By DR. DAVID KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published March 21, 2019
There are few issues upon which I disagree with Flannery O’Connor, but there is one critical appraisal she made that I have never appreciated, and it matters little to me that she passed this judgment when she was just a child.
As anyone who has been to O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah knows, O’Connor was a critic from an early age. Visitors to the house can actually view O’Connor’s library of books for young readers, and people are often surprised to see that the young Flannery often wrote her opinions of books on the volumes’ flyleaves and endpapers.
Of one volume, she simply refers to it as perhaps the worst book she ever read. The book is Pinocchio, one of the first books I ever adored as a child.
Now, to be fair, O’Connor didn’t scorn the edition of the book I knew as a child and still cherish as an adult. Pinocchio has been published in so many poor adaptations, abridgements and hack jobs that it is difficult to find a definitive literary edition that captures the imagination and intellect of both children and adults. But one beautiful edition does exist, and it celebrates its 50th American birthday this year. Translated from the Italian by Carol Della Chiesa and marvelously illustrated by Attilio Mussino, the Macmillan Publishing Company gave American children a great gift indeed when it published its “Big Pinocchio,” as it will forever be known, in 1969.
Pinocchio has its roots deep within Italian folklore, but the version of the story as we know it was first written by Carlo Collodi (the pen name of Carlo Lorenzini) in 1881 and serialized that same year in an Italian children’s magazine.
Pinocchio has always been associated with the visual, and even poor editions of the story usually include illustrations, but the drawings and paintings Mussino first made in 1911 endure as the finest. Macmillan actually used the illustrations in its first American edition of the book in 1925, but the 1969 reissue was a publishing event—a large volume with enhanced illustrations and 36 wonderfully organized chapters that are designed for night-by-night readings. Macmillan returned the Big Pinocchio to print in 1989, for its 20th anniversary, and the book remains in print 30 years later in a large and glossy trade binding.
The Catholic devotion within
You know the story of Pinocchio, and you know its many practical lessons. What you might not know is that both on the surface and deeply embedded within the subtext are fascinating insights into Italian folkways and Catholic devotion. Pinocchio teaches children—and us—that actions have consequences, that choices define us, that mystery and fate are at work in the universe, and that all of us are called to become real. A lie really is as plain as the nose on your face. It’s true that if you act like a jackass, then that is what you will become. And, yes, we are possessed of free will and a conscience. Yet the story also affirms the power of purity and devotion, particularly to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Google images for Pinocchio and you will be bombarded with the 1941 Walt Disney interpretation of the tale. The Disney version, as Richard Schickel terms Disney film adaptations, does with Pinocchio what it does with all its fairy tale movies. It takes a source text from a particular cultural tradition, maintains the essence of the plot, filters the themes through an idealized set of American values and myths, and visualizes the characters according to the unique genius of the Disney style. In doing so, the Disney version overwhelms the original text, and much of the cultural attributes are lost.
Pinocchio is different from the other classic Disney features in that Disney and his animators had a profound visual resource from which to create their film. The Disney studio knew the Mussino illustrations. While the characters of Pinocchio, the cricket (re-named Jiminy), and the Blue Fairy are uniquely Disney’s, the overall visual style of the film is straight from the Mussino illustrations. This is particularly true in the background, or matte, paintings and in the several minor characterizations. In several instances, they seem to have come direct from the Mussino easel.
Illustrations that endure
Ironically, it took Disney’s Pinocchio many years to make a substantial profit. Audiences in 1941 weren’t sure if the film was suitable for children, so they stayed away from daytime matinees. Adults who might have gone to the picture in the evening—as they did for Snow White—didn’t attend because they thought the film was indeed simply a children’s movie. At any rate, the film is a masterpiece of animation, though its version of the marionette has trounced the Mussino image like one of Geppetto’s mallets.
But not for people of my age. There are few books that absolutely seize the imagination of a child. Iconic examples such as Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh come to mind. Mussino’s illustrations of Pinocchio are like universal archetypes for childhood mischief and whimsy, anxiety and fear. Upon the publication of the 1969 Big Pinocchio, Maria Cimino wrote that “one can almost get the movement of the story from the pictures without reading it.”
The book had a profound impact upon me as a child because its vivid illustrations were both eerie and comforting, familiar and strange, at once. Looking at the pictures while listening to the compelling text meant entering another world for thirty minutes each evening. My sons had the same experience when I read the book to them. And for all of us, the illustrations endure in the memory as far more evocative and mysterious than most books we read as children.
My sons knew that the Blue Fairy, who Mussino imagines in a variety of guises, was the Blessed Virgin Mary. They probably learned as much about her love and protection from Pinocchio as they did in Catholic preschool. They knew that the Fox and the Cat—as well as Fire Eater, the Coachman, the Assassins, and the Serpent—were forces of evil. And they instinctively sensed that Geppetto, Pinocchio’s creator and father, was very much like God.
Made in the image of our creator, all of us are called to a life of purpose, a life of joy and wonder, a life of love. In short, as Thomas Merton knew, we are called to become what we are. Pinocchio, like all of us, wants to be real. His long saga towards that destiny is guided by Mary, his conscience, and his father’s love. But in the instance of the Big Pinocchio, Attilio Mussino plays an equal role in bringing the puppet to life.
David A. King, Ph.D., is a professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.