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.’

There is thus much less distance between Geppetto, the good father, and the rest of the wicked world than there is in Disney. In Collodi, everyone is greedy, but the greed takes more or less malevolent forms, from Pinocchio’s childish hunger to the sinister avarice of the cunning Fox and Cat, who, as in Disney, pop up at every opportunity to lead the puppet astray. But in the book the Fox and Cat are murderous, not simply venal. At one point, they set upon Pinocchio in disguise, trying to steal the coins he has hidden in his mouth. The cat attempts to stick a ‘nasty-looking knife’ between Pinocchio’s lips, at which Pinocchio ‘chomped down on the hand with his teeth, bit it clean off, and spat it out’.

Compared with this, the Disney Pinocchio is a flaccid little creature, a true toy. In his introduction to this new translation Umberto Eco recalls the shock that Italians felt when they first saw the cinematic Pinocchio, with his button nose and ‘odd and off-putting Tyrolean hat’ instead of the sugarloaf hat from the old Mazzanti illustrations. When we first see the Disney Pinocchio, he is lifeless, lacking even a mouth until Geppetto paints one on. All of his agency – his life force – comes either from Geppetto or from the Blue Fairy. Collodi’s Pinocchio, by contrast, is wilful before he has even been carved. As a log of wood, his voice shouts out that the hatchet hurts him and the plane tickles his tummy. When Geppetto makes him into a puppet, all his attempts to establish mastery over the wood are mocked: Pinocchio kicks Geppetto, steals his wig and laughs at him. Pinocchio’s absurdly long nose is not the dishonest puppet’s punishment, but a way of cocking a snook at the father who thinks he can cut it down to size (‘the more he trimmed it . . . the longer that impertinent nose became’). The cartoon Pinocchio has one moral flaw: he is too passive – too easily led. In the book Pinocchio is cheeky and headstrong: ‘This insolent, mocking behaviour made Geppetto feel more miserable and wretched than he had ever felt in his life, and turning to Pinocchio he said: “What a scamp of a son! You’re not even finished yet and already you’re treating your father with disrespect. That’s bad, my boy, bad!”’

It’s right that Collodi’s Pinocchio should seem subversive. A Tuscan radical whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini (1826-90), Collodi was consciously satirising the genre of moralising fables and fairy tales. His Pinocchio begins:

Once upon a time there was . . .

‘A king!’ my little readers will say at once.

  No, children, you’re wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.

In that sense Pinocchio has more in common with those postmodern children’s books in which nursery stories are upturned – The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (1993) is a good example – than it does with fairy tales themselves. The narrative – which teems with talking animals – constantly plays with fairy-tale convention. Cinderella’s carriage pulled by mice-horses is reconfigured as the Blue Fairy’s carriage, which is not only drawn by mice but driven by a poodle and lined with whipped cream. The nasty trick played by the Fox and the Cat, who persuade Pinocchio to bury his money in a magic field, echoes the benign trick played by Puss in Boots when he tricks the king into thinking that his master owns an ever fertile field.

Collodi/Lorenzini knew the genre well. Six years before Pinocchio made its first appearance, in serial form, as Story of a Puppet in the children’s newspaper Il Giornale per i bambini in 1881, Collodi had published a translation of French fairy tales of the 17th and 18th centuries, the bulk of them by Charles Perrault, with others by Mme D’Aulnoy and Mme Leprince. The collection included ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Puss in Boots’. This was a change of direction for Lorenzini, who, at the age of nearly 50, was a melancholy childless bachelor, a gambler, journalist and playwright who had never previously written for children. In Florence in 1848, Lorenzini had co-founded a satirical newspaper, Il Lampione, which championed democracy against the forces of reaction. A year later, the forces of reaction – in the form of the Bourbon King Ferdinand – were back in power and the paper was shut down, after which Lorenzini switched to opera and theatre criticism (there are many allusions to Commedia dell’Arte in Pinocchio), literary parodies and skits, interspersed with several periods fighting as a volunteer in the Wars of Independence.

The oldest son of a cook and a seamstress, Lorenzini took the name Collodi from his mother’s village, 60 kilometres north of Florence, which stood on a hill lined with olive trees. Today the village is notable mainly for its Pinocchio Park, a collection of bronze statues depicting characters in the book, and its array of shops touting long-nosed wooden dolls. After 1865, when Florence was briefly the political capital of Italy, Lorenzini worked on a special dictionary of the Italian language according to Florentine usage, translating Frenchified words into Tuscan equivalents. Pinocchio itself is scattered with Tuscan colloquialisms, including its title. Pinocchio is a Tuscan word for ‘pine nut’ (the more common Italian word is pinolo). Pine nuts were an important Tuscan ingredient, sprinkled on top of a castagnaccio or chestnut-flour cake, studded into small biscuits, added with raisins to a hare stew, or simply scavenged from the tree. As so often in Collodi’s writing, the name signals a contempt for pretension. Pinocchio is not a king. He is not French. He is a mere Tuscan pine nut.

