A Wiseguy vs. A Goodfella: a mafia double feature

The True Story

Before Martin Scorsese’s beloved movie, there was just Nicholas Pileggi and his book about Henry Hill. The novel is written as if each chapter is a different interview-based article in the same series. The escapades of Henry and his friends, his fellow wiseguys, are told not exactly in chronological order and range from being a 12-year-old boy learning to park cars to being a grown man being told his best friends have been whacked by his other best friends. It’s not at all a glamorous story despite the girls and the cars and the clubs that are involved. It tackles domestic abuse and substance abuse, the way people get lost in gambling and the realities of being a mafia guy’s girl back in the 60s and 70s.

I really appreciated that this was someone’s life being told by a journalist rather than a true crime writer because I feel that journalists really know how to tell these kinds of stories and which details matter most. Being able to get the perspectives from not just Henry but from his wife, his girlfriend, and – towards the end – the officers that brought down the whole operation just rounds out the story so wonderfully. Getting all sides helps the reality of the situations take centre stage instead of it just being a “let’s rely on one point of view”. Karen’s interview moments were especially eye opening as she tells the truth about what it’s like to be a wife in the mob, to be told everyone will take care of you but how that really only happens in the movies. Honestly the way this book is written reminded me of how the 2016 documentary about Amanda Knox was filmed. Mafia stories these days are all about the money and the rules and the romance, but the reality of organised crime is so much darker and upsetting. I appreciated reading this book before seeing the film for the first time.

The Film

Right off the bat I noticed that things were changed. Other than Henry and his family, everyone else had different last names than in the book – which to me mostly just raises the question of what kind of permissions are needed to make a film like Goodfellas when it’s about very real crime family that could very seriously lash out. The use of narration from throughout the film is utilized wonderfully as it switches between Henry and Karen setting the scene.

There were a few minor changes, of course, to the story but if I hadn’t finished the book only the day before, I would still have enjoyed the movie. It was well acted by Ray Liotta and of course Robert De Niro was wonderful (and looking his best, might I say). Being a 90s kid to my core it was neat seeing Joe Pesci in this light, and he was great as the lunatic, Tommy. Having only really known who Pesci was from jokes on shows like Family Guy, I seriously enjoyed his cutthroat performance.

Was it the greatest movie ever the way people have told me it is? Not really, but I can clearly see why it is appreciated so much.