The Real Pinocchio and the Disney Pinocchio

Disney Pinocchio poster

Storynory's audio narration of all the chapters of Pinocchio can be found here.

What image does the name Pinocchio conjure up in our minds? We can't help but think of the little boy-puppet drawn by Disney. He looks a lot like a cute child, and only a little like a wooden puppet. He has friend, the avuncular Jiminy Cricket, who plays the part of his conscience, and who sings a schmaltzy song about wishing upon a star. Like all kids, he is charmingly naughty, but unlike real children, his nose has a tendency to grow whenever he tells a childish fib. In short, Pinocchio has become synonymous with Disney's creation released in 1940. Pinocchio was the master animator's second feature-length film, and is widely seen as a technical triumph and a landmark in the history of cinema. But has it done any favours to the original Pinocchio, the character in the book?

Other children's classics, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, seem to have survived the Hollywood treatment. People enjoy the movies but still turn to the original texts. But the impression we get from Disney's Pinocchio is of a cute story for little children. It was all very well to watch it when we were four years old, but we probably are not going to pick up the book.

In actual fact, if we do turn to the original text by Carlo Collodi (published between 1881 and 1883), we are in for some surprises - shocks even. Near the beginning two old men almost come to blows. The dialogue is pretty pugnacious too:

“Geppetto, do not insult me or I shall call you Polendina.”





“Ugly monkey!”


On hearing himself called Polendina for the third time, Geppetto lost his head with rage and threw himself upon the carpenter. Then and there they gave each other a sound thrashing.

The action keeps on coming thick and fast. After a handful of chapters, Pinocchio's father, Geppetto, has been arrested and carted off to jail, and Pinocchio himself has killed the Talking Cricket by throwing a hammer at him. Pinocchio is very nearly burned on the fire by a cruel puppet master. He falls in with some ruthless bandits who hang him from a tree. Only half way through the book, it seems that our puppet has been left dangling, and is dead : a not entirely unjust punishment for disobeying his loving, generous and good father at every possible turn.

If the exhuberant violence comes as a surprise, so too does the depth and resonance of the story. There is nothing shallow about the way it is conceived. There are clear influences that place it in the mainstream of art.

The Bible.

Italy was and still is a thoroughly Catholic country. The influence of the Bible is everywhere in Pinocchio. A profligate boy who disobeys his father is surely a version of the Prodigal Son? The famous parable ( (Luke 15:11-32) tells the story of a son who leaves his father and throws away money on an easy life, before eventually returning home with his tail between his legs. It's an allegory for the relationship between the merciful God and sinning mankind. Is this not the story of Pinocchio too?


A character who spends time inside the belly of a giant sea-creature reminds us of the Old Testament story of Jonah and the Whale (The Book of Jonah). It's a sort of rebirth. The sinful character suffers an experience that would normally be fatal, but after three days and nights he lives again. (See Matthew 12: 39-41 for the explicit parallel between Jesus and Jonah ). Pinocchio even meets his father inside the Shark, just as Jonah came close to God during his ordeal inside the Whale.

Throughout the book we constantly feel that Pinocchio is a lovable sinner who is failing to live up to the expectations of his kind and forgiving father. This is surely parallel to the relationship between mankind and God. In the Bible, God fashioned Adam out of clay, just as Geppetto makes Pinocchio out of wood. God allows Adam to have his own will - just as Pinocchio the puppet is free to do right or wrong

Our all too human puppet has a kind and merciful mother too. Is not the Good Fairy like rather like Mary? At one point Pinocchio is hanged from a tree - not exactly executed between two bandits like Jesus - but certainly strung up by two thieves, the Fox and the Cat.

Carlo Collodi intended to end his story after 15 episodes with Pinocchio dead on the tree. The editor of journal that was serialising Pinocchio begged for more. Pinocchio is rescued from the tree by the Good fairy. It turns out that he was so close to death that even three doctors cannot agree on his exact condition.


The Greek Philosopher Plato compared a human being to a puppet created by the gods (Laws 1: 644).

"Our impulses are like cords and strings, which pull us different and opposite ways, and to opposite actions; and herein lies the difference between virtue and vice."

How like Pinocchio that is ! He is always running off in a new direction driven by a sudden impulse. He has free will, but only if he can overcome his desires which direct him like strings attached to his legs and arms. He is not really bad, but weak.

The passage was widely quoted around the time that Pinocchio was written, including in a book on the history of the puppet theatre written by one of Collodi's Tuscan friends. (Pietro Coccoluto Ferrigni : Yorick, Son of Yorick - as cited in An Essay on Pinocchio, by Nicholas J Perella in his Italian / English edition of Pinocchio.)

The Puppet Theatre

Pinocchio, the puppet theatre, by Chiara Civati

We must not forget the puppet theatre itself, which is of course a direct influence on the pace and knock-about humour of Collodi's style. Have you ever seen a Punch and Judy show? The beak-nosed Punch is in fact a cousin of the Italian Pulcinella or Punchinello. We get a glimpse of the puppet theatre in Chapter 10 of Pinocchio:

"Harlequin and Pulcinella were reciting on the stage and, as usual, they were threatening each other with sticks and blows."