As Ann Lawson Lucas writes in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, ‘the magical and the picaresque are constantly brought down to earth by acerbic, sardonic, hard-headed Tuscan realism.’ Much of the story is dominated by hunger. Pinocchio dreams of being a gentleman with ‘a cellar of liqueurs and cordials, and shelves full of candied fruit, cakes, dessert breads, almond cookies and wafers topped with whipped cream’, but his real life is one in which a dish of cauliflower dressed with oil and vinegar, given to him by the Blue Fairy, counts as a feast. The puppet searches Geppetto’s house for food, ‘a little bread, even stale bread, a crust, a dog’s bone, a little mouldy corn mush, a fish skeleton, a cherry pit – in short anything he could chew on’. He finds an egg, but just as he is about to scramble it, it hatches and the chick flies away. Geppetto gives Pinocchio the pears he has been saving for his own breakfast. When Pinocchio demands that they be peeled, Geppetto is shocked at his ‘fastidious’ palate: ‘In this world, even as children, we have to learn to eat anything and everything, and to like it.’ After Pinocchio finishes the peeled pears, he is still hungry. So he eats the cores and the peel too.

Collodi uses Pinocchio’s hunger to point up the ineffectiveness of moralising. As the puppet himself observes: ‘Everyone scolds us, everyone warns us, everyone gives us advice.’ But when it comes to a choice between the claims of virtue and the claims of hunger, hunger will always win. Like one of Aesop’s animals, Pinocchio lusts after some bunches of muscadine grapes, but when he tries to pick them, he is caught in the farmer’s trap. Up pops a pious Firefly.

‘Well, who taught you to take other people’s belongings?’

‘I was hungry.’

‘Hunger, my boy, is not a good reason for taking things that don’t belong to us.’

  ‘It’s true, it’s true,’ shouted Pinocchio, crying, ‘and I’ll never do it again.’

Fair enough, but in truth the only thing that triumphs over hunger in Collodi’s world is the fear of death. Collodi knew death well, in a domestic setting as well as from the battlefields of the Wars of Independence: of his nine younger siblings, four died. The threat of death is everywhere in Pinocchio, from the giant fish that swallows Geppetto ‘like a ravioli’, to the Blue Fairy’s temporary death from a broken heart, to the puppet’s endless near-death experiences. There is a terrific scene in which Pinocchio is mortally ill, and the Blue Fairy tries to administer some bitter medicine. ‘Drink it, and in a few days you will be cured.’ Pinocchio whines that he doesn’t like bitter stuff, at which the Fairy offers him a sugar lump. He eats the sugar, and continues to refuse the medicine. Only when four black rabbits burst in, ready to carry him away in a coffin, does he consent to the medicine, drinking it down in a single gulp: ‘For I don’t want to die – no, I don’t want to die.’

The book has the manic energy of Candide, as it rushes from one extreme situation to another. The new translation by Geoffrey Brock is wonderfully faithful to Collodi’s speed and vigour. Until now, the best-known modern translation has been Ann Lawson Lucas’s, and in several respects it is still a better buy, thanks to Lucas’s detailed explanatory notes and full historical preface, which are more useful than Umberto Eco’s thin introduction to the new edition. Judged purely as a translation, however, Brock’s version is more natural and engaging, with a better feeling for how to turn colloquial 19th-century Tuscan into colloquial modern English (or rather colloquial American, which is effectively the same thing).

Brock is better at the humour, and unlike Lucas doesn’t use quaint idioms (‘Poodle’ and ‘Tuna’ rather than ‘Poodle-Dog’ and ‘Tunny-Fish’) or over-translate (Lucas turns ‘tortellini’ into ‘steak and kidney pudding’, apparently unaware that today most English-speaking children are far more familiar with different pasta shapes than with stodgy meat puddings). Sentence by sentence, Brock’s Pinocchio has better rhythms. In Chapter 18, Pinocchio passes through a town of idiotic animals all of whom have allowed themselves to be duped in some way – butterflies who have sold their wings, ‘tailless peacocks’. Lucas calls this town Sillybillytrap, but Brock makes it ‘Chumptrap’, a more plausible coinage. In Chapter 2, we learn that Geppetto is teased by the local children, who give him the nickname ‘Polendina’, from ‘polenta’, on account of his yellow wig. Lucas renders this nickname as ‘Semolina’, even though her end-notes concede that semolina is similar to polenta only in texture, not in colour. Brock translates it as ‘Corn Head’, a more effective insult which also retains the idea of yellowness.

Brock is happy to leave Geppetto as Geppetto, whereas Lucas insists on making him ‘Old Joe’ – partly out of a ‘desire to get away from the awful, denaturing “cuteness” of the Walt Disney school of thought’. As a scholar of Collodi, she is clearly upset by the dominance of the film version, calling it the ‘famous, or notorious’ film and lamenting ‘the saccharine-sweet, roly-poly Disney Pinocchio, hardly a puppet at all’. Her distress is understandable, but can hardly be resolved by giving Geppetto a new name. You might just as well rechristen the whole book ‘Pine Nut’.

