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Pinocchio, The Cinema, and the North American Lie

It is a masterpiece of world literature. Yet, Pinocchio, the 19th-century Italian fairy and morality tale, has often been poorly understood and adapted outside its mother country (especially in North America). For those fortunate enough to have read and studied the original text by Carlo Collodi (including this critic), the richness of this allegorical story of the famed wooden puppet will be most evident. From the astute social and political commentary, satire, dark humour, and fantasy Pinocchio is a timeless literary masterwork. But despite its place in the pantheon of world classics, when it comes to cinematic adaptations, the results have been less than stellar. Outside of Italy, movie versions of the story have failed to honour the ligneous boy and his captivating, multilayered, and complex escapades. 


Although Pinocchio’s tale is universal, it also works specifically as a very Italian story (indeed, Collodi’s book is widely considered one of the earliest works of Italian literature post-unification in 1861). Many Western film adaptations have thus not only been unfaithful to Collodi’s novel but have further removed the very Italian and Tuscan essence from the story. No more is this evident than the much revered Walt Disney animated film from 1940. While it is undoubtedly a milestone in animation’s history, it bears a flimsy resemblance to anything present in the novel. And yet this wildly inaccurate depiction has become so ingrained in the minds of many North American audiences that when an actual faithful adaptation appears, it is ironically considered the one to be “different”! 

Disney’s portrayal of Pinocchio as a little German boy with lederhosen, the fairy’s resemblance to a Marlene Dietrich type, and the film’s general whimsical song and dance nature are only amongst the surface departures from the original. The animated movie misses out on so much of the book’s subtle and nuanced messaging and clever situations on a deeper level. Of course, it eliminates any real sense that this is an Italian story. Despite these glaring variations, it remains for Western viewers the “go-to” version; indeed, even a simple Google image search of Pinocchio will lead to pictures of the animated film. Due to the widespread influence of the Disney product, its version of Pinocchio further influenced other American adaptations while once more ruefully glossing over Carlo Collodi’s actual text and all the richness contained within it. 

Subsequent live-action films like The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996) did indeed go for a darker tone that seemed to be more in line with the novel. Still, they once more changed the characters’ depictions, omitted many plot points, the broader social and allegorical themes, and of course, the Italian heart essential to the story. It shall remain to be seen how accurate Guillermo del Toro’s version set for 2021 will be, but history has already given us an idea. 

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In Italy, however, movie versions about the mischievous burattino have been faithful to Collodi’s vision and invite an exploration of themes like redemption, forgiveness, and the power of love. In a country where Pinocchio forms an essential part of children’s literature and is so woven into the popular culture, it is only natural that Italian film versions would be able to capture the real Pinocchio of the novel so effectively. 

While no cinematic adaptations of any book are always entirely accurate, audiences looking at some of Italy’s Pinocchio adaptations will see a story quite unlike the one they are familiar with. Rather than a sweet little boy singing “I’ve Got no Strings,” these films have Pinocchio being hanged from a tree by two assassins (The Cat and the Fox), nearly cooked alive by a fisherman, and imprisoned for the crime of foolishness. Elements amongst others all excised mainly from North American versions. 

In 1972, director Luigi Comencini produced a five-part miniseries for Italian television that remains amongst the best live-action Pinocchio films ever made. And once again, much will surprise and shock viewers who are not familiar with the novel and only Disney’s film. Despite its faithfulness, this film series remains obscure outside of Italy as the animated film continues to entrench itself abroad. 

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But the pinnacle of irony arrived in 2002 when actor/director Roberto Benigni starred and directed his version of the story, with himself in the title role. Once more, a very faithful adaptation was crafted (including Pinocchio’s stints as a guard dog and his murder of the talking cricket) and was indeed warmly received in Italy, even winning two David di Donatello Awards.

Then came the English dub. In a rush to have the film released for Christmas, Miramax completed a poor dubbing that, in conjunction with North American audiences’ ignorance into the true nature of the story, led to an unprecedented critical panning and a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Major criticism was directed towards the “incoherence” and “absurdity” of the story, and Benigni himself who played Pinocchio despite being 50 years old. Though the English dub criticism is legitimate, critiques directed towards the story and acting indicate a sad incomprehension of this work of world literature. 

Is this movie perfect? Certainly not. But to be condemned by American audiences is a gross injustice; the critics gave the impression that it’s not Collodi’s Pinocchio they love, but Disney’s “interpretation.” Instead, perhaps critics should watch the original Italian version with subtitles or read the book (with many translations available) and be a little more aware of the fact that this story is so much more than what Walt Disney would have you believe.

And so we come to 2019, where once more an Italian film adaptation emerges to bring justice to its source material, and in the process, create perhaps one of the most refined versions of the story in 50 years. With heart and plenty of visual splendour, Pinocchio (2019) from director Matteo Garrone (of Dogman and Gomorrah fame) effectively captures everything beloved about the book. It again faithfully recreates the spirit and allegory of its literary namesake. 


Roberto Benigni returns, this time as Geppetto. At the same time, 10-year-old newcomer Federico Ielapi embodies Pinocchio, and together with Matteo Garrone’s directorial eye, create a dark, grimy and lived-in world for the story to take place. Far from idyllic and whimsical, Pinocchio (2019) offers plenty of satire and morality while simultaneously basking in pure fantasy and imagination. Fabulous makeup, costumes and practical effects combined with digital animation make this a strikingly unique film. It won five awards at the David Di Donatello Awards, including Best Visual Effects and Set Decoration. 

Should this film arrive in North America, it will be most interesting to see how it is received (especially if there is an English dub), knowing that Disney’s version is never far from mind for many viewers. This is not only a beautiful work of cinema but, most importantly, has definitively adapted Carlo Collodi’s story, reminding the world why Pinocchio became famous in the first place. Garrone’s films that have typically depicted Italy’s seedier side than most are familiar with leaves his distinct imprints on the film with grotesque and coarse imagery, yet still presents a Pinocchio is clearly the same puppet brought to life in 1883 and beloved ever since. 

So what is the legacy of Pinocchio in the cinematic world? From the perspective of an individual versed in the original text, it is abundantly clear that outside of Italy Collodi’s fairy tale has never been given the proper respect it deserves. No non-Italian and North American version has been able to convey the story’s richness in its entirety, frequently changing many of its aspects as to make it unrecognizable. 

Thankfully in Italy, various adaptations have successfully recreated Pinocchio from the book, and although not perfect, still illuminates the original text with all the goodness it contains. Matteo Garrone’s 2019 film is the latest of these Italian films, and assuredly one of the most genuinely faithful adaptations, totally beautiful, odd and complex like the novel. 

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Although changes in any adaptation are inevitable, what has been done to Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio in North America is nothing short of assault. By cherry-picking elements of the original for “mass consumption,” many filmmakers have sacrificed the richness and allegory of the story, its intrinsic Italian nature, and its layered commentaries, favouring a watered-down, simple retelling. Like the Fox and the Cat, these filmmakers have deceived audiences not familiar with the original story into buying something of lesser value, hiding their ever-growing noses.

However, the true Pinocchio will remain, and whether it is through reading the book or watching any of the Italian film adaptations, his timeless and rich adventures are always ready to be discovered by people of all ages. And that’s no lie. 

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