Nicholas Barber writes that Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an acclaimed new film that brings out the darkness in this 150-year-old children’s tale.
This year saw the release of two major Pinocchio films, but they are easily distinguished. One of them is Robert Zemeckis’ live-action remake of the 1940 Walt Disney cartoon, which stars Tom Hanks as a lovable Geppetto and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiminy Cricket. The other, directed by Guillermo del Toro, depicts Geppetto’s real-life son being killed by a WWII bomb, Geppetto (David Bradley) carving a wooden boy in a drunken rage, and Mussolini’s fascists ruling over Italy. Then there are the title character’s multiple deaths. “In our film, Pinocchio dies three or four times and has a dialogue with Death,” del Toro tells BBC Culture. and Death teaches him that the only way to truly have a human existence is to end it with death. There are approximately 60 film versions of Pinocchio, and I would bet hard money that it does not exist in any of the other 60.”
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The director has even included his name in the full title of the stop-motion film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which is understandable given that it could be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro production. Its eerie magical creatures resemble those in 2004’s Hellboy, and the conflict between an unconventional protagonist (Gregory Mann) and a vengeful government official (Ron Perlman) echoes that in The Shape of Water (2017). “We made it clear from the start that this film was in the same vein as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro says, referring to two of his previous horror fantasies that combined the supernatural and the Spanish Civil War. “I made it clear [to Netflix, which funded the film] that I’m not making this for kids or soccer parents; I’m making it for myself and my team.”
I saw the Disney film when I was very young, and it’s one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen – Guillermo del Toro
As idiosyncratic as del Toro’s vision is, though, he isn’t taking a sweet fairy tale and making it horrifying. Internationally, the best-known telling of the story is still the Disney cartoon, and in that, Pinocchio was turned into a donkey and swallowed by a giant sea monster. “I saw the Disney film at a very early age,” says del Toro, “and it’s one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen.”
The original book is scarier still. As del Toro says, there have been 60-odd Pinocchio films, and “even before I saw the Disney film I saw him in colouring books and picture books”. But the novel stands apart from all of them as one of the strangest and most disturbing classics in children’s literature.
Its author is Carlo Lorenzini, who took his pseudonym, Carlo Collodi, from his mother’s hometown. A civil servant, political journalist and author, he was employed by a Florentine publisher in 1875 to translate a selection of 17th-and-18th-Century French fairy tales. This volume was so successful that Collodi was asked to write more children’s stories, preferably with strong moral messages. In 1881, La storia di un burattino (The story of a puppet) was published as a weekly serial in a children’s newspaper.
Anyone who knows Pinocchio only from his screen incarnations should beware. Geppetto is poorer than he is in either the Disney films or the del Toro one: he has a fire painted on the wall because he can’t afford the fuel for a real one. The character we know as Jiminy Cricket, or Sebastian J Cricket (Ewan McGregor) in del Toro’s version, is simply the Talking Cricket. And he lasts for a grand total of two pages before Pinocchio throws a mallet at him, and “he was stuck to the wall stone dead”. The Blue Fairy is a ghostly Little Girl who speaks “without moving her lips… in a faint voice that seemed to come from the other world”. And the Cat and the Fox string Pinocchio up from an oak tree. “The noose, growing tighter around his neck all the time, was choking him,” writes Collodi. “He could feel death approaching…”
To make matters even grimmer, this could have been the end of the story. Collodi had planned to leave his hapless hero dangling from the noose, and it wasn’t until readers begged for further instalments that the serial was resumed four months later. The next section isn’t quite as macabre: the dead Little Girl is reborn as a fairy. But it’s still perplexingly weird. Why exactly does Pinocchio have a brief encounter with a giant snake that laughs itself to death?
Fear of an adult world
The book’s closest counterparts in English are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. The latter was published in 1871, 10 years before Pinocchio; Lewis Carroll’s tales were released as a Disney film in 1951, 11 years after Pinocchio. Ann Lawson Lucas, who translated and introduced the Oxford University Press edition of Pinocchio, admits that both can be off-putting to children: “Alice’s adventures can seem frightening (or irritating) and Pinocchio’s misadventures tiresome (or nightmarish),” she tells BBC Culture. For adults, Collodi’s increasingly bizarre narrative raises the questions of what is being satirised and symbolised, and what Collodi was saying about the newly unified (in 1871) Kingdom of Italy.
Pinocchio “has been compared to the Odyssey and to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” says Lucas in her introduction. “In Italy especially, as much has been written about it and as many interpretations put forward as for those great works of world literature… There have been ideological, Marxist, philosophical, anthropological, psychoanalytical and Freudian readings.”
One reading even argues that Pinocchio is a Christ figure, because Geppetto is a carpenter whose name is a diminutive of Giuseppe, or Joseph, and the Blue Fairy’s colour scheme matches the blue mantle traditionally worn by the Virgin Mary. Lucas rejects this interpretation, but it is echoed in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio when the living puppet gazes at a crucifix and muses, “He’s made of wood, too. Why does everyone like him, not me?”