Pinocchio on Stage and Screen

Knocking Pinocchio into shape, or how to domesticate an unruly puppet: Stefania Ciocia on the drive towards narrative, moral and familial tidiness in Collodi’s text and its adaptations

Pinocchio’s unruliness is ingrained in the history of composition and publication of the novel, as well as in the literary DNA of the puppet’s adventures, connected as they are with the Commedia dell’Arte and the picaresque tradition. As anticipated in the previous post, the first fifteen chapters of the story were published, at irregular intervals, in eight instalments of varying length in Il Giornale per i bambini between July and October 1881. A month later, it was announced that the tale would carry on, but it did not actually resume until February 1882, when it began to be printed weekly. After a shorter break for the whole of April, things ground to a halt again on 1 June 1882, stalled for the best part of six months, and were finally brought to a conclusion on 25 January 1883.

This second, relatively long interruption, after the puppet’s gruesome hanging in Chapter XV, comes at a significant point in the narrative, on the eve of a lavish feast to celebrate Pinocchio’s imminent transformation into a boy. There’s hardly any time to savour the thought of the “two hundred cups of caffellatte and four hundred bread-rolls buttered inside and out” prepared by the Fairy for Pinocchio and his schoolmates that chapter XXIX winds down with an ominous piece of news: “Unfortunately, in the life of a puppet there are always buts”. It’s a cliffhanger worthy of EastEnders, but one which kept readers waiting for a while. The pay-off, of course, is that the story does continue for another seven chapters, packed by Collodi with extraordinary events in what is the most consistently didactic section of the entire story.

The night before his party, Pinocchio is lured into travelling with lazybones Lucignolo (Candlewick) to the Paese dei balocchi (Land of Toys), where – let’s brace ourselves – he turns into an ass, is sold to the circus, lamed by an accident, drowned so that his skin can be used to make a drum, turned back into a puppet by intervention of the Fairy, threatened to be sold as firewood and, having jumped into the sea to avoid this ignominious fate, swallowed by the Terribile Pescecane (the Whale is a Shark in the original, though that hardly affects the Biblical echo). From then on rescuing and looking after Geppetto is a cinch, and so is becoming “un ragazzino perbene”. The Italian expression is best rendered as “a proper boy” (or “proper little boy”) rather than “a real boy” since “perbene” typically refers to being well-mannered, and is invariably used in that sense in the rest of the narrative.

This slippage betrays the fact that the quest to turn into a (decent) human being is almost an afterthought in the original, something that arises organically from the relationship between the puppet and his creator. Inevitably the two grow into the roles of son and father, but we should note that Geppetto’s initial drive in carving out Pinocchio is not primarily paternal: the choleric carpenter – as this detail suggests, hardly great father material[1] –– wants to make himself “a marvelous puppet, capable of dancing, fencing and doing somersaults”. The reason? “With this puppet, I want to travel the world, earning a crust of bread and a glass of wine”. Pinocchio is not alone with his peripatetic urges.

“Like father, like son”, I bet you are thinking. Perhaps, though the point that I am eager to press home here is the very opposite: Collodi’s Geppetto does not act on unfulfilled parental yearnings. It is only in the following chapter that he begins to think of Pinocchio in fatherly terms, and that’s in the context of scolding the insolent puppet for not showing filial respect notwithstanding his young, half-finished state. (Pinocchio is a cheeky little voice trapped in a piece of wood before he is anything else.)

The whole familial theme, of course, gets intensified as soon as it transpires that there’s half a chance that Pinocchio could become a boy. This idea too first crops up in the original text without the poignancy attached to filial – nay, human – ties: Pinocchio wishes for a flesh-and-blood existence because his present reality is, well, wooden in a very literal sense. He is desperate to grow up not in order to mature into an adult, but more simply to get taller and therefore, presumably, less easily bossed around. His second encounter with the Fairy – who has turned from a girl into a woman – reveals that he is happy to trade in a “little sister” for an older figure since he now has a mother “like all the other children”; that said, he is even keener to find out how she has grown so quickly. The emphasis is on development (of a kind), not on the family.

