Goodfellas Book vs Movie Review

You can read the blog, or you can click on one of the icons below to listen to the podcast version! Click HERE for more listening options!

**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

Wiseguy by Nick Pileggi (1985)

Goodfellas directed by Martin Scorsese (1990)

Is there anyone out there that hasn’t at least heard of the movie Goodfellas? It is the movie that solidified Scorsese as one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Prior to this he had done Taxidriver and Raging Bull which are also both considered masterpieces. Goodfellas brought him more widespread notoriety and success.


For anyone out there who doesn’t know the story-we follow Henry Hill. He started being involved with the mob when he was 12 as an errand boy. Even though he wasn’t one of the big guys, he was rubbing shoulders with everyone and was well connected. When he was 37 he was arrested for narcotics. This situation put him in a position where the mob couldn’t trust him and wanted him dead. He did they only thing he could and gave up names and helped get his former friends convicted and put in prison. He and his family had to go into the witness protection program and he had to leave his life of crime behind him.

Thoughts on the book

I was surprised how much I liked this book. There were times when it talked in detail about certain schemes they had going on, specifically the point shaving scheme, that maybe could have been summed up rather than drawn out. Regardless, it never dragged. The book shares Karen’s perspective, as well as even the perspective of one of his earlier girlfriends. I didn’t like Henry per ce, but even though he could be a scumbag, I didn’t hate him either. As a woman, I appreciated that Karen’s point of view was told and really liked her sections.

I have seen the movie and remembered it well. Even so, this book was so entertaining.

This is the first “mafia” book I have read, and I was engrossed. It is one I will be reading again at some point. I also plan on reading more mafia related books in the future.

The book is written by crime journalist Nicholas Pileggi. During his career he had met with various people involved with the mafia. When he met Hill, he discovered he wasn’t like any of the others, saying, “Hill was a surprising man. He didn’t look or act like most of the street hoods I had come across. He spoke coherently and fairly grammatically. He smiled occasionally. He knew a great deal about the world in which he  had been raised, but he spoke about it with an odd detachment, and he had an outsider’s eye for detail. Most of  the mobsters who have been interviewed for books and articles over the years have been unable to detach  themselves from their experiences long enough to put their lives in some perspective. They so blindly followed  the mobster’s path that they rarely saw any of the scenery along the way. Henry Hill was all eyes. He was  fascinated by the world in which he had grown up, and there was very little about it that he did not remember.”


The movie had to change the title because they didn’t want it to be confused with a show with the same name, plus there was another movie called Wise Guy. An annoying thing about the movie is at one point, in the voiceover, he must explain to us what a “goodfella” is. Basically, explaining to us why the movie has that title. They should have instead, called each other goodfellas here and there throughout the movie, that would have been enough for us to get the title. In the voiceover though, he says that they call each other goodfellas. The thing is though, in the movie not once does anyone call anyone else a goodfella! In the book he is using the term wiseguy all the time. He never stops to explain why that is the title of the book, because we already get why it’s the title.

Scorsese and Pileggi worked together on the script, and it follows the book extremely close. So much of the script is pulled word for word from the book. The famous opening line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Doesn’t come directly from the book. The book has the line, “At age 12 it was my ambition to be a gangster.” The movie has a lot of lines that come straight from the book though, which in tern had come straight from Henry’s mouth.


Ray Liotta is in the lead role of Henry Hill. He was trying to talk to Scorsese about getting the role and at one point went up to talk to him in person. Scorsese had gurads around him (people were picketing against him and stuff due to his latest movie at the time) and the guards were being persistent in not letting Liotta near. Liotta remained calm and patient and this caught Scorsese’s attention. Hill was calm under pressure, and this experience got Liotta the role.

Robert DeNiro is of course excellent as Jimmy. His real name is Jimmy Burke, but in the movie they change his last name for legal reasons. As they do will all the mob members. DeNiro and Scorsese have done so many movies together and they always produce something amazing. In the book, he is talking about how Jimmy could have it out for you and you would never know. Saying, “Jimmy could look at you and smile and you’d think you were sitting with your best friend in the world.  Meanwhile he’s got your grave dug. In fact, the very week Jimmy killed him, Remo had given Jimmy and Mickey a round-trip ticket to Florida as an anniversary present.”

Joe Pesci plays the sociopath (that’s just my armchair diagnosis) Tommy. He won an Oscar for his performance which kind of surprised me. I guess now, 30 years after this movie, we are all accustomed to the kind of characters Pesci plays so it doesn’t seem revolutionary. When this came out though, he was a newer, more unknown actor. I’m not saying he isn’t good, he’s great in this role. He just always seems to play these kinds of roles.

In the book, Henry describes Tommy saying, “…you couldn’t kid around with Tommy. He was wired very tight. One of Tommy’s brothers had ratted people out years ago, and he was always living that down. He always had to show he was tougher than anyone around.  He always had to be special. He was the only guy in the crew that used to drink Crown Royal. It was a Canadian  whiskey that wasn’t imported back when he was a kid. Tommy had it smuggled in. He was the kind of guy who was being so tough he managed to find a bootleg hooch to drink thirty years after Prohibition.”