Umberto Eco observes that thanks to Disney, Pinocchio is a myth, a ‘pop religion’ which has spawned its own devotional objects. An exhibition in Milan last year devoted to the puppet, Eco notes, included

comic books, 325 sequels in Italian alone (including Son of Pinocchio, Pinocchio’s Grandmother, Pinocchio Drives a Car and Pinocchio the Diver), 400 postcards, ten board games, hundreds upon hundreds of figurines, 14 calendars, ten musical compositions, 40 posters, 40 records and several hundred miscellaneous objects (wooden toys, dolls, tins, glassware, celluloid rattles, little Pinocchios made of cloth or plastic or rubber or resin, jigsaw puzzles, ceramic figures, cut-outs, decks of cards).

Eco doesn’t share Lucas’s horror: his initial ‘discomfort’ on seeing the film has given way to the view that it is ‘delightful’. Nevertheless, he cherishes the hope that ‘beyond the myth, there remains the book.’

Maybe. But it is just as true that beyond the book, there remains the myth, and the myth of Disney is simply more powerful. This is not just because the best early Disney animation provides so many incidental thrills – Geppetto’s mechanical clockwork, Monstro the whale leaping through Hokusai waves – that text cannot match. It is also that Disney restored the story from an irony-laden parody to a true fairy tale. Lucas wrings her hands at ‘Walt Disney’s wholesale distortion of the novel’, as if it were possible to adapt a book without distorting it. It took more than 750 artists and two years of production to create Disney’s second feature (the first, Snow White, appeared in 1937). The film started life as something much closer to Collodi: its structure was episodic, there was no Jiminy Cricket, and Pinocchio was a properly wooden, pointy-nosed puppet with a sarcastic and egotistical persona. What worked on the page didn’t screen so well. No one could sympathise with this brat. Six months into production, at huge cost, Walt Disney called a halt, demanding a rethink. A new humanoid Jiminy was brought in to give the narrative more shape, and Pinocchio got his button-nosed makeover, becoming an infant who eagerly follows wherever he is led, instead of a wilful puppet.

It was Disney’s genius to take Pinocchio’s unrealness and turn it into something that made him seem more human rather than less. In the book, despite all the horrible things that happen to him, we seldom feel sorry for Pinocchio. He is, after all, made of wood, a hard little Tuscan pine nut who can stand up for himself. Nothing can really harm him. In the film, Pinocchio’s woodenness gives him extra pathos, because, but for Jiminy, he is alone in the universe. In Collodi, where pigeons talk and fairies turn into goats, no one ever questions the oddness of a wooden puppet wandering about by himself in the wicked world; the Disney Pinocchio always stands out as special and strange, as a means of exposing the ugliness of adult ways. It is his innocent artifice that makes him vulnerable to the horrible overtures of Stromboli, the Fox and the Cat. Watching him cheerfully stumble through the song ‘I’ve Got No Strings’, while surrounded by real, cynically manoeuvred puppets, is unbearable.

Collodi knew that real children are not so innocent. No matter. The power of the Disney Pinocchio myth has little to do with the business of becoming honest, brave and unselfish – the surface moral. It is about the pathos of a child let loose in a world of grown-ups. Becoming a real boy means being restored to the safe world of childhood in Geppetto’s house (rather than taking responsibility and growing up, as Pinocchio does at the end of Collodi’s book). This may be hokum, but it’s also deeply affecting. As Steven Spielberg recognised in his SF version of Pinocchio, A.I., the only way to crank up the pathos still further is to remove Geppetto’s love. In A.I., an android boy, David, is offered as a child replacement to a woman who cannot love him: ‘How can a human ever love a machine?’ She abandons him. After traversing a vile succession of flesh fairs and dens of iniquity, David eventually jumps despairingly into the sea, still hoping to find the Blue Fairy who could make him real and make his ‘Mummy’ love him. Collodi’s Pinocchio, though hungry for love, would never do such a thing; his desire to live is too strong.

With Collodi’s frenetic pacing, there is no time to give more weight to one incident than another. This is precisely the point: ‘I casi son tanti.’ The next thing is always about to happen. With Disney the horror is cumulative. Nearly 70 years on, the sequence in which Pinocchio is lured to Pleasure Island, a place where boys are encouraged to drink beer, smoke cigars and gamble, only to be turned into donkeys, has lost none of its terror. It’s much scarier than the equivalent section in Toyland in the book. ‘You boys have had your fun!’ the evil puce-faced coachman bellows. ‘Now pay for it!’ The suggestion is of something more than donkeywork; there is a hint of the worst depravity and abuse. How grateful we are when Jiminy Cricket pops up to rescue Pinocchio. That talking cricket may be conventional, sentimental, highly irritating, but Disney was right to rescue him from an early death.