I’m betting Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t thinking about someone like me sitting in a theater watching his work fifty years after its original release. But that’s where I was this past weekend, beyond excited to see The Godfather remastered and rereleased—a movie I’d loved when I was much younger, already long after it had left theaters, watching my VHS copy over and over and over.
I’ve always found it hard to pin down why I was so obsessed with this movie, as well as the excellent Mario Puzo book it was based on. I’m not especially into Mafia stories, and the values they often glorify—strongarm tactics, revenge, vigilante justice, violence—are not remotely my bag. In fact, I find them fairly antithetical to my personal value system.
And yet I watched it so many times when I was younger that I knew the movie shot for shot, even so many years later.
I lovingly berated my reluctant husband into seeing it with me for his first time by asserting with righteous pubescent fervor, “It’s only one of the greatest movies ever made!”
But I secretly worried that maybe it actually wasn’t.
I wondered whether I might find that I’d changed so much from the melodramatic, emotion-charged teen I was when I first discovered The Godfather that now I’d find it overblown or ridiculously testosterone-charged (and no mistake, there’s plenty of testosterone flying in this movie).
I wondered if, having learned so much about story and structure and character as an editor, I’d assess the film differently now—with a more educated, objective perspective that robbed it of the shine it had had for me for so long.
But, you guys…I stand by my hyperbolic assessment. Five decades later this movie not only holds up, but it’s as good as I remember—and haunts me as much.
I am an editor to my soul, and analyzing story is practically a patellar reflex for me, so I’ve been pondering why this one speaks to me so strongly despite its being so far outside my interests and values. Why it persists as a classic so many years later, and feels as immediate and relevant now as it did then.
Understanding why some stories age well and some don’t can help you apply those insights to your own work and make it timeless.
Big fat Godfather spoilers ahead! But if you haven’t seen it, for the love of all things cinematically holy, please go rectify that immediately.
Real, recognizable, relatable characters
A lot of credit for The Godfather’s effectiveness belongs with the uniformly excellent actors populating the film, but they were working with solid source material. Both Puzo’s book and Coppola’s direction laid a foundation for fully fleshed characters with clear, strong motivations, urgent, high-stakes goals, and believable, relatable reactions and emotions.
Right or wrong, who doesn’t want to see Connie Corleone’s abusive husband Carlos get the shit kicked out of him—and who can blame her brother Sonny for losing his temper over it so badly it sends him right into a trap? Who hasn’t felt the pull of revenge for an egregious wrong in Michael Corleone making sure Carlos answers for both?
Who doesn’t marvel at the magnificently orchestrated “win” Michael pulls off in the story’s operatic climax sequence as he vows during his niece’s baptism as her godfather (literal and metaphorical) to renounce Satan—especially after we saw his evolution from marginalized youngest son rejecting the family business to ruthless head of the Corleone family (and Family)?
We’ve seen all these characters show us who they are from the very beginning of the film (and book), and we see how those very traits lead them inexorably along the path they walk. Against all odds, we invest in them even as they pursue ignoble goals and do horrific things—because Coppola and Puzo and the cast create three-dimensional characters who come to life, and tie their actions back into universal values.
Universal subjects and themes
I talk about this a lot—how the more deeply specific and personal a story is, the more affecting it often is for readers, but there’s a key ingredient in that truism: universal values, emotions, topics, and themes.
In my book Intuitive Editing I talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and that if your character’s wounds and struggles stem back to one of these most basic human drives (like survival requirements, esteem, love and belonging, etc.) , readers will deeply relate to them even if the specifics are entirely foreign to their own lives.
Coppola—and Puzo—may be talking about a tiny segment of the population and a very particular reality, but they hit on areas most of us can relate to: the importance of family; the value of loyalty; fairness and justice.
It also feels universally relevant: Yes, this story is about the mob, about how certain privileged individuals (okay, let’s be honest here—men, in this case…white men at that) can buy, threaten, blackmail, and cajole their way into power and influence, and press their own agendas to further line their own pockets and protect their self-interest at the expense of those without power and money.
Remind you anything you may be seeing in the current headlines…over and over and over?
Tight, Solid Storytelling
I’ve seen the film enough that I intended to detach from it as I watched and really analyze the story structure. But I didn’t—because I was drawn so fully into it yet again.
That’s powerful storytelling.
It wasn’t until after the story released me from its hold l that I could take a step back and assess it analytically.
Its structure is solid and classic: a three-act “hero’s journey” (or maybe antihero’s journey), with each act building to a crescendo of a climax and resolution of the plot and the character arcs.
