Mario Puzo’s Mafia blockbuster is a set text for political candidates and advisers everywhere.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather now functions the way fairytales or Bible stories do. It’s become a fundamental narrative deeply embedded in the collective psyche, regularly adapted and reworked for radically different settings. Stripped to its essentials, this is a story of unwanted succession, of an heir to the throne who yearns to escape his destiny. “What Michael wanted was out, out of all this, to lead his own life,” Puzo writes. Watch the first season of The Crown and you soon realise that it is The Godfather narrative that is unfolding before you, with a young Elizabeth cast as the reluctant heir who, like Michael Corleone, “couldn’t cut loose from the family until the crisis was over”. Michael, son of mafia boss Don Corleone, is the archetypal prince who cannot be free, and is eventually transformed and hardened by his duty.
But The Godfather also exists as a template beyond the realm of art. Anyone who has worked in politics will testify that the story is a set text for candidates, their advisers and those who watch them. It is revered for teaching timeless and universal lessons about power and authority, when to assert it and when to show restraint. Many is the fast-talking aide – whether in Westminster or Washington – who will identify a weak link in the campaign team or around the cabinet table as Fredo, the middle Corleone son, or an emerging threat who must be dealt with as Moe Greene. I know of one UK politician who instructs all new staffers in the example of Amerigo Bonasera, the undertaker who opens the novel: the moral of his story is that the right favour to ask of someone is the favour that they can do and do well.
This use of The Godfather as a political manual reached its zenith in 2009, when two US foreign policy analysts published a short book called The Godfather Doctrine. Writing at the end of the turbulent first decade of the 21st century, dominated by the “war on terror” and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, John C Hulsman and A Wess Mitchell argued that the US after 9/11 faced a choice analogous to the one that confronts the Corleone family following the shooting of the Don, its power among the rival crime dynasties waning in a new and dangerous world. One camp, the authors explain, are liberal institutionalists, who follow the lead of adoptive brother Tom Hagen: they believe the old order still holds and that negotiation is the answer. Opposite them stand the hawks of neoconservatism who, like the eldest son, Sonny Corleone, believe that a massive show of force is the only way to retain top spot in the new landscape. Finally, there are the realists who, just like Michael, understand that it is only the combination of strength, judiciously deployed, and patient diplomacy that will bring lasting security. You don’t have to buy the analogy to agree that it’s a rare kind of bestseller that can spawn a foreign policy monograph some four decades after publication.
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that much of this enduring interest is attached to the film rather than the book. Indeed, Hulsman and Mitchell refer to “Coppola’s epic story”, making not so much as a mention of Puzo, and that lapse is common. Many of those devotees of The Godfather – those who know their Al Neris from their Paulie Gattos – will never have even read the novel. Which leaves a question. If it’s clear that The Godfather of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino is a work for the ages, what of The Godfather of ink and page? How does it stand up, half a century later?
There are flaws, including one that might not have seemed exceptional when the book was first published in 1969. It contains a jaw-dropping level of misogyny. No woman on these pages fully makes it into three dimensions: they are starlets or mamas, a mute sex-kitten or a besotted, endlessly forgiving bride.