Why ‘The Crown’ Feels Like ‘The Godfather’ in Royal Form

If you look closely, 'The Crown' and 'The Godfather' tell remarkably similar stories of familial wealth and power.

The Crown and The Godfather
If you look closely, The Crown and The Godfather tell remarkably similar stories of familial wealth and power. Illustration: Eric Vilas-Boas/Observer; Colman: Netflix; Pacino: Getty Images

Golden arches, neatly organized pews, inviolable columns proudly perched in between immaculate stained glass windows. A gloriously ornate church overflowing with life.

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A vast natural countryside wholly undisturbed by the chaos wrought by man, the sweeping vistas of tranquil, open land. The dense brush of the forest and the limitlessness of the open seas.

Both the baptism scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and scenes of The Crown’s fourth season premiere are meant to evoke purity, symbols of incorruptible strength and stability. Religious iconography and natural beauty starkly contrast with the moral decay to immediately follow. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) methodically dispatches the heads of the other crime families in a gorgeous and terrifyingly orchestrated montage that cuts between new life and violent death. The Crown showrunner Peter Morgan aims for a similar sentiment, utilizing the same family-oriented foundation to build tension as Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) is murdered.

In both works, the death and its fallout are fragmented. The mob heads spread across several locations as Michael holds vigil at the center of a new power dynamic; the royal family is individually informed of Mountbatten’s murder across different sites and countries. The culmination of tension, sound and action bleed into each successive shot. The result is the same: deep pain and violence rippling outward like stones dropped into a pond.

That the two scenes share both a visual language and an overarching message is just one element that demonstrates how Morgan hasn’t just delivered a definitive entry in the tail-end of the Peak TV era, or a deliriously entertaining take on the British royalty, but a 40-hour cinematic reimagining of The Godfather.

The Crown and The Godfather both live in the decadence of family wealth and power

Though The Crown is steeped in stylish revisionist history, there’s (presumably) never going to be an episode where Queen Elizabeth assassinates an assortment of world leaders Michael Corleone–style. Yet for all of their surface-level differences, both The Godfather and The Crown are sweeping sagas that span generations yet revolve around a single family as they navigate wealth, power and conformity in rarefied air. They are also both family-centric stories that emphasize bloodlines and the positions such relations guarantee, creating insular power structures within both projects.

The Godfather series largely embodies the American Dream, following marginalized people clawing their way to the proverbial top of a capitalist food chain. White America has capped the station of minorities and put a ceiling on how far they can rise, forcing Italians and Italian Americans to turn to the alternate economy available to them: organized crime. Here, unencumbered by mainstream prejudice and discrimination, they create their own cultural and monetary ecosystem with its own distinct hierarchy.

“The crown is not a static thing. It is moving, alive… divine.” -King George VI 

In a way, British royalty are history’s original gangsters. They rose to power through violence and conquest on national and international scales. Their historical track record serves as a legitimizing force for a specific type of organized crime. The lesson: if you want something, you need to take it, whether it be a metaphorical or literal throne.

Pop-culture figureheads like celebrities and gangsters have embodied a certain flavor of the American Dream in the 20th century. Figures like John Dillinger, Frank Sinatra and Al Capone blurred the lines between the two worlds while still occupying similar space in the American consciousness that the British monarchy occupies in the U.K. and around the world. The cultural cachet of outlaws, gangsters, royalty and celebrities depends on your perspective, but is undeniable—and it’s exactly what popular movies and TV shows lean into. The love of money and power amid systemic oppression in The Godfather is a driving motivation, and the love of country and position in The Crown is a central gravitational force. Both on-screen tales qualify as wealth porn in one form or another.

Crown episodes like “Marionettes” (Season 2), “Aberfan” (Season 3), “Moondust” (Season 3), and “Fagan” (Season 4) represent the growing disdain for the monarchy from those outside the royal family. Similarly, The Godfather trilogy gets much of its narrative tension from the many external forces attempting to curtail the rise of the mafia or specifically challenge the Corleones.

“Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” -Michael Corleone

Despite their wealth and power, both families are perennial outsiders. Ordinary British citizens can’t relate to or really understand the monarchy, just like American bystanders can’t realize the realities of organized crime. Each is a dense, impenetrable, ideological and social creation that separates them from the rest of us.

