As one of the most translated books in the world—available in well over 200 languages—it’s no surprise that Carlo Collodi’s story of Pinocchio can be found in just about every nook and cranny of our cultural imagination. Along with countless film and TV adaptations, the story of the rambunctious puppet has inspired operas, theme parks, giant statues (the tallest of which stands nearly 20 meters), and plenty of other creative artifacts.
Equally impressive is that The Adventures of Pinocchio, published in 1883, seems as ready as ever to impress itself upon new generations of readers and artists. Indeed, the story of Pinocchio seems poised to begin nothing less than a kind of 21st-century encore.
That certainly seems to be the case in the arena of film, anyway. Three adaptations have come out in the last handful of years, and now directors Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro each have an adaptation slated to release in 2022. Given the caliber of these filmmakers, both films are likely to give viewers a creative and visually seductive take on this classic story.
At least, we can hope. Collodi’s tale has been subject to all sorts of retellings (which is not surprising, given its immense popularity and its existence in the public domain). While no artist gets to hold on to their work forever—protecting its original spirit until the end of time—Collodi’s story has, unfortunately, received more than its fair share of watered-down and superficial adaptations.
With more adaptations on the way, Penguin Classics’ new edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio is perfectly timed. The translators, John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna, do justice to the story with their insightful annotations and cogent introduction. Readers gain an overview of the historical context in which it was written along with a sense of the many ways the story has been interpreted.
If it’s been a while since you’ve read Pinocchio, here’s a rundown.
Pinocchio is a naughty wooden puppet. So rebellious and naughty, that before his kindly old maker, Geppetto, has even finished forming him, the boy sticks out his tongue, mouths off, and swipes his father’s wig right off his head. And it doesn’t end there. A short time later, Pinocchio inadvertently causes an event that leads to Gepetto being unfairly thrown in jail.
A very naughty puppet, indeed.
What’s worse, though, is that Pinocchio doesn’t learn from his mistakes; indeed, he repeats them. Like a cat adamantly opposed to getting into a tub of water, Pinocchio rejects wholesale the idea of conducting a responsible and mature life. Go to school? Learn a trade? Earn one’s keep? “No thanks!” is essentially Pinocchio’s haughty and resounding response. He’ll pursue a childhood version of eat, drink, and be merry—thank you very much.
Despite receiving wise advice from a talking insect and benevolent fairy, Pinocchio remains stubborn to the core. It isn’t until quite late in the story—and only after he’s been deceived and hung from an oak tree; saved from being cooked over a fire; transformed into a donkey and subjected to miserable servitude in a circus—that Pinocchio jettisons his selfish and juvenile ways and begins to mature.
Yet as he does so, he comes closer to getting what he wanted all along: to become a human being.
Who can’t love a story as wildly inventive as that? Children certainly love it—and have so for nearly 150 years. But Pinocchio can also grab the interest of any adult willing to engage with the story’s rich tapestry of symbolism, archetypes, and layers of meaning.
Indeed, the translators begin their introduction with an impassioned statement: “This is a book with a mission: to rescue Pinocchio.” One part of this mission involves disentangling Disney’s 1940 film version of Pinocchio—which so many of us watched when young—from Carlo Collodi’s story, which is infused with Italian life and culture, not to mention plenty of dark moments. Yet you’ll find almost none of those elements in the film.
As the translators point out, Disney had some understandable reasons for wanting to “de-Italianize” the story. The years encompassing the film’s development and release were a fractious time in the world: “[T]he film was crafted as the shadow of Italian Fascism, allied to German Nazism, was creeping across Europe.” Given this state of affairs and Mussolini’s increasing aggressiveness, “It was not a moment to be setting a cartoon movie, however entrancing, in Italy.”
Disney also made the decision to place great emphasis on Pinocchio’s growing nose after he tells a lie; it’s what everyone thinks of when they hear the word “Pinocchio”. In Collodi’s story, however, Pinocchio’s nose grows only a handful of times, and not all of these instances even occur in the context of lying.
As innocuous as Disney’s decision may seem, it distorted and diminished some of the most important elements that are found in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Far more integral to the story than lying, for example, is the critical role of education. Collodi was a socially concerned writer who wanted his fellow Italians (especially children) to avoid becoming ensnared in a life of penury. A dedication to one’s schooling—in addition to the character traits required to make that happen—could help prevent a later life of servile drudgery. Surely a fine lesson for both then and now.
Should you find yourself watching all or none of the recent and upcoming film adaptations of Pinocchio, this new translation from Penguin Classics is a terrific way to get reacquainted with one of the world’s most popular and important stories.