No Strings

Bee Wilson

If you only know the Disney film, it comes as a shock to read the original story of Pinocchio and discover that the Talking Cricket is killed by Pinocchio at their very first meeting. This unusual creature, who has lived in Geppetto’s house for a hundred years, offers Pinocchio a ‘great truth’, solemnly advising him that he will never come to any good if he doesn’t find a useful occupation, adding that he pities him for being a puppet.

At these last words, Pinocchio jumped up in a rage, grabbed a wooden mallet from the workbench, and flung it at the Talking Cricket.

Perhaps he didn’t mean to hit him at all, but unfortunately he hit him square on the head. With his last breath the poor Cricket cried cree-cree-cree and then died on the spot, stuck to the wall.

We are only in Chapter 4 (of 36) and already all our expectations must be overturned. In Disney, the adorable top-hatted Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio’s perpetual companion, his ‘conscience’ as he goes on his travels. With his huge Mickey Mouse eyes and bashful smile, Jiminy, voiced by Cliff Edwards, is the character who opens and closes the film with ‘When You Wish upon a Star’. Jiminy insistently lightens the darkness of Pinocchio’s experiences with his jaunty tunes and simple moral laws.

Take the straight and narrow path
And if you start to slide
Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle!
And always let your conscience be your guide.

In Carlo Collodi’s original, there is no time or inclination for moral whistling. Peasant Tuscany in the 1880s is a much harsher world than Disney’s Mitteleuropean fantasy of 1940. In Collodi’s book, conscience is mocked by hunger and sages are ignored or destroyed by impetuous children.

So complete has been the dominance of the Disney Pinocchio that it is Collodi’s original that has come to seem like the revised version. As Richard Wunderlich and Thomas Morrissey write in their study of Pinocchio in America, ‘Pinocchio’ Goes Postmodern (2002), Collodi’s novel is now merely a ‘version among versions’: an adult version in their view, unsuitable for children, because no children’s book would allow poor Jiminy to be squashed. ‘We have repeatedly encountered people who have reacted to . . . the killing of the cricket’ as ‘repellent’ and ‘adult’, Wunderlich and Morrissey observe. But why? There are plenty of children’s books in which much worse things happen than the semi-accidental death of an insect. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books feature a pig being butchered and wild talk of Indian massacres, but no one calls The Little House in the Big Woods ‘repellent’. The difference is that Wilder writes in a purely realist register. Collodi is more heartless, using realism as a tool to undercut allegory – which does for the Pinocchio that most of us grew up with. It isn’t just Jiminy who is splatted against the wall, but the whole Disney dreamworld, and the encouraging delusion that good things come easily to those who wish hard enough.

‘If your heart is in your dream,’ Jiminy sings in the film, ‘No request is too extreme/ When you wish upon a star/As dreamers do.’ An angelic chorus then chimes in to assure us that ‘Fate is kind.’ But Collodi’s Fate isn’t kind. The presiding spirit of the book is ‘i casi son tanti’ (one of Geppetto’s sayings): anything can happen, and probably will. In the course of his picaresque journey, Collodi’s Pinocchio has his feet burned off, is used as firewood, defrauded of all his money, hanged by his neck from a tree by murderers, caught in a weasel trap, imprisoned in a doghouse, nearly fried and eaten by a fisherman, turned into a donkey, whipped by a ringmaster in a circus and swallowed by a giant shark. Nor is Pinocchio himself the sweet hapless innocent of the Disney film, as his short way with the cricket suggests, but a wilful, greedy and occasionally vindictive brat. For much of the book, he is less concerned with becoming a real live boy than with satisfying his most immediate appetites.

Coming to Collodi more than a hundred years later, and reading it as a revision of Disney rather than the model for it, we’re inclined to see it as a work of subversion. In the film, the Blue Fairy resembles an angelic Jean Harlow, all feminine sweetness and sparkle, a blonde twin of Disney’s Snow White, a beauty who reduces all boys and men to blushing idiots. In the book, she is changeable and sprite-like, the girl with ‘sky-blue hair’, capable of switching from Pinocchio’s sister to his mother to a strange goat with dazzling sky-blue fleece. She has no wings or fairy wand. Stromboli, the film’s theatrical impresario, is the original’s Fire-Eater the puppet-master, a monster who can show pity only by sneezing. Geppetto is no longer a benevolent toy-maker leading a comfortable life in his cosy little workshop with his goldfish, his cat and his bad German accent, but a poverty-stricken and hot-tempered old fool. His initial motivation for making a boy out of wood is not paternal yearning but greed: ‘I thought I’d make myself a nice wooden puppet, I mean a really amazing one, one that can dance, and fence, and do flips. Then I’d travel the world with it, earning my crust of bread and cup of wine as I went.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in