“We have to hide those feelings, keep them to ourselves.” -Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) in The Crown. Netflix

“It’s business, not personal” as the family motto

The mafiosi mantra of The Godfather implies that the organization will always take priority over the individual. As Michael tells Fredo: “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”

In The Crown, the symbol they represent to the world supersedes individual needs at every turn. Elizabeth (Claire Foy) is resigned to letting her own desires fall by the wayside in support of the crown from the early going, but sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is repeatedly forced to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of public posturing throughout the series. (Justice for Peter Townsend!)

Omertà is the mafia’s code of silence, which also happens to be the unofficial policy of the royal family. They insist on keeping drama strictly in-house and are discouraged, nakedly so, from providing any personal perceptions. The devastating exchange between Prince Charles and his mother, Queen Elizbeth, in the Season 3 episode “Tywysog Cymru” typifies this. Charles declares, “I have a voice,” to which Elizabeth coldly responds, “Let me let you into a secret: no one wants to hear it.”

Internalization sits at the center of both silent universes. But when characters who want to be heard persist, or are forced into calcifying their souls to stone, cracks are bound to emerge.

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) sits opposite his son Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather. Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The characters in The Godfather and The Crown are practically mirror images

The Crown as a title is a brilliantly subversive one revealing to be not about King George VI who leads the pilot, but his daughter Elizabeth who is thrust into the throne and the show’s spotlight, as we watch her evolution from daddy’s little princess, literally, to a queen, the matriarch and ruthless wearer of the crown. The same arc plays out in The Godfather. It is not about Vito, but about Michael, the reluctant war hero and youngest son, positioned on the outskirts of his family and their business, who turns ruthless patriarch and Don.

When we first meet Elizabeth, she is bright-eyed and in love, a princess with none of the obligations of a queen. When we first meet Michael Corleone, he is out of the Army, bright-eyed and also in love. Elizabeth with Phillip, Michael with Kate. Both mates are outsiders who desperately want in. Elizabeth and Michael share an idyllic attitude toward their family and their place in it. Neither wants to wear the crown, yet both are on a collision course toward it.

In The Godfather, Vito Corleone sits with Michael in the garden, at the transition of power and confesses, “I never wanted this for you.” Knowing his time is up, he offers his youngest to the wolves of power, demonstrating his unbending devotion to the family. We see the same devotion in King George VI, who takes the crown from his abdicating brother at the cost of his own health and subsequently his life, and like Vito accepting he too, must now do the same to his princess as they sit in his study. Whereas Vito advises Michael to beware of the traitor, King George tells Elizabeth how important it is to have the right person by her side. Peter Morgan takes this idea even further, having King George take Philip out on the boat—an eerily similar visual to Fredo and his killer on a weirdly similar looking boat and lake in The Godfather Part II—to tell Phillip in no uncertain terms: “You understand the titles, they’re not the job. She is the job. Loving her. Protecting her. She is the essence of your duty.” Both are either acutely aware or subtly aware of impending doom.

In Prince Charles, we see an amalgamation of Fredo and Sonny: a man too weak to assume power in his father’s eyes and too volatile to do so in his mother’s eyes. As we watch Charles, in Season 4, gaslight Princess Diana, ultimately leading to her death, the parallel to Michael having Fredo whacked is undeniable. Both will keep the family intact at all costs in the service of title and dominance. We also watch Charles defy his family and endanger his own reputation and the crown’s for his love of Camilla Bowes. Sonny acts in the same way, flying off the handle and defying his family by running to his sister’s aid, ultimately getting himself killed.

In The Godfather, the Corleone’s eldest, Sonny (James Caan), comes to a bloody end, and we see echoes of his character in both Prince Charles and in Princess Margaret on The Crown. Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The entrance of Princess Diana in Season 4 clearly parallels that of Michael’s wife Kay Adams, the innocent ingénue and outsider who is foreign to their way of life—yet absolutely in love and devoted to her mate and to the crown. While both would’ve been well served to be cautious of what they wished for, upon success both find their own demise; Diana’s is ultimately fatal, while Kay’s is emotional and spiritual, as Michael shuts the door in her face. Both are lied to, neglected and cast out. When Elizabeth asks her mother about Diana, “And if she doesn’t bend? What then?” Her mother responds matter of factly, “She will break.”

