Saturday, October 13, 2018

Writing Lessons from Movies: The Godfather

Last month I finally watched the iconic film The Godfather. If you’re too young to know about that film that whole sequence with the shrews in Zootopia was a reference to The Godfather. There are references to it in many other movies as well. It’s about an Italian mafia family in the 40s and the one son who’s ashamed of his father’s business but when his father aka The Godfather is the victim of a hit he has to get involved. When I saw it I was pleasantly surprised that the movie aged really well. The acting is very good ahead of its time I might say (the movie was made in the 70s) and the story is engaging. I mean if a film can make me care about a dangerous mafia family it’s got to be doing something right. 

Warning: Spoilers

1.) Humanizing Criminals - The whole movie centers around a family of mobsters who do a lot of not so nice things such as pay off cops and judges to look the other way and manipulate others to guarantee success for their investments or rig gambling dens. Despite all of this the film makes a point to show the very normal parts of the Corleone family’s lives such as a mobster's wife having her husband pick up cannolis from a favorite bakery or the grandkids kissing The Godfather’s cheek and giving him get well cards when he was shot or even The Godfather being silly with his grandson in the garden. 

The Godfather, Sonny, Tom, and others do a lot of unsavory things but they’re not bad scary guys 100% of the time. They have home lives and loved ones and they just felt so real. Some of my favorite parts were when one of the mobsters was telling another mobster how to correctly make spaghetti sauce or when all of the mobsters ordered Chinese because they’d had a long night discussing plans. Also, The Godfather calling in a favor for purely personal reasons or doing anything to protect his children and grandchildren or Sonny kicking his sister’s abusive husband’s butt for hurting her.

How this applies to writing: Hardly anyone is 100% evil. A well-crafted villain is one you can believe actually exists which means they have family and cares and worries. 

2.) Taking Advantage of Setting - The majority of the film takes place in New York City but I love that at one point the movie is set in Italy itself. You get to see some of the beautiful Italian countryside still war-torn by Mussolini. I felt like this brought the Italian culture home since we see a lot of Italian-born characters, their homes, and wedding ceremonies even. I felt like this expanded the movie’s universe outside of one city and by the end of the film, you felt like you went everywhere the film could take you.

How this applies to writing: Have you thought of taking the story to a characters’ home country of origin? 

3.) Changing Times Affecting Criminals - A lot of things changed in the 1940s because of the war one of those things was the introduction of narcotics. The Corleone never dealt with drugs and this new money source in the criminal underworld is a big deal since that would mean other families could get ahead of them. A big part of the plot centers around how they’re not going to get behind of this. They even have a discussion with other families about how they’re going to do this and one of the parameters they lay down is to never sell to anyone underage.

How this applies to writing: Are your villains affected by changing times? Are they ahead of the game or falling behind?

4.) Villain Shows of Power - One of the most iconic scenes of the movie is the Horse Head which despite its brutality I thought it was one of the best villain strikes. The Godfather didn’t have to torture someone he just had to make one statement and he got the man to do what he wanted. It showed The Godfather’s cunning. The Godfather invested in an actor’s career and a director refused to cast him in a role that would make The Godfather a lot of money, so The Godfather sends one of his agents to talk to the director in person. 

The director still refuses but during that time he showed the agent a half a million dollar horse. The director wakes up the next morning with a horse head in his bed and the scene cuts to some people talking about the actor’s casting in the film. This was a great statement of The Godfather’s power early in the film, so you understand why he’s respected and feared by so many people. 

5.) A Very Well Written Descending Character Arc - A descending character arc is instead of a character becoming a better person they become the opposite. Michael is the youngest Corleone son and a World War II hero. He’s washed his hands of his mafia family for the most part and only comes back in their lives for mandatory things such as his sister’s wedding. But when a rival mafia family severely injures his papa he finally gets involved head on then eventually becomes The Godfather himself. 

It was fascinating to watch his transition and it seemed to happen realistically such as how he freaked out when he assassinated the people who called the hit on The Godfather and how his love life changed because he became a different person as he transitioned to the role as head of the family. Circumstances force him to become what his papa wanted him to be and he goes from reluctance to acceptance.

How this applies to writing: Have you ever written a descending character arc? Other examples include Mordo from Doctor Strange and Magneto from X-Men: First Class.

Conclusion - There’s a lot of other things I enjoyed about the movie such as the use of natural lighting and score. This film is gruesome (I mean it’s about mobsters. What did you expect?), but it’s definitely worth a watch if you want to get some great inspiration for villains. 

Have you seen The Godfather? Have you noticed these writing aspects? What movies have you noticed have good writing? Let's geek out together!

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