Backstage Pinocchio – Dan on Adapting for the Stage

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Within the vast and continuing history of children’s literature there exists a few rare and special characters that, over time, gain a life far beyond the pages of the book that brought them to life. Alice and Peter Pan, Winnie the Poo and Toad of Toad Hall; these lucky few have wandered far from their starting point, and roam through our imaginations to lands way beyond their home. Pinocchio, the little puppet boy who came to life, is part of this rare and elite group. In some ways he is far more famous that the book that spawned him. People may have seen the Disney’s film, they may know him through cartoons or comic strips, or they may have heard tell of a little boy whose nose grows when he lies, but Pinocchio’s original storybook is nowhere near as well-known as its central character.

Returning to Carlo Collodi’s original novel can come as a bit of a shock to the uninitiated. The first thing you notice is how dark and dangerous the world is. Death and poverty stalk all the characters, the threat of hunger and disease hangs over their every move. Pinocchio’s lies and misdeeds are not just the inconsequential actions of a naughty boy, they often bring down a swift, cruel, corrective punishment. Thieves lose their paws, lazy children turn into donkeys, judges and the law seem arbitrary and vicious. The book is written with a deeply satirical eye, and though it has a simple and accessible form aimed at young audiences, it also has the uncompromising social criticism of 19th Century English writers like Charles Dickens. In many ways it feels like a fantastical version of Dickens’ Oliver or Nicholas Nickleby.

Collodi’s novel was originally written as a series of short articles for an Italian children’s newspaper in 1881. The most famous sequences, like the growing nose, or Pinocchio being swallowed by a sea monster, are just a couple of chapters out of a final total of thirty six. The rest of the story, which was finally published as a complete novel in 1883, is packed full of numerous, vaguely-related episodes from Pinocchio’s life. Though there is some sort of through-line to the book, it is faint and meandering at best. My first job in adapting the book for the stage has been to hone down the story to its essential elements.

The starting image for Collodi’s story is a little boy being made, carved from wood, by Geppetto’s hands. This act of practical masculine magic springs, unexplained, out of nowhere. It is only later in the book, when Pinocchio is found hung from a tree, that he is resurrected and brought to life by the maternal magic of the Blue Fairy. These two magical figures, mother and father to Pinocchio, are at the heart of the tale. Their expectations, disappointments and hopes for their surrogate child reflect the anxieties faced by all parents the world over. Pinocchio’s journey through the book, from a self-centred and selfish boy to a kind and selfless young man by the end, reflects the journey to maturity that we hope all children will take. It is these two central ideas, the journey to adulthood and the tribulations of parenthood, that I took as my central themes.

With my themes secure I have taken a very liberal and free-hand with my adaptation. Characters have changed in radical ways, Pinocchio included, many episodes have been abandoned, the order has been rearranged and the dialogue has almost entirely been rewritten. However, I hope, though my stage version is very different from the book, it still honours the essence of Collodi’s original vision, preserving both its light and dark sides; its danger and its wonder.

My main aim has been to create a rich and engaging story that can be enjoyed by all the family. Within this story there are moment of fear and sadness, moments where a child may hold a little tighter to their guardian’s hand, but these moments are balanced by excitement and adventure, fun and laughter. Pinocchio journey from a naïve and selfish boy to a brave and noble young man is not an easy one, but by journeying with him I hope both the young, and the older members of the audience, will learn a lesson about friendship and love which can give them courage in their own lives.

dan – Dr Daniel Winder

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