Yes, the Italian Puppet theatre, like the British Punch and Judy, was pretty violent. The fight between the two old men in Chapter 2 of Pinocchio could almost be a scene out of it:

"And growing angrier each moment, they went from words to blows, and finally began to scratch and bite and slap each other. When the fight was over, Mastro Antonio had Geppetto’s yellow wig in his hands and Geppetto found the carpenter’s curly wig in his mouth."

The fast pace of Pinocchio as well as the knocks and blows - all these come from the Puppet shows. When our marionette throws a hammer at the sanctimonious talking Cricket, he is behaving just puppet on the stage would do.

The French critic Paul Hazard wrote in his wonderful survey of children's literature, "Books, Children and Men.""

"Before he was called Pinocchio and amused youngsters, he was Harlequin, PUnchinello or Stenterello. He was one of the maschere, changeless characters that served as a fixed point for improvisation."

More on the history of Punch and Judy, here, inlcuding a quote from the diariest Samuel Pepys who calls it "The Italian puppet play".

Commedia Dell'Arte and New Comedy.

The Italian Puppet theatre grew out of an older Italian dramatic tradition called Commedia Dell'Arte. It featured stock characters - such as foolish old men, tricky servants, drunk cooks, and blustering soldiers. London's National Theatre has some videos about Commedia Dell'Arte here.

These plots and characters in turn had their roots in Roman and Greek New Comedy (Plautus, Terrance, Menander). It's very much a feature of New Comedy that young men are basically hot-headed, behave in a spendthrift and irresponsible way and disobey their parents - a good example would be the Brothers by Terrance. They are not so bad as to lose our sympathy, but certainly are driven by their impulses and emotions.

Italy and Tuscany itself

Paul Hazard, who was steeped in Italian culture, wrote in his Books Children & Men:

"Pinochio is not only Italian, he is Tuscan... I challenge you to find a Tuscan who is not witty and spirted. All of the, even the common people, even the peasants, even the youngesters, have a flair for detecting the ridiculous, seizing any chance to launch a witticism. Witicisms, absurd associations of dieas, humerous observations are to be found on every page of Pinocchio; an exhuberant imagination that is not only comical but keen; a mixture of of apparent naivete and caustic shrewdness."

This is one of my favourite examples :

“What shall I call him?” he said to himself. “I think I’ll call him PINOCCHIO. This name will make his fortune. I knew a whole family of Pinocchi once–Pinocchio the father, Pinocchia the mother, and Pinocchi the children–and they were all lucky. The richest of them begged for his living.”

It is not only Tuscany's caustic wit that is is evident, but plenty of moralising too. The text is brimming with proverbs -

"In this world, even as children, we must accustom ourselves to eat of everything, for we never know what life may hold in store for us!” Chapter 7

"A man, remember, whether rich or poor, should do something in this world." - chapter 25

"In this world, what is given is always returned." - Chapter 28

"We are in this world to help one another" - chapter 29

But just incase we become too self-righteous, we should see if we feel comfortable with Pinocchio when he becomes "good" and starts to use moralising proverbs to justify his lack of compassion for his old enemies in the final chapter (36)

It was the Fox and the Cat, but one could hardly recognize them, they looked so miserable. The Cat, after pretending to be blind for so many years had really lost the sight of both eyes. And the Fox, old, thin, and almost hairless, had even lost his tail. That sly thief had fallen into deepest poverty, and one day he had been forced to sell his beautiful tail for a bite to eat.

“Oh, Pinocchio,” he cried in a tearful voice. “Give us some alms, we beg of you! We are old, tired, and sick.”

“Sick!” repeated the Cat.

“Addio, false friends!” answered the Marionette. “You cheated me once, but you will never catch me again.”

“Believe us! Today we are truly poor and starving.”

“Starving!” repeated the Cat.

“If you are poor; you deserve it! Remember the old proverb which says: ‘Stolen money never bears fruit.’ Addio, false friends.”

“Have mercy on us!”

“On us.”

“Addio, false friends. Remember the old proverb which says: ‘Bad wheat always makes poor bread!’”

“Do not abandon us.”

“Abandon us,” repeated the Cat.

“Addio, false friends. Remember the old proverb: ‘Whoever steals his neighbor’s shirt, usually dies without his own.

The naughty puppet turned preachy moraliser is actually very funny, even though the scene itself is quite troubling. Like all great literature, Pinocchio gives us shades of gray rather than easy black and white.

I hope this is enough to convince you that there is far more to Pinocchio than met Disney's eye. It's a rich text with deep roots in tradition and Italian culture. On a larger scale the tale is an allegory for human nature. We are driven by our impulses, emotions, and weaknesses. We are free, but we are not free, because our personalities determine how we will act. But you have to read the text, or listen to Natasha's wonderful performance of Pinocchio, to appreciate how warm, witty, inventive, exciting and touching the original book is.