Dissenting Opinion: The Godfather II
Someone once asked the novelist Raymond Chandler, "How do you feel about what Hollywood has done to your novels?" He replied, "Hollywood hasn't done anything to them. They're still right there on the shelf."
Pop culture enthusiasts tend to get worked up over adaptations, especially failed ones, and it's easy to see why. We form intimate bonds with our favorite works, talk about them, pore over them to find new details we might have missed. We love them, so we want to see them treated well. I remember leaving a screening of Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential" crestfallen that my favorite Daniel Clowes story had been adapted into an aimless, clich?d m?lange of unconnected ideas. So I went home and reread my copy of the "Art School Confidential" comic story. It was still right there on the shelf.
In his review of The Godfather II, Gus Mastrapa asks us to believe that adaptation is a destructive process -- that The Godfather II does a damaging artistic injustice to the original film. It's a natural gut reaction. The reality, though, is that adaptation is more iterative than destructive. Adaptations add layers and complexity to the readings of a work. The movie versions of Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories provided a new lens through which to view the books, but as Chandler knew, the original stories survived. Works of art with a lasting message tend to endure.
In fact, "The Godfather Part II" is the perfect example, having endured a lesser sequel, a handful of spin-off novels and a dizzying array of alternate home-video cuts. (And there are other atrocities -- for instance, the Godfather trilogy may be the first epic adapted to that oft-ignored medium, the car horn. Snap review: Some nuances were lost.) None of this has dented the cultural standing of "The Godfather Part II" because the film makes powerful, timeless statements about family and the hypocrisies of the American system. A videogame, good or bad, is not going to change that.
Then there's the notion that The Godfather II denigrates videogames as an art form. Apparently, after playing this game, I should have been "forced to come to one depressing conclusion ? games are not and cannot be art." Even accounting for Gus' humorous use of hyperbole, this strikes me as a bit much. I didn't walk out of Will Smith's "I, Robot" rending my garments over the futility of cinema, nor did I go on a book-burning rampage after reading the "Space Jam" novel (Of course, that's just because I couldn't get the permits.)
Gus maintains, though, that the decision to create a game called "The Godfather II" is a cynical act. Why? Because of "money ? commerce and all of the many forces that take things that are beautiful and crap on them from a great height." A-ha, it's money's fault!
While we're all shaking our fists with righteous rage, let's try not to recall that Mario Puzo wrote his novel "The Godfather" after his first two novels sold poorly, with the express purpose of creating a book that had commercial appeal. Let's gloss over the fact that the Godfather films were produced for Paramount, an old-school corporate studio if there ever was one. And let's ignore that "The Godfather Part II" was a sequel, that most hated device by which Hollywood "cashes in," or "sells out," or whatever other demagoguery you might want to use.
The insidious interest of the shareholders has defiled many creative endeavors. That's important, and nobody should pretend otherwise. But it's intellectually dishonest to argue that a commercial motive precludes a work of art from saying something worthwhile -- especially when we're talking about "The Godfather."
In fairness, Gus says it's not all money's fault. In fact, it's mostly your fault. You and your damn money. See, by purchasing The Godfather II, you're complicit in these dubious crimes supposedly being committed against Francis Ford Coppola and videogames and art and the world. And what's your excuse? "I had fun"? You potato-eating hedonist. How dare you?
Social responsibility is important, within reason. There's a line you shouldn't cross, and it's hazy, but buying The Godfather II doesn't come anywhere close to it. If you enjoy the game, go ahead and play. You have the right to entertain yourself. The notion of feeling shame over pleasure for its own sake is a Victorian-era relic that's out of place in a 2009 discussion of videogames.
You'll notice I haven't talked about the contents of The Godfather II yet. That's because I take more issue with Gus' pre-judgment of the game than his evaluation of the game itself. Gus makes great points about the game's repetitious goals and empty spaces, and I'm a little abashed that I didn't take more note of the demeaning prop-babes when I played the game. The game often feels like it's play-acting at this "Godfather" thing that it doesn't entirely understand.
That said, there are some innovations that make The Godfather II a worthwhile, if flawed, riff on its cinematic namesake. The Godfather trilogy contends that the Corleone organization operates in much the same way as its counterparts atop the political, religious and corporate worlds. The Godfather II puts this idea into practice by reworking Grand Theft Auto-style gameplay into a real-time strategy framework. The player spends a lot of time managing resources in an overview map called The Don's View, which borrows from early SimCity and Civilization games. In other words, you run your crime family the same way you're used to building cities and waging war, the pastimes of the politically powerful. It's a smart translation of theme from film to gameplay, and I wish The Godfather II had the confidence to execute it with more depth and complexity.
The game works best when, instead of parroting the source material, it borrows a few elements from the film and takes them somewhere new. The most successful remakes don't worry about paying slavish heed to their predecessors -- NBC's "The Office" and Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" come to mind. The stretches of The Godfather II that track the original story are pretty dreadful, to the point that the game's connection to the movie feels incidental at best. By trying to mirror Coppola, the game suffers from the comparison. I was intrigued, though, by a diversion from the main story to post-revolution Cuba, in which the CIA enlists you to take out Fidel Castro. It's a fusion of the Godfather world with one of the more bizarre real-life chapters of the Kennedy administration, and it works.
I think few of us expected the team at EA to put together a groundbreaking game. That's reasonable -- not all adaptations are good. To paraphrase Theodore Sturgeon, 90 percent of remakes are crap. EA's batting average might not be much better. Yet we have to be open to surprise. Genius often comes from unexpected places, and "The Godfather" is a compelling case in point.
No surprises here; The Godfather II is not a great game. But reinventing, remaking, rethinking -- these are great things, worthy of defense. My main disagreement with Gus' review is his stance that "The Godfather: Part II" shouldn't be remade in a new medium because the remake couldn't match the glory of the film. The thing is, we don't need something that replicates the greatness of "The Godfather: Part II" because we already have "The Godfather: Part II." Coppola's movie isn't going anywhere. Masterpieces are durable like that. So chop it up, distort it, put it in different clothes, and see if we notice something new.
Adaptations have a special ability to infuse past works with vibrancy and new relevance. I would rather see a game development team try and fail to translate "The Godfather: Part II" than have the creative community treat the movie as an untouchable museum piece. I want more than to preserve this film; it ought to thrive. That requires artistic experimentation, which requires the potential for failure. Feel free to judge The Godfather II a failure, but don't deny that there's merit in the attempt.