Happy Ending: How Guillermo Del Toro Reinvented The Fairytale

The story of Pinocchio has, in the hands of Guillermo del Toro, ended up in fascist Italy – but it makes total sense in the Mexican auteur's world of monsters, finds Nathaniel Ashley

Fairy tales are, by their very nature, fantastical stories. Often set in far-away kingdoms filled with magic, they offer forms of escapism designed to delight the imagination. So it makes sense that many cinematic adaptations, from 1950’s Cinderella to Frozen in 2013, are set in fictional worlds, free from the constraints of physics or geopolitics. Even films set in the real world, such as Princess and the Frog in 2009 or Disney’s 1940 animation Pinocchio, typically avoid referring to specific historical events in favour of a more generic, imagined past. But Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio uses Italy’s dark history to completely reframe the story, changing it from a lesson in duty and responsibility into a celebration of otherness.

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was first published in Italian in serial form, beginning in 1881 and ending in 1883. The tale of a puppet who is granted life and learns to be a real boy, it espouses the importance of duty in the face of temptation. The story proved to be a huge success, staying in publication to this day and becoming the third most translated book of all time. Collodi based the structure of his story on traditional folk tales, which had been passed down for generations, lending a timeless air to a story rooted in the experiences of Italian workers emigrating in the wake of industrialisation.

Disney’s animated feature film Pinocchio leans into this timeless aspect – the exact period is never specified, and there are no mentions of any of the political changes occurring across Italy in the late 19th century. In many ways, it feels far more specific to America in the 20th century, with the children on Pleasure Island speaking in 1950s mid-Western slang. Though not the first cinematic adaptation of the story, it became the most iconic, at least in the English-speaking world.

Beloved Mexican director Guillermo del Toro moves the action to Italy in between the First and Second World Wars, showing the steady, insidious rise of fascism. The first suggestion of this comes early in the film, when Gepetto and his first son, Carlo, travel into their village. One of the villagers, played by del Toro favourite Ron Perlman, remarks that they look like a proper Italian family. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment, but hints at the growing obsession with duty and conformity that would later sweep the nation.

After the death of Gepetto’s son, the film skips forward in time. In the intervening period, posters of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini are plastered all over the village’s walls, and Perlman’s villager has become a local official and zealous supporter of the fascist movement. As Mussolini’s popularity grows, fascism begins to exert its influence on the story itself. When Pinocchio is forced into working for the circus, the owner, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) uses his new star to earn an audience with Mussolini. Though the figure of Mussolini is played for laughs, the shadow of the movement he gave birth to infects the film, pulling the characters into its seemingly inescapable gravity.

This is not the first time del Toro has combined fascism and fairy tales. 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth follows a young girl in 1944 who discovers a magical world that helps her escape the harsh realities of Spain under the rule of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Inevitably, the two worlds collide with horrifying and tragic results. Unlike Pinocchio, it is not a direct adaptation of any folk tales, but it does play on the idea of old magic clashing with the modern world, as well as highlighting the influence of fascism outside Germany.

Why is a Mexican director best known for his love of magical creatures and worlds so fascinated with 20th century fascism? The cynical answer is that by placing stories designed for children within the context of mankind’s greatest atrocity, he grounds the fantastical story, providing heightened stakes.

But this ignores another running theme throughout del Toro’s films: his love of monsters. The director has repeatedly discussed his adoration for creatures that go bump in the night, beginning with his experience as a child in awe of Boris Karloff’s performance as the monster in 1931’s Frankenstein. For a boy who grew up albino and struggling with his body image, monsters embody the purest representation of ‘the Other’ unable to fit in with conventional society. Del Toro even lovingly recreates the birth of Frankenstein’s monster in Pinocchio, with Gepetto manically carving away at the puppet as lightning strikes behind the window.

This love of the monstrous appears throughout the filmmaker’s work. 2004’s Hellboy follows a grumpy demon fighting to save humanity, despite the fact that almost everyone who meets him is terrified by his grotesque appearance. The theme is even clearer in his Best Picture winner The Shape of Water from 2017, telling the story of a romance between a mute cleaner and a humanoid sea-creature kept captive by a shadowy government organisation. Though undeniably alien in appearance, the sea creature proves far more empathetic than the cleaner’s human bosses.

It’s in this context that del Toro’s fascination with the horrors of fascism makes sense. Where monsters embody the outcasts of the world, fascism is perhaps the most extreme example of a violently conformist society that persecutes those who do not fit into an extremely narrow demographic.

Even when he’s not explicitly addressing fascism, del Toro’s films are often set in times of moral panic, when individuality is stifled. Shape of Water is set in a 1960s America driven to paranoia by the Cold War, with Michael Shannon’s increasingly unhinged Colonel demonstrating the fear and barely repressed hatred that lies beneath the seemingly polite suburban surface.

For del Toro, magic is the absolute opposite of fascism, a phenomenon that cannot be explained, or forced into the neat categories that define any rigid hierarchical system. By planting magical stories into some of the darkest periods in human history, del Toro shines a light on the monstrosity of a monolithic society.

This emphasis on the virtues of difference becomes even clearer towards the end of the film. Toyland, the place where children are allowed to do nothing but play all day, is ingeniously reframed as a fascist youth camp, where Pinocchio and the podesta’s son, Candlewick, are taught to fight for the glory of Italy. Here, Candlewick has to unlearn the nationalist, militarist rhetoric of the fascist party and rebel against his father.

Where Collodi’s book focused on the importance of respecting your elders and following your duties, del Toro’s version celebrates disobedience, and the importance of accepting those who are different. Pinocchio may have escaped his strings, but by binding the puppet to real events del Toro has reinvented a classic story.

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