Over the years, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), which were released only two years apart, have become entwined with each other in our minds. Therefore, when The Godfather: Part III (1990) was released sixteen years after the first sequel, audiences believed that the transition between the second and third films would be seamless.
The Godfather Saga, which aired as a four-part miniseries on NBC in 1977, reimagined the first two pictures as one chronological narrative. Not only did this special do away with the flashback elements of The Godfather: Part II and include additional footage not yet seen in the theatrical versions, but it was also advertised as “the complete novel for television.”
With this in mind, we are more accurate to imagine The Godfather: Part III not as a sequel to the first and second films, but rather as a coda or an epilogue to a novel, which is how director Francis Ford Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo viewed the film from the start of developing the project.
Their intention was clear in the original title the creators gave the film: The Death of Michael Corleone.
However, Paramount Pictures insisted that this title be replaced by the simpler and ultimately final title that we have today, The Godfather: Part III. After a slew of strong but ultimately forgettable films in the 80’s, such as The Outsiders (1983), Gardens of Stone (1987), and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), Coppola was was no longer the cinematic giant he was in the 70’s and not in a position to overturn the studio's decision.
Artistically, though, The Death of Michael Corleone is intriguing. The title suggests a more over-the-top death for the story's titular character -- certainly one more extravagant than the final image we're given of Michael (Al Pacino) old and alone in Sicily. Instead, throughout The Godfather: Part III, Michael is forced to confront and be punished for the sins he has committed throughout his days. He lives with the guilt of ordering the death of his brother, loses his wife and children, and ultimately sees his daughter, Kay (Sophia Coppola), die of a gunshot that was meant for him. It is this emotional and spiritual downfall, then, that the original title refers to in outlining the true focus of this Godfather epilogue.
After all this Shakespearean tragedy, Michael's physical death only serves as a definite, and perhaps merciful, end to Michael’s corrupt life.