Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio
Once upon a time there was…‘A king,’ my little readers will say right away. No, children, you are wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.” Thus begins The Adventures of Pinocchio, starring a long-nosed puppet who has been one of the world’s most immediately recognizable characters since his creation more than a century ago by a Tuscan writer, Carlo Lorenzini, known as Collodi.
The latest references to Pinocchio are to be found in what seems at first a rather unlikely place, a film by Steven Spielberg. The film is A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), based on Stanley Kubrick’s project, cut short by Kubrick’s death, in which a robot with emotions longs to become a real boy. In an essentially negative review, New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote about A.I.: “The story is based explicitly in Pinocchio, but it gives us a queasy feeling from the beginning. Have the filmmakers forgotten that Pinocchio is a scamp? He’s disobedient and lazy, he lies, he has a nose that rather famously gets longer. Pinocchio wants to be a real person because he’s tired of being knocked around as a puppet. He is redeemed by love for his wood-carver ‘father’ just at the very end of the tale.”
I would wager that this fairly simplistic reading of Pinocchio is based more on memories of Walt Disney’s 1940 film version than on the original tale, published first in serial form and then as a book in 1883. In Collodi’s complex story, there are many stimuli for “queasy feelings,” as well as for other diverse emotional and intellectual responses, which careful readers, including prominent Italian and American authors, have experienced and used in order to shape Pinocchios of their own. Was the original Pinocchio merely a “scamp” who was simply “redeemed” by his putative father? Did he wish to be a real boy only because “he was tired of being knocked around as a puppet”? I don’t think so, nor do the many writers and filmmakers who have been inspired by the world’s most persistent puppet.
The story of Pinocchio has not only entertained generations of children around the world—according to several sources, it is outsold worldwide only by the Bible—it has also provided fuel for many Italian and other writers of adult fiction and has been the inspiration for cinematic references that are instantly recognizable more than 100 years since Collodi first created the puppet. A contemporary archetype, the long-nosed, not quite human boy figure has entered into global popular culture (how many countless Pinocchio puppets, toys, statues, cartoons, references in ads, and so on must there now exist?), as well as into high literary culture, most visibly in his homeland but also in the United States and all over the world.
Although he created
one of the most famous sets of fathers and children, Carlo Lorenzini
was a lifelong bachelor. Born in
Pinocchio was written in the
final phase of Collodi’s career, the decade before he died in 1890.
Although he was well respected during his lifetime as an Italian writer
and social commentator, his fame didn’t really begin to grow until Pinocchio
was first translated into English in 1892 and then in a widely read
Everyman’s edition of 1911. In
Collodi lived in a complex period of
Italian history, when there was both a great push for unification and
much ambivalence about what unity would bring to a country deeply tied
to local tradition, style, life, and customs. The writer lived in a
reality of a unified nation, a unification that he, who was a republican
against the monarchs, had supported with true ambivalence. Collodi’s
was a relatively new genre in Collodi’s time. The idea of such
a genre was really unknown until the mid-1800s, when children became
identified as a particular class of being. Pinocchio is, however,
a book for both children and adults. Pinocchio can be read
as a kind of fairy tale, but it can also be read as belonging to a very
Tuscan tradition. The Tuscan tradition of the novella, or short
story, goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron and also to classical
sources such as Homer and Dante—not to speak of the Bible. The critic
Glauco Cambon has written, “Storytelling is a folk art in the Tuscan
countryside, and has been for centuries. Pinocchio’s relentless
variety of narrative incident, its alertness to social types, its tongue-in-cheek
wisdom are of a piece with that illustrious tradition.” Cambon also
highlights the importance of the Odyssey, the Aeneid,
and The Divine Comedy to Pinocchio’s structure and
style, and he concludes, “In a place like
Written and published serially, much
as Charles Dickens’s fiction was published, the book we now think of
as a unified tale was published in two distinct parts over a three-year
period. The first part, “La storia di un burattino” (The story of a
puppet), was published over several months in 1881 in the Giornale
per i bambini, a popular children’s magazine. The first 15 chapters
of the unified book are made up of these pieces, and in the last of
them Pinocchio is hanged. Collodi killed off his character, evidently
with no plans of resurrecting him. But the editor of the Giornale
pleaded with him to continue the popular story, and so in 1882 and 1883
Collodi published piecemeal the second part, “Le avventure di Pinocchio,”
which became chapters 16 to 36 of the book. There was a further continuation
of Pinocchio—hardly known to anyone outside
Indeed Collodi’s original contains few positive, educational, pedagogical, or moral elements—especially in the first part, which is made up mostly of negative adventures, Pinocchio getting himself into trouble. There are no lessons drawn from these experiences. Only in the second part is the idea that Pinocchio wants to be a boy introduced, and this introduction occurs just ten chapters before the book ends; it doesn’t dominate the story. Instead we have the sense that Pinocchio for the most part is perfectly happy to be a puppet. There’s a narrative reason for this: negative adventures—danger and so on—are much more fun to write and to read than are a series of moral lessons.