Lorraine Bracco is Henry’s wife, Karen. She and Liotta were both about 36 when making this movie; in the beginning they are supposed to be 20 and 18 so they clearly look too old. But by then end, they look the right age. Bracco is great in this movie though. She has a lot of scenes where she is yelling and being very dramatic which she sells. The scene that comes to mind the most though, is when we see the cops coming to search her house. In the voiceover we hear how this was a common occurrence. We see her being polite to them, then sitting and watching tv while they search. In this scene Bracco really conveys the way Karen attempted to detach from what was going on.

Book to Movie Changes

Honestly, this movie follows the book extremely close. Some events are left out, or scenes that are shortened, then some other scenes may be shuffled around. Overall, though, as far as talking about what is different between the two, there isn’t too much to say!

The movie does leave out the part where Hill enters the military at age 18 and serves two years. He could come home often to visit the crew and he also found ways to hustle and make money. For example, he worked in the kitchen and would sell the left over food to local restaurants.


The movie follows closely the true story of the Lufthansa heist and how that was the beginning of the end.

One thing the movie left out was the details on the guy who worked at the airport and had planned the whole thing. He was trying to find someone to make the robbery happen and talked about it to several people. When he got the guys interested and they were making the plans, the worker, whose name was Warren, was blabbing about it to everyone he knew. It didn’t take long for him to be arrested and sentenced.

However, after his arrest things went stagnant. They knew Jimmy and the guys did it, but they didn’t have enough solid evidence to arrest them.

In book and movie, Jimmy has basically everyone who had been involved in Lufthansa “wacked”. Aside from Tommy, who was killed by other people for having killed Billy Batts. The montage in the movie where they show those who Jimmy had killed is a great scene, with the soundtrack and everything. This movie had a great soundtrack by the way.

The book also describes the heist in detail, with a very cinematic writing style. The movie however, doesn’t show any of the actual crime. We just hear about it the next day, the way Henry finds out.

The arrest

Hill ends up being arrest for drugs because a college kid who dealt drugs was caught by the cops, or feds or whoever, and agreed to help them catch guys who were in the mafia. The movie touches on this but the book goes more into it.

When Hill is arrested, the movie shows him in jail or an unknown amount of time and is telling Karen she needs to get him out of there. He wants to make things right with Paulie, so that he will be safe. In the book, he is in jail for like a week or so. When he is questioned, he will be loud and rowdy, making a fuss that he won’t tell them anything because Paulie and them have people on the inside and he wants them to say that he is putting up a fight. When he is behind closed doors, he doesn’t say much. He doesn’t agree to help the cops, but he doesn’t tell them no either. When he is ready to leave on bail, it comes as a surprise to the cops.

While in jail though, Jimmy’s wife keeps calling Karen to ask about Henry. She is calling because Jimmy wants to know. Henry is in jail for a suspicious amount of time, and they start thinking he is ratting them out or is at least thinking of doing so. While Hill is still in jail, Jimmy calls up Karen telling her he has things for her to pick up. When she goes over there, things are suspicious and she ends up getting a bad vide and leaving in a hurry. The movie has this scene, where Jimmy is clearly setting her up to be killed by one of his men. In the movie though, Henry is out of jail at this point and Karen went voluntarily to see Jimmy.

Also, while Henry is in prison, Paulie tells Karen that he has to turn his back on Henry. He warned Henry to not get involved in drugs, but he did anyway. He then gives her some money and is on his way. In the movie they switched this, after Henry is out of jail, he goes to Paulie and the same event happens, but with him rather than Karen.

The book talks about how in the end, Hill did save himself in some exciting, James Cagney way. It reads, “In the end there were no pyrotechnics, no fiery blasts of Cagney gangster glory. Henry was not going out through a hole in the top of the world. He was going to survive any way he could. In fact, out of the entire crew Henry alone managed to survive.”

Witness Protection

The first five years being in the witness protection program, Hill was testifying against people and would be flown to New York a couple times a year to go to court. He pointed out Paulie, Jimmy and others, looking them in the eye as he did so. The book reading, “Henry’s confrontations with his old pals on the witness stand left him unmoved. Neither Jimmy Burke’s threatening glares nor the sight of the seventy-year-old Paul Vario seemed to disturb him. Vario, Burke, Mazzei,  Basile, the basketball players—everyone Henry had committed crimes with became bargaining chips he used to  buy his own freedom.”

Leaving his mafia life was a hard adjustment and he continued drinking and doing drugs. After he was done testifying, he and Karen stayed together three more years before divorcing. In the books afterward we learn Henry was able to leave the program “in 1996 upon the death of Jimmy Burke. He continued to have problems with the law (for drunk driving arrests)  until 2006, when the actor Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas, convinced him to enter a serious rehabilitation program. After many earlier attempts, Hill says, it worked.