Despite what seems a slow start by today’s standards (the “inciting event” of Vito Corleone being shot comes about 45 minutes into the story), the film grips you from the beginning with its setup of this complex world and its many characters and threads of plot.
It keeps you hooked with strong momentum—every single scene is essential to the story in one of three key ways: furthering the plot, advancing characters along their arcs, and raising stakes. And most scenes do all three. The pace varies—in places it feels almost leisurely—but as my husband observed afterward, “Even when it slows down you’re engaged, so it doesn’t feel slow.” (And how proud was I?)
The story is absolutely dripping with every type of conflict and tension in every scene, both overt (blood on the sheets of the movie producer right before the reveal of that iconic horse head) and subtle (Michael reaching for that gun behind the toilet that at first doesn’t seem to be there), direct and indirect, external and internal.
Coppola shows where show is most powerful (Carlos’s punishment for his betrayal) and tells where it’s stronger or show isn’t necessary (Tessio’s punishment for his).
He had strong source material to work from—the book is as tightly, solidly told as the movie. Both storytellers, Coppola and Puzo, use their respective mediums expertly to tell the story as effectively and engagingly as possible.[For more on how to do that, see my course “Five Foolproof Steps to an Airtight Plot.”]
What writer doesn’t dream of her story (and everything is story—including nonfiction, memoir, poetry, song, even commercials) being an enduring classic that affects people for generations to come?
Focusing on that goal, though, is trying to hit an amorphous target that’s too far out of range.
If you’re thinking of your readers—current or future—you’re no longer focused on telling the story. There’s a time for focusing on the reader’s experience, but it’s later in editing, not during your initial drafting process.
Timeless stories present fully drawn characters that draw and invest readers in their journey, their actions and motivations based in universally relatable values, told with tight, rock-solid storytelling.
Time will determine how your story endures; this is not for the author to concern himself with. Your job is to write the stories of your hearts that are real and alive for you now, with all the depth, texture, and skill you can muster.
How about you, authors–what stories have stuck with you for years, and why? Have you revisited them from your older and more experienced/educated perspective as a writer? How do they hold up? I’m a huge believer in what authors can learn from analyzing other people’s stories (so much so that I created a course about it)—have you tried analyzing some of your favorites to see what makes them linger in your mind and heart?
Again, you nailed it: you delivered a fun-to-read, informative as hell, folksy essay! Way to go. And yes, I love the craft stuff. But more so, I liked your writing and girlish enthusiasm and cute comments about your husband even more. Sorry, I know it should be craft, but this time it’s you.
Ha! You are too kind, Ken, as always. Glad my Godfather geek-out is entertaining. 🙂
The first thing I did was check my local theater listings. I would love to see this again. I remember seeing it a few times many years ago, and even now can hear the theme music playing in my head. It truly is a great story.
I recently reread one of my favorite books from childhood, Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary. I remember loving it as a preteen in the 1980s, even as the story was set during my parents’ generation. I was wondering how it would hold up now, as I read (and write) modern YA. Honestly, it blew me away. It was even better than I remember. The world was a different place during those times, but the deeper themes of friendship, identity, class, and discovering one’s true self still resonate today.
Oh, I LOVED Beverly Cleary! Her books were so much a part of my childhood too–and yet I don’t think I know Jean and Johnny, weirdly. I love that it holds up for you even now–such a mark of a great story. Although I don’t think we should write with that in mind, I will say that rereading things that feel timeless like that–and the opposite, reading things that feel dated–does hold some space in my mind when I’m writing now. Not overtly, just in the back of my mind, reminding myself not to use really of-the-moment references, for instance. They don’t age well–but as you say, those universal themes and ideas do. Thanks, Cate, for sharing.
I’ve seen the Godfather series once, and didn’t love it (like you, mafia stories tend to be unappealing to me) – but now I want to see it again, as I’m curious whether the various storytelling elements you mention will change my take on it.
As for childhood classics that stuck with me, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Sissi the Empress, and Princess Bride come to mind… I may have to go back and watch those too!
Thank you for the inspired and inspiring content.
Oh, The Princess Bride continues to delight me still. I’ll be curious to hear how Godfather strikes you now, if you didn’t like it then. I remember really not getting Star Wars when it was first released, but I was pretty young (although revealing my age now, right…? 🙂 ). But when they rereleased it in the nineties I tried again…and still didn’t like it much. Although I love the newer versions that have come out in the last few years, so go figure. Thanks for weighing in, Shahnaz–and your lovely comments! You made my day.