You really have to hand it to Walt Disney. Only a creative genius could turn Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio into the animated film we all know and love. It’s not surprising that Disney’s Pinocchio is almost nothing like Collodi’s book. If they’d been more similar, children would have run screaming from the theatre. Just look at some of the chapter titles from the translation I read: “Pinocchio’s feet are burned off”, “Pinocchio is hanged”, and “Pinocchio eats some sugar and tells a lie”.
According to this Slate article, Disney got so frustrated with the story that at one point he halted production of the film:
“It was unsuitable for children, Disney concluded: Pinocchio was too cocky, too much of a wiseguy, and too puppetlike to be sympathetic. Finally a compromise was reached. Pinocchio’s wish would be fulfilled from the start. He would not be depicted as a puppet after all but as a real boy, and a gentle, winsome one at that.”
Disney made the right call on that one, because in the book Pinocchio is so unlikeable, particularly when you look at his behaviour towards Geppetto. Here are just a couple examples:
- When Geppetto gets out of jail, he gives Pinocchio the pears he was saving for himself. But Pinocchio won’t eat them unless they are peeled. Jerk.
- When Pinocchio needs a spelling book for school, Geppetto sells his only coat to buy him one. Then in the very next chapter Pinocchio ditches school and sells that spelling book so he can buy a ticket to see a show. Super jerk.
Disney also made some big changes to the supporting cast. Collodi’s book has The Talking Cricket, but he’s not cute like Jiminy. He’s just a regular cricket who can talk, which is pretty creepy when you think about it. And in the book, Pinocchio is rude to the cricket, and he eventually hits him with a mallet and kills him. When the ghost of the cricket comes back later in the story to give Pinocchio some good advice, Pinocchio ignores the advice because, again, he’s kind of a jerk.
There isn’t a Blue Fairy in the book. Instead Pinocchio meets a child with turquoise hair and very pale skin. She says she is dead and waiting for her coffin to come and carry her away. This fairy child appears at some key moments in Pinocchio’s life, like when assassins catch the puppet and decide to hang him. But since he’s a puppet he can’t really die, so he just sort of hangs there for three hours, his “eyes were still open, his mouth closed, and he was kicking more than ever.” Eventually he goes stiff and the fairy rescues him, getting some doctors to heal him. The doctors are a crow, an owl, and a talking cricket, by the way. I can’t imagine why Disney didn’t include these scenes in his film.
Donkeys play more of a starring role in the book than they do in the movie. From the very beginning of the story we learn (from the cricket) that if you don’t go to school and learn you’ll grown up to be a donkey and everyone will make fun of you. So it comes as no surprise when Pinocchio is at Playland and turns into a donkey. As a donkey, he has to learn to do tricks and perform in the show, but unfortunately for Pinocchio he ends up getting hurt. So he gets sold for five cents to a buyer who plans to drown and skin him to make a drum for the village band.
But don’t worry, Pinocchio doesn’t drown. Instead, he decides to swim around to find Geppetto, because he’s pretty sure he was swallowed up by a giant shark. The Disney version changed the shark to Monstro the whale, probably because a shark that is “bigger than a five-story house, and that his mouth is so enormous and so deep that a railway train with its smoking engine could easily pass down his throat” is way more terrifying than a whale. When Pinocchio ends up inside the shark, he finds Geppetto hunched over at a desk. He’s been in there for two years! They manage to escape because the shark has asthma and has to sleep with his mouth open.
Both the book and the movie are big on teaching moral lessons. Here are a few of them:
“Woe to those children who rebel against their parents and run away from home. They will never come to any good in this world, and sooner or later, they will repent bitterly.”
“Remember that children who are determined to do as they please and have their own way regret it sooner or later.
“…every man, whether he is born rich or poor, is obliged to do something in this world—to occupy himself, to work. Woe to those who lead slothful lives. Sloth is a dreadful illness and must be cured at once, in childhood, for once we are old, it can never be cured.”
(Speaking of morality, there was a really interesting piece in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about the theme of lying in Collodi’s Pinocchio. I highly recommend reading it, if you have a few minutes.)
Despite all the differences between the book and the movie, I’ve decided that I love both versions of Pinocchio. One is creepy, twisted, and very dark. The other is sweet and innocent, not to mention responsible for the song “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which can still bring me to tears if I let it. They both end the same way, with Pinocchio becoming a real boy. In Collodi’s book, the lifeless body of the puppet remains in the house forever, but the final scenes of the Disney movie are filled with dancing and joy. Clearly we should all be grateful for the changes Disney made to the original story, because if he’d stuck closer to the source material all of our childhoods would’ve been ruined.