Pinocchio’s long nose and his predilection for lying are not at all highlighted in Collodi’s original episodic tale. Pinocchio does have a long nose, but he is made with a long nose, born with a long nose. The emphasis that we remember so well from Disney’s version of the drastically growing nose is not there, nor is there much emphasis on the fact that Pinocchio lies. He does all sorts of things, but they are seen as typical children’s pecadillos: he loafs, he’s disobedient, he skips school.
A significant addition to the book’s second half is the figure of the Blue Fairy, a civilizing female influence on the unruly puppet who had, until her appearance, lived in an entirely masculine world. The puppet’s “birth” is accomplished without any maternal involvement, but his “rebirth” as a real boy takes place under the sign of the mother, as if Collodi somehow realized that a motherless creation is inevitably monstrous (à la Frankenstein) and doomed to exclusion from the human family. The Blue Fairy is an extremely interesting character, moving from a little girl who is dying to a grown-up who appears at times to be a sister, a love interest, and a mother. She is a complicated figure: she’s mean to Pinocchio, she punishes Pinocchio, and of course she disappears at story’s end. She has a role, a function, but she doesn’t stay. There is no push for a happy family ending. Some Italian critics, however, have found a family of sorts in Pinocchio, reading the book as a Christological allegory: the Blue Fairy is a Virgin Mary, since blue is the Virgin’s iconographic color; Geppetto is the nickname for Giuseppe, or Joseph; and the little puppet, the son of a carpenter, must die in order to be reborn as a transfigured being.
The Blue Fairy is not the only disquieting figure. Pinocchio himself (itself?) is mysterious from the word go. He is in a piece of wood. He is not carved into a puppet who then begins to talk. The piece of wood talks, before it has taken on form, an event that links the tale with various traditions of myth, especially Celtic myth—of talking trees, of creatures that hide in material, waiting to emerge magically. In fact Pinocchio has a failed father, the man who first decides to carve the mysterious piece of wood. However, he wanted to carve it into a table leg. This pragmatic carver is nicknamed Ciliegia, or Cherry, because he has a very big red nose—he’s a drinker. (Collodi’s interest in the nose as a sign of character is apparent: in A Novel in Steam, he was already meditating on the nose: “I would rather like it if physiologists could tell me which sympathetic nerves exist between the heart and the nose and how it comes to pass that the seat of affections and passions finds itself in direct correspondence with that fleshy protuberance, of infinitely variable form and size, which divides the surface of the human face into two more or less equal sections!” Clearly, Collodi had a fascination with the nose—a fascination that has given Freudian critics great delight.)
Cherry, however, is unsuccessful in his carving because the little piece of wood begins to cry out, “Don’t hit me so hard! Stop! You’re tickling my belly!” Frightened, Cherry decides to give it to his friend Geppetto, who decides that he will make a puppet. However, his reason for making a puppet is not Disney’s reason. He doesn’t want a little son figure. He wants the puppet to earn his living. Geppetto’s primary problem is poverty, dire poverty. He says, “I will make a puppet who can dance, and fence, and make daredevil leaps, and then we shall travel the world, seeking our wine and bread.” He names his little puppet “Pinocchio”—a Tuscan variant on pignolo, or pinenut. Within the name itself is the message that food is extremely important in this peasant world. In fact the theme of hunger and of looking for something to eat dominates Pinocchio. It’s a book about a poverty-stricken, peasant rural class, looking for food, looking for sustenance.
