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Critical Essay: The Sicilian by Mario Puzo
The Sicilian by Mario Puzo was a fairly popular and well-received
novel in the year of its publication in 1984, as well as in 1985.
It sold 462,000 copies in 1984 alone, placing it second on the
bestseller list for that calendar year. For the most part,
reviews of The Sicilian were good. Many reviews praised Puzo for
painting such an accurate portrayal of life in the Mafia, and most
critics enjoyed this spin-off of The Godfather. Like The
Godfather, it seems as though Puzo wrote The Sicilian not so much for
critical acclaim, but rather to fatten his bankroll. In speaking about
The Godfather, Puzo himself admits that he wrote it "to make money...I
was 45 years old and tired of being an artist" (Contemporary Authors).
The Sicilian is still in print today, and the novel was made into a movie,
released in 1987 by 20th Century Fox.
There were several influential factors that the commercial success of The Sicilian
can be attributed to. There was extensive advertising done for Puzo's subsequent
novels after The Godfather, since his new fans could scarcely wait for his next novel.
The Godfather gave Puzo the popularity he so desperately wanted, and now that his
name was recognized as the author of The Godfather he was virtually assured that the
rest of his novels would be bestsellers as well. The genre of this novel deals mainly
with the Mafia, which had long been an already popular and very interesting subject to
much of America and its readers. This genre also allowed for great films, and The
Godfather began the trend that The Sicilian could follow. Once the main characters of
The Godfather hit the big screen in Godfather parts I and II, the public wanted to see
more. Puzo seized this opportunity some fifteen years later with The Sicilian, in many
ways a follow-up in The Godfather's footsteps. It was all too easy to make The Sicilian
into a movie since the characters have already been developed previously. Thus by
capitalizing on his newfound recognition as a popular author, as well as providing the most
accurate portrayal of a popular genre, and finally writing novels that could almost
immediately be transformed into another form of media, Mario Puzo paved the way for his
future bestsellers; The Sicilian runs in this same vein.
One of the things that one can take from The Sicilian as to why a novel becomes a bestseller
is the concept of popularity, or name recognition. Mario Puzo wrote seven novels that spanned
some forty-one years (1955-1996), but it wasn't until he reached the age of 49 that he had his
first real popular success with The Godfather. His first two novels before this great commercial
success might have slipped past most of America's readers, but with The Godfather, a star was born.
And Puzo wasn't about to abandon the formula that made him famous. Although his following, highly-
anticipated novel was his most poorly received critically (Fools Die in 1978), it was immediately a
bestseller. But perhaps Mario Puzo realized something here. Although it's fairly obvious to assume
that he was thrilled with the popular success of Fools Die on the bestseller lists, perhaps he was
worried about the success of his next novel. Maybe he feared that since many critics bashed Fools Die,
people would not run out and buy his next novel, despite his name as author of The Godfather. In fact,
it was probably the case that The Godfather itself was more recognizable than Puzo was. Sure enough,
Puzo was all too quick to return to the magic of The Godfather with The Sicilian. He extended the tale
of Michael Corleone and other main characters, and when readers discovered this, it was inevitable that
The Sicilian would become a bestseller. The forecasts in fiction section of Publishers Weekly from Nov.
23, 1984 works to build up the excitement surrounding the characters everyone knows and loves, "there is
the implication that this book foreshadows the story of the man who someday, will try to succeed Don
Corleone. So continues a monumental and riveting saga" (Publishers Weekly). With such a build-up
regarding the pre-existing characters from The Godfather, Puzo ensures that The Sicilian will be a
bestseller. He uses the hype surrounding his name as an author as well as The Godfather as an epic in efforts
to sell as many copies of The Sicilian as possible; he is extremely successful.
The popularity and interest in the genre that The Sicilian claims to be a part of also helped to make it a
bestseller. The Sicilian was Mario Puzo's second of three novels that dealt with the Mafia, and the Mafia had
been a topic of great interest in America for a long time. Despite this interest in the Mafia, however, The
Godfather was the first bestseller of its genre, and The Sicilian was one of only a few to continue in its footsteps.
