The Transformations of Pinocchio

Unbelievably, things get worse. The donkey Pinocchio, having been purchased by a man who is apparently a leather-goods merchant, is thrown into the ocean with a stone tied to his neck, so that he will drown and his hide alone can be harvested. But, as he is dumped into the sea, a school of fish, sent by the Blue-Haired Fairy, who can’t bear to see him suffer, attach themselves to his body and devour all his flesh—hide, tail, guts—slimming him down to the wooden puppet he once was. This is not the only horrible scene at the end of “Pinocchio,” but, brief and blunt, it is the most appalling. They are only a donkey and a school of fish, but it somehow feels like cannibalism.

All along, the story has been devolving in another sense. That is, it has been turning into a mess. Arguably, it has been doing so from the beginning. For instance, Pinocchio started off with a completely different wood-carver, Master Cherry, who botched the job and handed the log over to Geppetto. He then disappeared from the tale, never to be seen again. Other perplexities accumulate. We start hearing about people who need to be explained and aren’t. Things are supposed to happen, and then they don’t. Things are deplored, and we’re not told why. Pinocchio’s savior, the Blue-Haired Fairy, appears first as a little girl, at a window. Within a short time, she is a beautiful grownup fairy. Sometimes she’s dead, sometimes alive. At one point, she turns into a goat, but not for long.

But the most surprising inconsistency—many readers, I think, just try to forget about it—comes at the end. Here Pinocchio has at last, with the help of the Blue-Haired Fairy, become a “real boy,” the thing he is said to have wished for from the beginning. (In fact, we don’t hear about this wish until Chapter 25.) He looks at himself in the mirror: “He no longer saw the usual image of the wooden marionette reflected there; instead he saw the lively, intelligent image of a handsome boy with chestnut brown hair and light blue eyes, and with a festive air about him that made him seem as happy as a holiday.” Really? After having, shortly before, found himself, and Geppetto, in danger of being digested by a shark, in whose cold, slimy innards they were entrapped?

Many a chapter is only a few pages long, and whatever happens in it may well be forgotten by the next chapter. In one, Pinocchio encounters a slavering mastiff; in another, he is menaced by a snake; in another, he converses with a parrot sitting in a tree. Never mind. In a few pages, he/she/it will be gone, often never to be heard from again. That, not just the tale’s fidelity to national characteristics, is why “Pinocchio” is often compared to “Don Quixote.” It is a picaresque. It goes from episode to episode.

The reader’s problem, though, is not with the change of circumstances—this is a fairy tale, after all—but with the change of tone. Before, Pinocchio was always childlike: eager, curious, wondering, blundering. Now he is as smooth and confident, as full of fake cheer as a housewife in a floor-wax commercial. “How funny I was when I was a puppet!” he exclaims. “How glad I am now that I’ve become a proper boy!” We liked him better the other way, and so, I am sure, did Collodi. Nicolas J. Perella, whose 1986 translation (in a bilingual, annotated edition) remains the best, says in his introduction that Collodi told a friend that he could not remember having written this ending, even though the manuscript shows that he did. Perhaps he was ashamed? Maybe he was drunk when he wrote it?

According to Tim Parks, a longtime translator and critic of Italian literature, Collodi was an enthusiastic drinker, gambler, and womanizer. He was also legendarily lazy and hated to revise. The final trait, I think, is the most important. Many of the chapters seem as though they were written in the last half hour before they were due at the printer. At times, Collodi sounds like an oral poet, even a rapper, making it up as he goes along. You can hear his breath, feel his energy rising and falling. A shark? Bring it on! Master Cherry, forgotten? Who cares! Jump from the luckless Pinocchio to the “real boy,” happy as a holiday? Why not? The audience was a bunch of kids. Were they going to notice?

Whatever the book’s carelessness, it was fantastically popular, and not just in Italy. According to the editors of the new edition, “Pinocchio” is the second most frequently translated work of fiction in the world. (The first is Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”) In the United States, its popularity spawned a variety of adaptations, some more moralistic, some more sentimental, and so on. In “Pinocchio Goes Postmodern,” a lively account of the puppet’s fortunes in America, two “Pinocchio” savants, Richard Wunderlich and Thomas Morrissey, track these versions and show how they fed into the Disney movie and thereby ended up occluding the original. I have conducted an informal poll of Americans I know who are interested in children’s literature, and none of them came to Collodi’s book until they had seen the Disney movie. The same is true of me.

At Disney, the project was seen as a problem almost from the start. Walt Disney was worried that Collodi’s Pinocchio was not sufficiently admirable to be the hero of a movie made by his company. Indeed, at a certain point early in production, he called a halt to work on the film, so that his writers could make changes in the story. (Many of the artists involved moved over to work on “Fantasia,” which was being made at the same time.) But, once Disney felt that the film had found its feet, he proceeded confidently. Always a high roller, he filled the movie with dazzlements. Especially amazing was the work of a new, multi-plane camera, developed by Disney technicians, that could shoot from three, five, twelve distances simultaneously: the village awakening, the birds circling the church tower, the chef fetching loaves of bread, the children leaving for school. Even today, when the film is more than eighty years old—and we have seen considerable cinematic wizardry in the meantime—these shots take your breath away. Anyone who wants a jolt of patriotic pride should watch “Ponyo” (2008), by Studio Ghibli, Japan’s famed animation studio, and note how much its artists, in drawing that movie’s tsunami, apparently learned from the violent sea storm set in motion by the whale (Disney’s upgrade of Collodi’s shark) when he discovers that, contrary to his expectation, Pinocchio and Geppetto are not going to be his dinner.

