers upon layers of brilliance.
But the movie is actually adapted from a book, one you’ve probably seen in an airport bookstore, laying on a nightstand at your crazy uncle’s house or literally anywhere else on earth. It has sold more than 30 million copies.
And yet, the book is, well — not good. It’s readable and arguably even enjoyable (in that way that candy is enjoyable), but for the most part it does not hold a candle to the movie. To wit, there is an entire subplot revolving around the size of Sonny Corleone’s dick. Yeah, you could even say the book is terrible.
Still, for author Mario Puzo, The Godfather was a breakthrough. Before it was published, Puzo had written two other novels. They’d earned some critical acclaim, but sold absolutely nothing. Soon, he was 45-years-old, had a wife and five children to support, and was crippled by a gambling habit that always left him broke.
So Puzo began brainstorming big ideas. The mafia was in the news a lot then, the public fascinated by the underworld and the shadow government secretly pulling the strings behind every facet of what was then contemporary American life. Thus began The Godfather — not an attempt to please critics or even himself, but rather, the popular audience, and hopefully make a lot of money.
The book was released in 1969 and immediately became a bestseller. Then three years later, when the movie came out, Puzo wrote an autobiography of sorts, The Godfather Papers, which explores his experience writing the screenplay and working on the film.
Puzo rather enjoyed Hollywood. While making The Godfather, he wrote the script, hung with movie stars, swam and played tennis. In the span of a few years, he’d gone from a poor house in Long Island to a beach house in Malibu.
Mario Puzo was living the dream.
But the most interesting part of The Godfather Papers is not Puzo’s story about making it to the promised land. It’s all the thoughts he had before he got there.
The book’s final section includes something readers rarely get to see — Puzo’s journal entries; private notes he’d written in the 50’s, twenty years before any of that ‘living the dream’ stuff came true.
The entries read like this —
Friday, Dec. 9, 1950: This is the end of a bad year. Two short stories and hardly anything on the novel. If I keep this up, I might as well forget about writing or becoming a writer… The only thing I can take seriously is writing, no matter how justifiably ridiculous this is to people who are not writers or do not wish to write.
Sunday, Jan. 7, 1951: [W]riting is necessary to my good health even if I’m a lousy writer. Why is this? I wonder. It’s an obvious thing and yet really unexplainable. So I’ll try to explain…. Everyday life has such poverty . . . with writing or another art you have a shield against life as well as an integrating force.
Sunday, June 24, 1951: Seems like I’ll never get out of debt. New kid in September . . . Figuring out my free time to write, it’s tough with the overtime I have to earn to keep the family going. Have to do it, that’s all . . . Saturated by my job and Sunday afternoon goes to the family, which is important. Leaves Sunday morning and Sunday night and maybe a couple of nights in that off week when we’re not too busy (job).
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1951: How confident this diary seems . . . I’ve listed all the obstacles . . . but there is no doubt in these pages that the battle will be won . . . my writing will be successful, that my children will grow up . . . give my wife, for whom I’m responsible, a fairly happy life . . . This morning I got up and read the Sunday Times, helped E, played with the kids and all the time thinking: I’m going under…. I need more willpower. It’s not impossible to write even under my conditions. The trouble is I’m lazy.
Sunday, Nov. 11, 1951: It’s funny to watch yourself disintegrating . . .
Wednesday, Nov. 19, 1952: Achieving your dream can destroy your talent.
Thursday, Dec. 11, 1952: Paralyzed by this being in debt. . . Letter from bank about loan. It looks as if I have to go back to work in January.
Saturday, Jan. 17, 1953: The whole business of quitting my job to become a full-time writer is a failure. But still enjoyed it. Glad I tried.
Thursday, Jan 21/22, 1953: Yesterday got letter from publisher turning down the book . . . Back to work grinding on a steady job. What else? Nothing.
Friday, March 26, 1953: Tried to write a trashy potboiler but had to give it up. Immoral and uninteresting, that’s why.
Saturday, April 9, 1953: Today got a letter from H turning down the book. Expressing sincere sympathy, he just couldn’t take it . . . humiliating . . . the knowledge that people pity you… I know really that the defeat is my fault but that doesn’t help. I don’t want to write but I know I will after a while. But I don’t think I will ever really be able to like anyone again. No matter how good things turn out later. And won’t be able to think well of myself…
A year later, in 1954, Puzo sold his first novel, The Dark Arena, to Random House. He thought he was on his way then, but it’d take another fifteen years, and rededicating himself to writing that ‘trashy potboiler,’ before he’d ever see any kind of real success.
The moral of the story is: even the best of us, at some point in our lives, are crippled by self-doubt, the circumstances of our present reality, and the inability of our work to garner the attention we feel it deserves.
And yet we soldier on, hopeful that one day, when our talent matches our work, and our work matches the marketplace, things miraculously fall into place. Until then, we just keep on pushing.
That’s something even Puzo, who was no great fan of The Godfather himself, could acknowledge.
“[The Godfather is] not a lucky best seller but the product of a writer who practiced his craft for nearly thirty years,” he said. “And finally got good at it.”