The question existed of why there were so few bestselling Mafia novels. What made Puzo's novels so different
from the rest in his ability to move them off the shelves at such an amazing pace? In her critical analysis of The
Godfather, Jennifer Crist argues that Puzo gives his characters an extra dimension, a "characteristic with no other
[novel] possessed." She states, "I contend that this characteristic is the depth of character given to the "bad guys,"
enabling readers to identify with and care about them" (Crist). I would tend to agree with here here; Puzo is not
merely telling a story about mobster criminals that his audience wants to see killed or imprisoned, but rather he instills
in his characters the ability to make the reader care. When someone reads The Sicilian, he roots for Salvatore Guiliano
as a hero, a sort of Robin Hood. Although Guiliano robs and terrorizes the upper-class Sicilians, he is only doing it so
as to help the under-priviliged peasants. How can the reader not develop an affection for Turi? This is what makes Puzo's
novels so intoxicating to the reader. He effectively turns the "bad guys" into "good guys," and one finds himself completely
engrossed in the world of the Mafia, and the reader may see the Mafia sympathetically. As the reader grows closer to the
characters in Puzo's novels he tends to form his own opinions about the Mafia. He ceases to view it as evil since Puzo shows
the other side of it, the side that involves family and the love that holds that family together. Because of this phenomenon,
Puzo is widely regarded as the authoritative voice when it comes to novels about the Mafia, and this is why they sell so well.
When someone wants a novel about business drama, they look to John Grisham. When someone wants to read a novel about the
Mafia, there is nowhere better to turn to than Mario Puzo. Although the reader may not agree with the practices of the Mafia,
he still wants everything to work out for the characters in the novel, and this is what Puzo brings to the table in novels
like The Sicilian. His style in one unique to the genre.
Transition into other media:
As stated in the previous section, what sets Mario Puzo's novels apart in the Mafia genre is the character development that he
incorporates to add another dimension to his characters that may not exist in novels by other authors. Based on this assumption,
it seems only natural that Mario Puzo's novels be made into works of cinema; this is precisely what occurs with The Godfather,
which received numerous Academy Award nominations. Therefore, it would also seem that The Sicilian was perfect for a movie, and
it was made into one in 1987 and released by 20th Century Fox. However, the success of The Sicilian in movie form was minimal; it
could never hope to achieve the same success that The Godfather achieved. Thus, in this case, it would be very wrong to suggest that
the making of this novel into a movie catapulted its success. However, as a rule for many bestsellers, the transition of a novel from
one form of media into another usually results in huge success. The Godfather is an example, as are novels/movies by Stephen King, Tom
Clancy, John Grisham, Ian Fleming, and even Peter Benchley. Very similar to Puzo, Benchley's breakthrough novel, Jaws, was soon after
made into a blockbuster movie, just as The Godfather was for Puzo. Furthermore, Benchley also tried to capitalize on the success of Jaws
in other media by writing a sequel, The Deep, and quickly making it, too, into a screenplay in 1977. The Deep was not the success that
Jaws was, just as The Sicilian was not quite the success that The Godfather was. However, although The Sicilian was a follow-up to The
Godfather, there had already been two Godfather movies, so maybe the material head been exhausted to some degree. It wasn't until 1990
that The Godfather III came out, and despite its relative success, it paled in comparison to the original two. Nevertheless, it is clear
to see how transitions into other forms of media can help make a novel a bestseller. It is probably true that more people have seen the
movies Jaws and The Godfather than read the books. Still, the extra attention that another form of media brings to a novel often catapults
into the realm of the bestselling.
Mario Puzo's The Sicilian was a very successful novel whose only real measure of success was the fact that it ranked high on the bestseller
lists. Comparatively, it could never have been the success that the Godfather was; realistically few novels could. But The Sicilian did enjoy
popular commercial success, and this seems to be Puzo's goal in writing it. His return to the genre of the Mafia novel appears to be a fairly
obvious attempt to make lots of money, and his quotes about writing The Godfather just to make money and become famous serve to back up this
idea. By writing a second novel in the same vein as the success of his first major popular success, Puzo ensures that he will have his third
bestseller in a row when he writes The Sicilian. Couple this together with his name recognition and the possibility of transition of his novel
into another form of media makes it apparent as to why The Sicilian was a bestseller. This is true across the board; Puzo teaches us that there
are certain criteria to writing a bestseller, and if one follows the formula he can almost guarantee himself the same success.
Jennifer Crist's entry on Puzo's The Godfather
Brian Sutton's entry on Peter Benchley's The Deep
The Sicilian by Mario Puzo