Basketball shaving scheme

In the movie it shows the drugs as being Henry’s main way of making money in the end. It also says Jimmy is in on it, but I don’t remember if that was the case in real life. In the book, Hill and some others also pay three college basketball players for the Boston college to ensure their team wins or loses within a certain number of points. Henry gets some of the other mob guys in on it, and a lot of them have money riding on these players and that keeps Henry busy because he would often go to watch the games in person and to see the players they were paying off.

The Wiseguy Life

One thing I thought was interesting was how Henry didn’t have consistent money. One minute he had more money than he knew what to do with, the next minute he was broke. But the times when he had no money didn’t bother him because he knew there was money just around the corner. They always had multiple schemes cooking; plus, he could borrow money from friends and they knew he would be good for it.

Even so, we also see how people were killed at the drop of a hat. Sometimes a person didn’t even know they were dead, because it would come so out of the blue. They also wouldn’t hesitate to kill a close friend or even a family member. As we see with Jimmy being willing to have Karen killed. And of course, they wanted Henry killed. You also have Henry, who turned them in and seemed to not be too bothered by it.

The movie and book have Henry’s monologue talking about how hard it was to leave the life, even with its life-threatening aspect, “The hardest thing for me was leaving the life I was running away from. Even at the end, with all the threats I was  getting and all the time I was facing behind the wall, I still loved the life. We walked in a room and the place  stopped. Everyone knew who we were, and we were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all and it was all free…And now all that is over, and that’s the hardest part. Today everything is very different. No more action. I have to wait around like everyone else. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

Also, random side note. At the time of the book and movie, a mob member could only become a “made man” if he was full Italian. In 2000, this rule was changed. You could be half Italian, but it had to be your father, so you would still have an Italian name. Even with this new rule, Henry and Jimmy wouldn’t have been eligible to be made, because neither of the dads were Italian.


I’m so glad the movie kept the scenes where a story is told from Karen’s perspective. We get more of it in the book, but I think the movie still does her justice for the most part.

In the book, it goes more into Karen finding out about Henry’s first girlfriend. In the book her name is Linda, but the movie changed it to Janice. The move keeps the key scenes, where Karen comes to her apartment to confront her, as well as when she put a gun on Henry.

Karen says of this, “I wanted him to know how desperate I had become. But still I couldn’t hurt him. How could I hurt him? I couldn’t even bring myself to leave him. The truth was no matter how bad I felt, I was still very, very attracted  to him. He could be incredible. He had a side that was so nice you wanted to bottle it. He was sweet, considerate,  sincere, soft. He had no sharp edges. He wasn’t like the other guys around him. He was young, and I was just attracted. My sisters used to say I was obsessed with him, because whenever he and I split up for a few days or even a couple of weeks, I never talked about anything else. Also, whenever we got back together after a brief separation, he always swore it was forever. No more Linda! I wanted to believe him. I think he wanted to believe it.”

In the book, before she knows about the affair, she says how she would see Linda around and Linda would be crying. At parties, at restaurants, at the “office” Henry went to. At a party Karen say her crying in the bathroom and gave her a handkerchief telling her, “Whatever guy is making you cry like this-he’s not worth it.”

The movie also includes part of her section where she talks about how a “normal” girl would not have continued to see Henry as soon as he handed her a gun to hide (the one he used to pistol whip the guy who harassed Karen). The books reads, “I’ve talked to people since those days, and I guess I must have had a predisposition for that life in the first place.  I know there are women who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide.  “A gun!” they would have yelled. “Eek! Who needs you? Get lost!” That’s what a lot of girls, a lot of my own  girlfriends would have said the minute some guy put a gun in their hands. But I’ve got to admit the truth—it turned me on.”

In the end of the book, she also says that part of her was glad to go into witness protection. Her mother could smother a person, and she was glad to have some space. This isn’t said in the movie though. She also was glad to be done with the mob life. Though I’m sure she had a hard time adjusting to the new life as well. There were times when their identities were comprised and they had to leave suddenly, without saying goodbye to any of their new friends.

Billy Batts

A crazy part of the book and movie is when Tommy kills Billy Batts. The movie follows this as it happened in the book, but the movie adds the scene where they have dinner with Tommy’s mom while Batts is in the trunk.

Also, the actor who plays Batts has been friends with Pesci since they were kids! And the actress who plays Tommy’s mom is Scorsese’s own mother!

Book or Movie

In the end, it’s hard to say which is better. The movie is a masterpiece and is part of cinema history. Although, the movie has some racist scenes that weren’t in the book. More specifically, the movie says the N-word a few times whereas the book never did. There is also a scene were Tommy’s girlfriend is talking about Sammy Davis Jr. in a racist way. I don’t doubt that mob members are or can be racist, but I guess I didn’t see the point in adding that in there.

Anyway, the movie stays surprisingly close to the truth when it comes to Henry Hill. He had an interesting story without embelishments, and Scorsese is a director who knows when to leave well enough alone.

I think I would say the book wins ultimately, but even so; the movie has become so iconic. When I read the book, I imagined their movie counterparts because how could I not?? If you liked the movie, I would recommend the book and vice versa. This was just a story that is so fascinating. You learn a lot about what goes on in the mafia, you have great character development, and it is just so dang entertaining!