The many faces of the puppet who wanted to be a real boy

Pinocchio might have been written for children and interpreted as a coming-of-age story, but it has always been a story about coming into being.

Pinocchio, the puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy, is arguably best known in the English-speaking world through the 1940 Disney film. However, the original Le avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio), written by Italian revolutionary and satirist Carlo Collodi in 1881–82, was intended to be read on multiple levels. On the surface, it operates as a moral tale, urging children to stay in school to avoid becoming “donkeys,” literal beasts of burden. However, it is also a satire of the newly-unified Italian state, a darkly picaresque tragicomedy in which Italians could recognize their national strengths and foibles. The many versions of the Pinocchio story that have followed all have their share of social commentary, including the Disney version. It’s a lot for one little boy to carry on his shoulders. Lucky for him that he’s made of stout wood.

Carlo Collodi, whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini, was born in Florence in 1826 in what was then the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. As a young man, Collodi fought in the Wars of Italian Unification, known in Italy as the Risorgimento. Afterward, he became a journalist, gaining a reputation as a liberal satirist. Although Collodi certainly wrote Pinocchio for children– it first appeared in weekly installments in the children’s newspaper Giornale per i bambini–he used the story to express his disillusionment with the failings of the newly-minted Italian state. In the 2021 English version, translators John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna point out in their introduction that Collodi’s “fairy tale” is, in fact, a searing indictment of the widespread poverty, corruption, poor education, and social discord that plagued Italy in the 1880s. Pinocchio’s quest to become a real boy mirrors what Collodi saw as the still incomplete project of the Risorgimento. Like the makeshift puppet boy, only by relying on native pluck and courage could this construct of disparate parts overcome the many hardships and setbacks along his path before it could achieve anything resembling a unified identity.

Little of Collodi’s commentary would make it into Walt Disney’s film. In the studio’s much-anticipated second feature-length animation (coming after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937), the Italian setting is almost completely erased. Instead, the story takes place in a snowy, mountainous country resembling Central Europe, with the only recognizably Italian character being the villainous puppet master Stromboli, named after the volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. The Stromboli character is little more than a swarthy-skinned racist stereotype, prone to gesticulating wildly and cursing in an Italian gibberish invented by the Dutch actor who voiced the role, Charles Judel.

Roberto Benigni in Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio

These changes, however, were more than cosmetic. Removing the Italian setting was a deliberate political choice to distance the animated feature from Mussolini’s Italy, which would join World War II on the side of Nazi Germany in June 1940, barely three months after the film’s release. Disney alters Pinocchio’s key message profoundly, shifting it from a call for Italian national unity to a celebration of American values, which one critic described as “deferred gratification, self-denial, thrift, and perseverance.” Thus, Disney’s Pinocchio is famously punished by having his nose grow whenever he tells a lie, a device that barely appears in the original story. Just as Collodi’s tale was a restorative model for Italian society of the post-Risorgimento period, Disney’s film was a moral template for the type of people Americans would need to become with war looming on their horizon. The Disney version is more a knowing reflection of world events than the film is usually credited with.

Finally, two recent film versions, one directed by an Italian and the other by a Mexican, both attempt to reclaim Pinocchio while updating the story to reflect contemporary concerns.

A scene from Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio, 2019

When Matteo Garrone’s Italian production of Pinocchio was released in 2019, English-language critics were baffled, alternately praising its visuals and storytelling and recoiling at what they saw as wanton grotesquery. One reviewer for The Independent described the film as “A beautiful, nightmarish vision destined to frighten children.” Garrone’s version is arguably the most faithful celluloid adaptation yet, building on the elements of Collodi’s social critique that remain relevant for Italian society today, such as the persistence of poverty and judicial corruption.

An absurdist scene where an anthropomorphic gorilla-as-judge sentences Pinocchio to jail for honesty is a particular standout. Garrone’s film departs significantly from the book in its treatment of children. Collodi’s message to his young readers to stay in school is much more circumspect here. When Pinocchio finally goes to school, he encounters a sadistic cane-wielding teacher who teaches by rote and punishes his students by making them kneel on dried chickpeas. Children are otherwise conspicuously absent from the film except for the scenes in the classroom and Toyland (reimagined here as a walled compound in rural Puglia). This Italy is strangely quiet and underpopulated, with most of the adult characters we encounter being middle-aged or elderly. With Italy’s population aging rapidly and in steep decline–some projections tipping it to drop by more than four million people over the next twenty-five years–the allegory on the country’s current trajectory would not be lost on Italian audiences.

A scene from Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro, 2022

At the other extreme, Guillermo del Toro’s 2022 stop-motion retelling traverses a terrain perhaps furthest from the original story. Many of Collodi’s characters and incidents are either cut or reimagined–Geppetto loses an actual human son in an air raid during World War I, while Pinocchio meets the personification of Death in the form of a ghostly chimera voiced by Tilda Swinton. Del Toro also reverses Disney’s de-Italianisation of the story by setting the story explicitly in Fascist Italy. As such, the film functions as an anti-authoritarian parable, where Pinocchio’s irrepressible spirit ironically makes him the only free being in a totalitarian state of mindless puppets. In the single greatest departure from Collodi, del Toro’s puppet never transitions to become a “real” boy. He does not need to. Del Toro seems to be saying that Pinocchio is intrinsically more human than his makers by the strength of his heart.

In its many guises, the Pinocchio story prompts us to question whether we are truly human or puppets. However you see yourself, future storytellers will no doubt use Pinocchio again to explore how the human experience is never set in stone–or carved from wood, for that matter. Like Pinocchio, we are more than the material we are made from.

Cover image: Pinocchio as represented in the 1940 Disney adaptation