There are many eerie elements in Collodi’s book: Gothic night scenes, Pinocchio’s hanging; funereal images surrounding the dying little girl with blue hair. However, Pinocchio never becomes a truly scary Gothic tale simply because of its lively narrative tone, a grandfatherly, vernacular Tuscan that carries Pinocchio ever onward through his varied adventures. Combined with the ancient, recognizable themes of Pinocchio’s journeys—initiation into maturity, the overcoming of hardships, and the search for a mother’s love—the result is a book with mainstream appeal.
Over the past half century Pinocchio’s narrative verve and its darker, more transgressive qualities have appealed to numerous contemporary writers. Unfortunately most of the works by Italian authors have not been translated in this country. But readers may be familiar with Italo Calvino’s first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The path to the nest of spiders, 1947), the story of a little boy’s view of the Italian resistance. The protagonist’s name is Pin—obviously, a shortened form of Pinocchio, and the novel is structured very much like The Adventures of Pinocchio. In fact Calvino has said that Pinocchio is one of his all-time favorite books; by that, he doesn’t mean children’s books, he means all books.
A wonderful little volume called Povero
Pinocchio! (Poor Pinocchio!) is made up of linguistic games that
Umberto Eco created for his students at the
Another variation on the Pinocchio theme
comes from the American writer Robert Coover, AM’65. In 1991 Coover—a
postmodern, experimental prose writer who teaches at
have wanted to bring Collodi’s tale to the screen, including
Federico Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola. Neither ever did, although
Fellini’s final film, La voce della luna (The voice of the
moon), starring Roberto Benigni, has overt allusions to the puppet’s
story. However, hundreds of film and television versions have been made
in every culture imaginable: Italian, French, Russian, German, Japanese,
African, and so on. Even Japanese anime cartoons owe a partial debt
to Pinocchio: the popular character AstroBoy is based on the puppet.
The latest cinematic reincarnation has already occurred in
Although it opened in
Like Roberto Benigni’s film, Walt Disney’s animated version of Collodi’s tale received mixed reviews. But it was universally hailed as being amazing in its technical innovation. Film critic Roger Ebert, X’70, has described several groundbreaking techniques in Pinocchio, including breaking the frame, by means of which it is implied that there is a world outside the screen. This common technique of live-action film had never been done in animation until Disney. One scene in which you see this very clearly is when the whale is sneezing out Pinocchio and Geppetto. All we see are Pinocchio and Geppetto being sneezed out and then sucked back, sneezed out and sucked back. But there is the palpable sense that the monstrous creature is right at the edge of the frame, just beyond our sight. Another innovation that Ebert notes is the use of the “multiplane camera,” a Disney invention that allowed drawings in three dimensions. The camera seems to pass through foreground drawings on its way into the frame, creating a sense of depth. This technique is seen in the opening aerial shot of Pinocchio’s village, passing through several levels of drawings, taking us deeper into the village, until we arrive at the closeup of the interior of Geppetto’s cottage.
Disney’s work is an odd and sometimes
disturbing combination of American and European elements. The character
of Jiminy Cricket, a kind of insect Will Rogers, is perhaps the most
important American note. But the settings are very European, although
they look more like a Bavarian village than an Italian village, and
many of the characters are
The Blue Fairy is also disturbing or “queasy making,” though much less deeply so. The complexity of the book’s character is gone. Disney’s Blue Fairy is a bimbo, something like a 1930s starlet. There’s nothing mysterious—or maternal—about her. She flits in and out of the film and mouths a lot of simplistic, moralistic stuff, but she has no real function. Her single goal is to get Pinocchio to be a good, obedient boy, back in the warm protection of Geppetto’s fatherly space where mothers are simply not needed.