While we see traces of Sonny in Charles, the real Sonny lies within Princess Margaret, the volatile sibling of our central antihero who lusts for the crown but can’t have it. She’s also got a bit of Talia Shire’s Connie in her. She wants to break from convention, yet no matter how hard she tries or how thin the razor blade she walks with death, can never bring herself to split fully, rejecting true love and any sense of self she may have started with. She and Connie, both wish nothing more than to be accepted by their ruling sibling, though their best and worst efforts amount to water breaking itself against rock.

“She will break.” Emma Corrin stars as Princess Diana in The Crown‘s fourth season. Des Willie/Netflix

Even the filmmaking feels familiar

All of these wrenching emotions and familial brutality are filtered through the mechanical cinematic process and economic incentives that allow it to exist. The Crown, Season 1, cost $130 million—one of the most expensive TV shows ever made with a reported viewership of 73 million, which if equated to ticket sales would be a $1.46 billion gross. The Godfather, shot in 1971 at a budget of $7.2 million would have a $50 million dollar budget today. It grossed $287 million a $1.8 billion dollar gross in 2021.

The patient process of understanding these characters’ psychology matters too. The Godfather’s running time 177 minutes in ‘72, when the average length per feature had dropped by nearly 10 minutes and in the years right before Rocky, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. popularized the 120-minute blockbuster—feels of a piece with Peter Morgan’s elongated six-season tale today. Moreover, The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, a new reimagining of The Godfather Part III, was only released at the tail-end of 2020, making this a cinematic saga nearly five decades in the making, just as The Crown‘s story traverses the bulk of the 20th century.

And unlike most of its TV predecessors, The Crown utilizes multiple locations and multiple set-ups within those locations, more in line with well-financed films that can shoot 1-3 script pages a day. The television standard before the streaming revolution was to shoot 7-8 pagers per day. Thus, The Crown’s cinematic influence hails back to New Hollywood’s glory days, when auteurs like Mr. Coppola wore the crown and studio heads were their complicit allies, offering financing and the dispatch of would-be enemies with plausible deniability given to the artist.

While TV is typically defined by massive closeups, simple shots and heavy exposition, The Crown deploys leisurely wide shots, often capturing the U.K. vistas of expansive countryside with the same privilege Coppola had to shoot the sweeping landscapes of Sicily. There’s a romantic elegance that both The Crown and The Godfather capture with high-budget filmmaking and that their plots and characters subvert in ruthless fashion.

There’s a romantic elegance that both The Crown and The Godfather capture (and successfully subvert) with high-budget filmmaking. Pacino and Cazale: Getty; Colman: Netflix

Ultimately, ruthlessness reigns in The Crown and The Godfather

That subversion of beauty in The Godfather comes through in its famous shot of a bloodied horse’s head. Nestled as a threat between the sheets of a movie producer who owned the beautiful Triple Crown winner, it drives home the ruthlessness the Corleone family will resort to in order to fulfill their goals. In Season 4 of The Crown, this ruthlessness comes through in the article the Queen allows to be written detailing the tension between her and Margaret Thatcher. There is no ceiling to what the crown will do when threatened and no relationship that will go uncorrupted.

That climactic assassination montage of The Godfather and the powerful sequence of The Crown’s Season 4 premiere share in that ruthlessness. They serve as a microcosm for the surprising overlap between the two seemingly disparate artworks. Both are linked by thematic emphasis, familial structures, character composition, filmmaking techniques and even in the message they send to audiences. No, Queen Elizabeth isn’t a violent, murdering crime lord, nor is Michael Corleone a lifelong paragon of royal stability. But both lead ideological institutions and both are powerful hierarchical leaders that stand apart from typical society. Onscreen, they do so on the logic that it is better to be feared than loved.

The Crown is available to stream on Netflix (NFLX). The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone is available on video on demand.

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.

Why ‘The Crown’ Feels Like ‘The Godfather’ in Royal Form