In 1977, NBC ran a massive seven-and-a-half-hour edit of The Godfather Part I and Part II called The Godfather Saga. Having strongarmed approval from a Francis Ford Coppola, who was hard up for cash while making Apocalypse Now, NBC hacked up the film like some jamoke run afoul of the Mafia, adding deleted scenes while also dispensing with some of the more violent footage. The network’s censorship of the grislier sequences, along with the commercial breaks sprinkled liberally across the film’s many hours and the four-night broadcasting schedule, all combined for an experience that many criticized as unsatisfying and incomplete.
HBO was seeking to right some of the Saga‘s errors with its Godfather Epic, a new rework of Parts I and II that returns the formerly elided sequences to their proper place. (It debuted last night, will air again on January 23, and is currently available on HBO Now.) But the Epic still commits the same cardinal sin as the Saga it was designed to overwrite, a gaffe that fundamentally robs both films of the formal grace that’s made them classics.
The most major change that both the Epic and Saga make to Coppola’s original is the reordering of scenes, opening with the sequences depicting young Vito Corleone’s ascension to the top of New York’s criminal heap. Part II‘s ambitious structural gambit splits screen time between the boy who would be Don Corleone growing up in Italy to become ruthless immigrant played by Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino’s Michael as he continues his descent into a morally compromised hell. As Coppola envisioned it, and as Richard Marks, Peter Zimmer, and Barry Malkin edited it, elegant parallels between De Niro’s rise to power and Pacino’s consumption by that same force make themselves apparent. Cross-cutting between young Vito Andolini and Michael underscores the dark connection between the transgressions of American culture’s forefathers and the depraved sins of its corporate heirs. The mangling of the sequencing of the original films doesn’t just diminish their artistic heft — it obscures the casual brilliance of Part II‘s very sequel-ness.
The genius of Part II is the way it works as parentheses on the original, expanding on Coppola’s 1972 film in both directions while refusing to clarify the original’s ethical mystique. Both Michael and Brando’s Vito are defined by their interiority, the unknowability that renders their acts of steadyhanded brutality so frighteningly human. As the doors close on Michael, brooding in his newfound authority at the close of the first film, the audience marvels at the unseen spiritual processes that have converted the family’s last bastion of decency into its gaping epicenter of corruption. He’s a monolithic figure, taunting the audience with his inscrutable scowl. And he’s as internally opaque as Brando’s Vito at the hour of his death, felled not by a hit squad of Cosa Nostra goons, but a mere heart attack. Throughout the entirety of Part I, Vito sits mush-mouthed and stone-faced, impenetrable to analysis from inquiring minds.
On the basic conceptual level, any sequel’s raison d’etre is in no small part to illuminate the characters that viewers found compelling enough to embrace the first time around. Even the prequel, which is just a subsection under the larger sequel umbrella, exists to elucidate the backstory of a character and in doing so, shed new light on the character’s inner workings. (Merely consider the recent rash of superfluous prequels bearing the ignominious epithet of Origins.) Expanding a series of films necessarily breeds familiarity; after Spider-Man 2, we have a better idea of who Peter Parker is, what he wants, and what motivates his actions. If anything, The Godfather Part II compounds the obliqueness surrounding its two central figures. Both Vito and Michael emerge from the second film as even more densely complicated men than the first go-round, not unlike how every new season of The Sopranos added finer shading to Tony without ever arriving at concrete truths about his character. The prequel/sequel adds to the mythology behind both of these godlike characters, but not in a way that explains their humanity.
As the sequence of events stands in Epic and Saga, the brash defiance of convention baked into the towering Part II evaporates completely. In taking the form of a single, extremely long, and straightforwardly told story, Epic removes the spirit of Coppola’s audacity, of the challenges he posed both to the audience and himself by bucking the standard and committing even more deeply to his own vision rather than the invisible demands of narrative. Memento could’ve been a simple diptych about a guy who loses his memory, and then later goes on a wild-goose hunt to get it back, but it’s not because the structure is a huge part of the film’s overall identity. Hacking up the Godfather films and reassembling them in the most banal way imaginable — there’s an offer pretty easily refused.