Interestingly, Disney exploits the strong narrative drive provided by desire – the movie opens on this very theme with When You Wish Upon a Star – but does not play up the parental relationship.[2] It’s a surprising choice for a corporation whose expansion would be predicated on appealing to traditional family values. By contrast, the visceral pull of the father-son bond in Pinocchio is explored with moving results in a much later, less expected framework, Paul Auster’s experimental memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982). This highly emotional narrative strand is also latched on to by the National Theatre adaptation, for which it provides a loud, beating heart.

This shift in focus is another reason why I see Pinocchio as a fundamentally unruly story which has been tamed in various ways; while the constraints of a ninety-minute film, or a two-hour performance, demand a degree of narrative compression and, ideally, a clear narrative arc, the tale is also domesticated in its subject matter. Collodi set this process in motion by superimposing a moral trajectory on the puppet’s adventures, and their consequences.[3] Take Pinocchio’s universally famous trait: his lengthening nose. A cursory reading of the original text shows that this peculiarity, in its first occurrence at least, is completely disconnected from truth-telling: in Chapter V, the nose grows when the starving puppet goes to lift the lid of a boiling pot only to realize that said pot, its lid and the fire are painted on the wall.

This strikes me – and I can’t believe the thought has only just occurred to me – as the actualization of the Italian idiomatic expression “restare con un palmo di naso” (literally, “to be left with one’s nose the length of a palm”, i.e. with a long nose) whose closest equivalent in English might be “to be gobsmacked”, as in “surprised in disappointment”. It is in Chapter XVII, after Collodi has been persuaded to resume the story, that the Fairy espouses the now well-known distinction between the “lies with short legs” (they don’t travel far) and those, like Pinocchio’s, with a “long nose” (they are immediately conspicuous). Collodi gets increasingly more didactic and the Fairy bears the brunt of this change, a trend that has persisted beyond the confines of the original text.

Disney continues to edulcorate the Fairy’s role, magnifying her gentle, benign moral guidance and getting rid of her harsh, creepy side. Any residual weirdness (the hair!) is excised in a sanitizing makeover: the lady is blue in attire only; she sports blond locks, standard-issue fairy wings and a magic wand. There’s no mistaking that she is in the business of doing good and granting wishes. Geppetto’s is the first, pivotal one: he would like his puppet to be a real boy but this comes across more as a whim than as a deeply-felt reaction to loneliness or to a biological imperative. A clock-maker, he seems to live a cheerful enough life with his somewhat humanized animal companions, the cutesy kitten Figaro, and the impossibly coquettish goldfish Cleo (neither of whom must have got the memo about the eating habits of cats, since they cohabit in close quarters with no major incidents). There is no hint of poverty, let alone deeper discontent, in this household; if anything, it is the outsider Jiminy Cricket (another hopeless flirt) who follows a rags-to-riches plot: dressed in tattered clothes, he is smartened up with top hat and tails as Pinocchio’s conscience, and is finally knighted by the Fairy for the good services he’s rendered in that guise.

As for Disney’s Pinocchio, he is definitely on a mission to become a (good) boy, and gets a tauter storyline for his troubles: “Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish”, explains the Fairy, offering a convenient road-map for his quest. The real element of jeopardy here is that our hero is an utterly clueless, wide-eyed, infantilized version of the original scoundrel: compare the cartoon’s babyish appearance, and romper-style mock-Tyrolean costume, to the wiry, sharper lines of Enrico Mazzanti’s illustrations for the first edition of Collodi’s volume. Jiminy Cricket deserves more than a knighthood for his efforts, given the raw material at his disposal.

The National Theatre retains Disney’s rationalized plot, but cranks up the domestication of the tale on a different front, making it all about a lost, longed-for nuclear family. Handkerchiefs at the ready please: in this version, Geppetto is a grieving, widowed toymaker who – we are told from the start – deserves the same happiness he has given to so many children. We know too that he desperately wishes for a child of his own, though he is inclined to think that he is “too old to be a father”. (There is a 21st-century corrective to this statement when the Fairy – an overt stand-in for the dead wife and mother manquée – remarks that “the shape of a family does not matter”.)