At the same time, a lot of sophisticated people noticed that Disney had moved “Pinocchio” from poor, dusty old Italy to a clean, sparkling place that looks like Tyrol—Pinocchio wears a little alpine hat with a feather—and that Geppetto’s workshop, a small, bare hovel in the Collodi original, had undergone a makeover. Now it was a large, prosperous studio filled with wonderful cuckoo clocks on which, every hour, cunningly carved figures—a mother, a drunk, a barnyard fowl—come out the doors and enact little dramas.

Plenty of moviegoers adored the clocks, but some people began to complain about the movie’s embourgeoisement, or Disneyfication, to use a word from the following decade. Foremost on the list of grievances was a change to the hero. No longer was Pinocchio the skinny, weird-looking thing with the pointy hat whom you can see in the early illustrated editions of Collodi’s text. Now he was a fat-cheeked little guy who talked like Shirley Temple and never meant to do anybody wrong. Most important, he did not turn into the self-satisfied “real boy” that Collodi produced at the end of his book. He just turned into a cute kindergartener almost identical to the cute puppet he had been before, but with flesh, rather than dowels, holding his legs together. In time, the anti-Disney chorus expanded, but more in the ranks of folklorists than among film historians. Some fairy-tale scholars still see Disney as a kind of public menace—the Marxist critic Jack Zipes has written that Disney treats fairy tales the way that the abusive parents in fairy tales treat children—but many of today’s film writers seem to regard the sentimentality and relentless uplift of the Disney films as simply part of the past: dated, but not the enemy of truth.

The influence of the Disney film can be seen in the dozens of Pinocchio versions that have followed. In 1972, there was an Italian miniseries with Gina Lollobrigida as the Blue-Haired Fairy! An American TV movie from 2000 featured Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Fairy. In 1971, there was a pornographic offering, “The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio,” reportedly a cult classic. Some people say that Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” from 2001, is effectively “Pinocchio,” too. The following year saw another live-action version, this one directed by Roberto Benigni, Italy’s beloved clown, who also played Pinocchio. Benigni stressed fantasy. Thanks to C.G.I., the carriage in the opening shot was drawn by what looked like five hundred white rats. That wasn’t the only special effect. The film is said to have been the most expensive ever made in Italy. But the whole operation was scuttled by Benigni’s near-hysterical idea of comic acting, which involves his jerking and gesticulating and hopping around as if someone had set his feet on fire. This movie received some of the worst reviews in the history of film criticism.

That doesn’t seem to have discouraged anybody. In 2019, we got the “Pinocchio” of Matteo Garrone, who is known for his unflinching neo-neo-realist films—above all, “Gomorrah,” about the Neapolitan Mafia—but who has also made some thrilling fairy-tale films. His live-action “Pinocchio” comes from the latter department of his brain. He told the press that he first story-boarded “Pinocchio” at age six. His film solves the problem, unavoidable in live-action versions, of how to present a hero who is half human and half fabrication. The makers of the 1931 “Frankenstein” faced the same difficulty, but they had Boris Karloff, a veteran actor, whereas Garrone, in casting his Pinocchio, chose a child, Federico Ielapi, who, though he’d had some TV experience, was only eight years old. Ielapi was professional enough, however, to endure the daily three-hour makeup sessions required to make him a cross between a boy and a piece of wood. (Again, think Surrealism.) And he mastered what presumably was Garrone’s idea: a face that is normally expressionless but with semi-legible feelings just detectable under the wood. When his Pinocchio lied, his nose grew, but in a way that was visceral, physical, almost painful. And then—again, this hurt, physically—woodpeckers came and landed on his nose and pecked it back to normal length. And the whole time, the small Ielapi rode the razor’s edge between human and wooden. Touchingly, Garrone cast Roberto Benigni as an age-appropriate Geppetto, and Benigni was as good as a doting father as he had been bad as a naughty puppet. Ielapi told interviewers how much he liked working with Benigni. Every day on the set, he reported, Benigni showed him tricks and dreamed up ways to keep him entertained.

Thanks to COVID-19, there is more than one new “Pinocchio” sitting on the shelf. The Disney Company has made a live-action-plus-C.G.I. version of its famous cartoon, just as it did with “Beauty and the Beast.” Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) directed, with a stellar cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Barack Obama’s anger translator, as the Fox, and the gravel-voiced Lorraine Bracco as Sofia the Seagull, a character who isn’t in the original story but has been written in apparently just so that Zemeckis could use Bracco. Speaking of which, Zemeckis’s Geppetto is Tom Hanks, America’s dad. Another “Pinocchio” that is finally on its way is a stop-motion animated musical by the wild-minded Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Like Garrone, del Toro has said that the story captivated him as a child. There have been rumors of yet another version in the works, directed by Ron Howard and starring Robert Downey, Jr.

Imagine! Three more “Pinocchio”s! One wonders why a skinny, rebarbative marionette should be getting so much attention. But I have been told by film historians that the classic ending of a movie is the making or remaking of a family. Actually, it needn’t be a movie. A lot of Shakespeare’s plays fit that formula, as do many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Ántonia Shimerda—their families start off badly broken. Dead fathers, dead mothers, no house, no dinner. Fiction, with a different kind of love story, comes in to heal life’s wound, or tries. ♦

An earlier version of this article misidentified a role played by Keegan-Michael Key.

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