David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to The Sopranos, but the change in setting will make the feature film much more similar in tone to Goodfellas — dramatically shifting a key theme from the original HBO series. Goodfellas follows the life of mid-level mob associate Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from the mid-1950s up to 1980. The Sopranos was set a generation later, from the late ’90s until the mid-2000s — making it a rare mafia-based story with a contemporary setting. Because The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel, it’s set in the past — and will also have all the trappings that come along with any period piece.
Chase, the creator and showrunner of The Sopranos, has credited Martin Scorsese’s hit 1990 biographical film Goodfellas as a major source of inspiration for him [via The Ringer] — although the connection between the two goes without saying. In addition to the many, many references and homages to Goodfellas, the tone of The Sopranos is clearly a continuation of the distinct tone in Scorsese’s film. Unlike its predecessor The Godfather — which imbues its characters with a sense of classism, honor, and family pride — Goodfellas reveals a harsh truth about organized crime: whether or not one sympathizes with Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, he is undeniable a selfish, evil man whose primary motivations are lust, anger and greed.
The Sopranos took the ideas of Goodfellas one step further: like Henry Hill, Tony Soprano was a corrupt man who was drawn to a life of crime for purely selfish reasons; however, because The Sopranos had a contemporary setting, the events seem much less romantic. The nostalgic aspect of Goodfellas, and even The Godfather, hide the severity of the characters’ actions, making it easier to relate to them. In The Sopranos, the characters are still likable, but their often sociopathic actions are more blatantly immoral, and the lifestyle is a lot less appealing because of it.
Arguably the most important theme in The Sopranos is the anxiety of American decay — this is clear from the grey, industrial-heavy shots of New Jersey seen in The Sopranos‘ opening theme. Unlike Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Tony experiences life in the mafia after the golden age has ended. Cocaine and other drug trafficking was very lucrative for organized crime rings in the 1960s and 1970s, but a number of factors – most notably, the RICO act (referenced frequently in The Sopranos) — significantly impacted such activities. There’s a sense in Goodfellas that the “good times” are over by 1980, which is a major contributing factor (at least thematically) to Henry’s decision to enter witness protection. The Sopranos is set two decades later, and things have only gone downhill since then.
Because The Many Saints of Newark is set in 1967, it’s very unlikely that it will attempt the same theme of decline that’s so prevalent in the original series. The Sopranos’ characters in The Many Saints of Newark are still young and idealistic (like Tony and his buddy Paulie), while the older generation — most notably the movie’s lead, Dickie Moltisanti — are enjoying the kind of highlife that no longer existed in 1999. As a result, the prequel can, at best, highlight the ugly side of the lifestyle — much like Goodfellas does — while hinting at the inevitable decay viewers know is in store for the characters.
There are other ways that viewers can expect The Many Saints of Newark to feel like Goodfellas — the inclusion of Ray Liotta as Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti in the prequel being a major one. The fact that both are movies is another — The Sopranos being serialized television makes for a very different storytelling format. Regardless, Chase’s involvement as a writer and producer for the movie means that viewers can expect the movie to both feel like a continuation of The Sopranos as well as a divergence — even if Chase didn’t get the theatrical release he wanted.