The production proceeds to blend Disney’s pointed changes to Collodi’s plot with artful little tweaks to Pinocchio’s mission: his goal is to identify the one thing that unites us all, rather than prove his moral uprightness. This quest is ingeniously exploited by the mellifluous, histrionic Fox, the arch-villain and a worthy antagonist for Jiminy Cricket. The Fox suggests to Pinocchio that what we all crave is fame (cue the puppet’s stint as an exploited actor in Mangiafoco/Stromboli’s theatre) and, in a second attempt to thwart the lad’s efforts, pleasure (cue the journey to Pleasure Island, a reimagining of the Paese dei balocchi). In the end – third time lucky, and no thanks to the Fox – the sobering answer to the Fairy’s philosophical riddle, and the key to Pinocchio’s final metamorphosis, turns out to be pain.

We see it, and feel it ourselves, in Geppetto’s mournful recollection of his wife, in his grief at the presumed demise of Pinocchio, and in Pinocchio’s own belated sorrow at being separated from his parents. The denouement, however, is handled lightly, in a moment of slapstick, when Pinocchio bangs his head, and is rather the worse for it, on coming back to life having practically drowned after rescuing Geppetto from the belly of the whale. One must be grateful for these small comic touches. By the time the motherly Fairy had taken her leave of Pinocchio, disappearing into the sky as a little blue flame, promising to be with him forever, albeit from afar, I too was close to drowning in my own pool of tears.

Having lost my own mother less than a year ago, I may be more sensitive than most to reminders of the permanence of family ties, and took great comfort from the final embrace between Pinocchio and his father. I was also – to go back to the beginning of last week’s post – enraptured, amused and entertained by the production’s inspired and thought-provoking visual inventions: the main adult characters as giant papier-mâché heads-and-upper-torsos (see image) maneuvered in full sight by their main-body/actor/puppetteer counterparts; the fragility of a bare-chested, always all-too-human Pinocchio; the oh-so-clever transformation of two giant saws from Geppetto’s workshop into the jaws of the whale, and Pinocchio and the Cricket’s underwater adventure, the two of them (three, to include the Cricket-puppet) pulled above the stage by extradiegetic ropes, moving as if slowed down by the pressure and density of the sea. As I intimated last week, the nakedness of the artifice – the visibility of the strings, as well as of the puppeteers – enhanced the perfection of the theatrical illusion for me. What fun to give oneself to it.

A final aside, if I may, to round things up on cultural differences: I absolutely adored the NT’s take on Jiminy Cricket as a fastidious hypochondriac. We Italians embrace hypochondria and regularly practice self-diagnosis as if they were art forms: we suffer from ailments that denizens of my adoptive and most other countries – people made of sterner stuff – blissfully ignore the existence of; we generally have a knowledge of anatomy (particularly the location, function and malfunctioning of internal organs) to rival medical students’. That’s why the NT Cricket cracked me up, especially when – best line of the play – he confessed to having puppettations. This transcultural, transmedia reimagining of Pinocchio is more Italian than the original in its obsession with family, but Jiminy Cricket as an imaginary invalid does feel like a homage to a uniquely Italian quirk.

[1] Collodi introduces Geppetto as easily made apoplectic by the verbal taunts of the local youths, and prone to fights with fellow carpenter Mastro Ciliegia (Master Cherry). It is Ciliegia who, as a prank, gives Geppetto the naughty piece of wood that will become Pinocchio.

[2] Disney downplays the human/non-human opposition too, but that’s an easier choice to understand given that his productions anthropomorphize all sorts of characters, animate and inanimate.

[3] As Louisa May Alcott with Little Women, Collodi took to writing Pinocchio as a remunerative enterprise, and not necessarily as a response to an artistic / pedagogical calling.