It is nonetheless a great movie, wonderful to watch, and it is a film with an allegory of itself imbedded in it: it is an animated film in which the main character is precisely a nonhuman who is animated, thus becoming a simulated “human.” There are several scenes in Geppetto’s workshop in which the little wooden toys that he has made—the clock, the toys, the moveable puppets—are all turned on. In this pre-film world, little carved mechanical figures are made to move just as drawn figures will be made to move on the screen. To me this is a symbol of the tremendous love for animation that went into the film, a collective effort when the world of animation was just opening up. In these scenes without any narrative function, Disney and his team of artists were revealing something of the fascination that animation exercises perhaps as much on its creators as on those who enjoy the fruits of their labors.
However, there is a dark side to this
urge to create life (even if only simulated life). While Geppetto is
the version in bono of the artist as benevolent God, delighting
in his “son,”
The fascinating question of what constitutes
the boundary between humans and non- or post-humans informs Spielberg’s
recent film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. In addition to
the film’s explicit references to the tale of Pinocchio—the human mother
reads the puppet’s story to her robot or “mecha” son, who then decides
he wants to be human and, upon his expulsion from the home, he has a
series of Pinocchio-like negative adventures as he searches for the
Blue Fairy—it is possible to see the film, like Disney’s Pinocchio,
as a self-allegorical work. In Collodi’s tale, in Disney’s film, and
in A.I. the puppet (or robot) is created by Godlike fathers
as a child figure to serve the needs, material or emotional, of the
parent. Collodi’s Geppetto wants his puppet to help him make a living,
Disney’s Geppetto wants his puppet to give him companionship and love,
and Spielberg’s mecha, David, is created specifically and uniquely in
order to love his human parents unconditionally. Geppetto is a craftsman,
while the mecha’s creator, Dr. Hobby, is a scientist. Nonetheless, they
are, artists or scientists, all figures of the male creator who appropriates
the procreativity of the maternal realm, as they singlehandedly “give
birth to” their “sons,” effectively excluding women from their worlds
except in highly idealized and symbolic roles. In A.I. when an associate
of the apparently benign designer of mechas makes what critic J. Hoberman
calls “an obscure moral objection” to Hobby’s creation of “a robot child
with a love that will never end,” Hobby’s reply is, “Didn’t God create
Adam to love him?” Hoberman comments, “Yes, of course, and look what
happened to him.” In fact, the mecha David is also expelled from
Such elements make the story of Pinocchio much more than a simplistic lesson in the importance of obedience and conformity. Human creativity, whether an art, a craft, or a technology, can yield astounding results, but the power to bring into being real or simulated versions of ourselves is fraught with dangers, not the least of which is the illusion of total control over the creatures we make. The anomalous, the abject, or the sheer excess of individual desire—all historically associated with the feminine sphere—cannot be tamed or repressed merely by admonishments to conform to the Law of the Father, to be “good little boys.” So, happily, Pinocchio goes on fleeing his destiny as a “good boy like all the others,” until, sadly, that destiny catches up with him. Collodi enlisted the aid of the feminine in the taming of the puppet, but it is worth remembering that, at the end of the tale, the Blue Fairy only appears in a dream to Pinocchio, as the perfect mother he would wish her to be. What or who in fact she may truly be or truly desire is known only to her. Similarly, the mecha David is “reunited” briefly with the mother of his dreams at the end of A.I., but neither she nor he is real, and their “perfect day” of mother-son bonding is disturbingly hollow. Pinocchio’s and David’s “dreams come true,” as Disney’s Jiminy Cricket so movingly sings, but at what price? Who put these dreams of perfect goodness and filial bonding into their heads? In reality, boys’ dreams of idealized mother-figures might be comforting to them, but the dreams of their fathers or father-figures who are avid for total control of their sons can be, if realized, our worst nightmares come to life.
Rebecca West, professor in Romance
languages & literatures and cinema/media studies, is also director
of the University’s Center for Gender Studies and the author of Eugenio
Montale: Poet on the Edge (Harvard University Press, 1981) and Gianni
Celati: The Craft of Everyday Storytelling (
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