TERRY GROSS, host:
"Pinocchio," the story of a puppet who becomes a real boy, is one of the world's best known children stories. There are many different versions of the tales and Carlo Collodi's original book, which has just been released in a new translation by the New York Review of Books, to Walt Disney's famous animated film which is being released in the 70th anniversary DVD and Blu-Ray package on March 10th. Our Critic-at-large, John Powers, who was raised on the movie, finally read the book a few days ago and discovered that there are very different ways of pulling the puppet boy's strings.
JOHN POWERS: Near the end of E.L. Doctorow's novel "The Book of Daniel", its alienated young hero goes to Disneyland. Walking through the park, he points out that much of Disney's work is derived from dark, subversive writers like Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and the Brothers Grimm, but that his movies and rides erase all the darkness and subversion. Disney turns their stories into sentimental lies.
I thought about this when I picked up Geoffrey Brock's brisk new translation of Carlo Collodi's "Pinocchio." Although the story of the puppet-boy is part of our modern mythology, like "Peter Pan" or "The Wizard of Oz," I soon realized that I didn't have a clue what was in the 1881 original. Everything I knew about Pinocchio had come from the 1939 Disney cartoon that I saw as a kid and still love today.
Now, the rudiments of Collodi's tale are similar to what most of us remember from the movie: Pinocchio is a puppet, fashioned in the workshop of the craftsman Gepetto, who has adventures that turn him into a real boy. Along the way, he gets suckered by a scheming fox and cat, goes to a seductive toyland where boys are turned into donkeys and gets swallowed by an enormous fish. When Pinocchio lies, his nose grows.
Yet for all of these familiar things, Collodi's book is, from the beginning, a very different — and much wilder — experience. Gepetto isn't a kindly old man — he's hot-tempered and grindingly poor. There is a talking cricket, but it's not named Jiminy, doesn't wear a top hat, and, by the way, Pinocchio squishes it 12 pages in when the insect tries to give him advice. This lack of sentimentality runs through the book, whose sense of a reality reflects the harshness of life in Collodi's Tuscany. This is a place driven by hunger, brutality, greed and social injustice.
Which isn't to say that the book's depressing. In fact, it's filled with wonderful surreal touches, many involving animals, like the huge snail that offers to let Pinocchio into his house and then takes nine hours to reach the front door. A similar anarchic spirit infuses Pinocchio himself - who's not the cute, anodyne figure we remember from the movie. He's a selfish, unruly, sometimes cruel puppet — the very soul of childhood.
Which is one reason Disney had so much trouble turning Pinocchio into a movie. People know the story, Uncle Walt said, but they don't like the character. And so his team set about making Pinocchio likable — drawing him less as a wooden puppet than as a jerky little boy, and giving him an intrinsic innocence. He never willingly does bad things. He's led astray, as in the sequence when he's taken in by Honest John the fox and his dim feline sidekick, Gideon.
(Soundbite of movie, "Pinocchio")
PINOCCHIO (Cartoon Character): I'm going to school.
Mr. WALTER CATLETT (Actor): (as Honest John) School. Yes. Then you haven't heard of the easy road to success.
Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Unh-unh.
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) No? I'm speaking, my boy, of the theater!
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Here's your apple. Bright lights, music, applause! Fame!
Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Fame?
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Yes! And with that personality, that profile, that physique - why, he's a natural born actor, eh Giddy?
Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) But I'm going…
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Straight to the top. Why, I can see your name in lights, lights six feet high. Uh, what is your name?
Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Pinocchio.
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Pinocchio! P-I-N-U-O-…uh, P-I…uh huh. Boy, I'm wasting precious time. Come on to the theater!
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) (Singing) Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor's life for me, a high silk hat and a silver cane, a watch of gold with a diamond chain. Hi-diddle-dee-day, an actor's life is gay. It's great to be a celebrity, an actor's life for me.
(Soundbite of music)
POWERS: That's a terrific song by the way. Of course, one could say that Disney himself took the easy road in making "Pinocchio." Rather than preserving Collodi's tough-minded picaresque, he deliberately gave the story a reassuring shape: From the cozy seductiveness of Gepetto's workshop to Jiminy Cricket crooning, "When You Wish Upon a Star." And it clearly worked. Disney's wish-fulfilling "Pinocchio" eclipsed the original far more than did his forgettable versions of "Peter Pan," "Alice in Wonderland" or "Huckleberry Finn."
This is partly because it's a far better movie — one of Disney's greatest. And partly because the film actually surpasses the book in two bravura sequences: That nightmarish scene on Pleasure Island where the boys turn into donkeys and the scary escape from Monstro the Whale. Yet the big reason Disney's "Pinocchio" could colonize Collodi's is that for all its wish-fulfillment, it hasn't wholly lost the original's primal sense of pain and danger: Money-loving puppet masters, boys sold into slavery, the haunting image of Pinocchio lying face down in the water, seemingly dead.
All that is in the Disney version, which is one reason why when it was first released, audiences didn't cotton to it as they now do. The movie was too dark for a country faced with depression and World War II. It's hard to imagine anyone feeling that way today. We're all more accustomed to images of violence and cruelty. Although I'm not sure that the last 70 years have made us stop wanting to wish upon a star. We're still more comfortable with Disney than Collodi. Even now, the audience would shriek with outrage if they saw Pinocchio flatten Jiminy Cricket with a wooden mallet.
GROSS: John Powers is a film critic for Vogue.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: You can download pod cast of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer is Fred Snider Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.