Pinocchio: Characterizations in Book and Disney Film

For this week’s guest post from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature”, Cody Smith takes us back to Pinocchio to consider the differences between Collodi’s book and Disney’s film, and why those differences might matter.
By Cody Smith
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When the media behemoth Disney decides to adapt a story for modern audiences, the staff involved usually edits the material to make it more accessible and child-friendly. In the case of the classic book The Adventures of Pinocchio, Walt Disney and his crew changed the presentations of the characters in a number of ways. Although many people may take these changes at face value, I find it more interesting to analyze the reasons why certain changes in particular characters exist, most notably in our titular protagonist.
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Collodi’s and Disney’s characterizations of Pinocchio differ in subtle ways. In the classic novel, Pinocchio can be see as the quintessential  petulant child in that he constantly makes mistakes, diverges from his instructions, and treats his authority figures with indirect contempt. Even though he affirms to himself that he will follow the instructions of his father and the blue fairy, he almost always gives into temptation and disobeys them. This character trait parallels the Disney version of Pinocchio, who succumbs to the same temptations; however, the Disney Pinocchio displays much more innocence than the book version. Disney’s Pinocchio lacks basic knowledge of human nature and is fooled repeatedly by the fox and the cat, which can be attributed to his naivety. Collodi’s Pinocchio, although also lacking knowledge, disobeys his superiors much more often than the Disney Pinocchio and even treats his father badly at time. When Pinocchio first meets his father in the book, he insults him and gives little respect for the fact that he created him. This lack of respect becomes a recurring theme early in the book, especially when Pinocchio sells the ABC book his father gave to him, which he paid for by selling off his only coat. The Disney Pinocchio loves his father tremendously and never purposely insults him nor abuses him, which adds more to Disney’s characterization of an innocent but naive Pinocchio. On a more aesthetic level, the book Pinocchio is often presented in a creepy, realistic fashion in illustrations, while the Disney Pinocchio is much more anthropomorphized and looks almost like a normal little boy.
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Why does Disney characterize Pinocchio as an innocent, naive boy while the original character displays much more insensitivity? I think the answer lies in a cultural shift. When the book was published, nearly almost all of books for children were created primarily to teach lessons and give children examples of morality. Parents were much more concerned with having children’s books teach rather entertain, which is clearly evident in the novel. The novel also arguably depicts a much more authentic child as well. By attempting to replicate a child’s immaturity and tendency to disobey a parent, Collodi directly appeals to parents and their pursuit to teach and discipline their children. Although Disney’s film still recognizes and demonstrates the same basic lessons, the idea of entertaining the audience is much more prevalent. If Pinocchio had remained as rude as he was in the novel, audiences probably would not have responded well and ignored the film. By giving Pinocchio a more child-like innocence and cuteness, Disney has not only given children a character to relate to but also one that parents can sympathize with and adore. Some may argue that the Disney film does not accomplish the task of teaching children how to respect their parents as well as the original novel; however, I think the Disney film actually balances the various elements of a children’s work much  more aptly than Collodi attempted to do in the novel. The last thing children want to read in their books is constant lecturing and condescension and the Disney film injects the moral of the story naturally among the entertainment. Although Collodi’s message may be subdued, Disney’s adaptation reflects a much better understanding of what appeals to both parents and children.
Cody is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.
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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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