Mario Puzo thought he was slumming when he wrote The Godfather. He was broke, an aspiring literary novelist with some respectful reviews but not many sales, and he hoped that a thriller about the mob might make a quick buck. … In fact, the writing of The Godfather released something fresh in Puzo’s imagination—a streak that was both potboilerish and also a little baroque—and if the result wasn’t “literary,” exactly, it was great pop fiction. … The director of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola, originally felt about them the way Puzo felt about his book; he considered them commercial hackwork compared with his more “artistic” films like “Rumble Fish” and “One From the Heart.” And as in Puzo’s case, that attitude actually proved liberating, enabling Mr. Coppola to adopt a style that was grander and more operatic—more “epic,” to use the Hollywood term—but also less arty and self-conscious than the one he used for his more personal projects. Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” enterprise went off the rails in “Part III,” which came out in 1990, when self-importance again seemed to overtake him (along with his star, Al Pacino) and he was no longer in touch with the story’s roots in pop culture and gangster-movie mythology.
I suppose there is a more compelling case to be made for artistic ambition, but it is worth remembering that great, lasting work often comes when artists aim low.