“The Borrowed Soul”: Frankenstein and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

Spoilers Ahead

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio likens Geppetto to Victor Frankenstein with a single exception: one remains, the other abandons. Each reanimates; they imbue life into something that had a life but was stripped of it. Victor a body, Geppetto a tree. Notably, Victor collects parts from different bodies, yet never kills any of those unwilling donors. Geppetto hacks the tree himself, and there is an underlying violence and violation to the entire sequence, something implied but rarely vocalized directly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). That violation is present throughout the reception to her work, however, it’s one of the major elements discussed about Frankenstein, implying that del Toro’s latest film is related both to Shelley’s story and its reception or legacy. Shelley’s novel can be read in several simultaneous ways; it has this incredible ability to open itself and multiply, hence the number of adaptations it has inspired. Del Toro has long spoken about his affinity for Shelley’s novel, along with James Whale’s 1931 adaptation with Boris Karloff, going as far as to suggest that his definition of monstrosity comes from those combined works. Since his definition comes from the Creature, it follows that every monster, every outsider, and conflict therein, featured in his work comes from that equally literary and cinematic story. I’ve spent considerable time on this subject in my thesis, with Frankenstein and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), but Pinocchio is arguably the clearest adaptation of Shelley and Whale’s work in del Toro’s catalogue. It’s a film about fatherhood, and the good and bad that can arrive with that term. Comparing the works narratively reveals that they are essentially the same, just moving in opposite directions.

“I feel as though you’ve been here before. The wooden boy with the borrowed soul.”

Del Toro stages Pinocchio’s resurrection with lightening, tying Geppetto’s construction to the famous rebirth sequence in Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. Geppetto approaches the tree during a lightening storm, swinging his axe widely. He’s furious and heartbroken, having lost his son, no fault of his own, and now wanting to rebalance life by carving a replacement. It’s also not just any tree, it’s the one which sprouted beside his son’s grave, was fed by it. We are already seeing life from death before Geppetto strikes. The theme of life from death continues throughout the film, as Pinocchio dies several times, but is brought back because he is not human, he is not a ‘real boy’. Pinocchio discovers that being immortal still comes with a hefty price, as every death takes longer in the afterlife, and eventually he will outlive everyone he loves. These rebirths thus have consequences, as does his very creation. Like the Creature, Pinocchio is neither alive nor dead, he is caught between those terms. But unlike the Creature, people change their opinion of Pinocchio throughout the film. While God is notably absent in Frankenstein, there are literal spirits in del Toro’s work, and they look at Pinocchio with curiosity, not distain. There is uniformed disgust towards the Creature in Shelley’s text, as his mere existence is an affront to God, whose opinion is never voiced. While the townsfolk initially believe that Pinocchio is an abomination, like Victor’s creation, that opinion develops into something more sinister. Pinocchio becomes an opportunity, especially for characters like Count Volpe and the Podestà, even Geppetto.

For Geppetto, Pinocchio is an opportunity to become a father again, to bring back his lost son. It’s what Victor could have been had he not fled from his creation. Geppetto initially panics upon realizing his wooden puppet has sprung to life, but he quickly resolves himself to raising Pinocchio, and conflict builds from that decision. He returns and remains, or rather he cycles between, whereas Victor flees. Geppetto first believes that Pinocchio, with enough training and good behaviour, could become his lost son. Pinocchio’s desire to become a real boy is therefore a desire to become Geppetto’s dead son. It’s implied multiple times that Pinocchio is the soul of Geppetto’s dead son, but he never fully regains those memories nor transforms back into that boy. He get’s to be Pinocchio, and it’s only at the end of the film that he can be a real boy by being himself. While Pinocchio famously has no strings, each character tries to manipulate him through the guise of ‘teaching’, still treating him as a puppet. Pinocchio’s journey to becoming a real boy is thus indicative of himself and those around him.

“Imperfect fathers and imperfect sons.”

In Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor beholds his creation, the being he has spent months dedicating perverse science and isolation to, and flees. The Creature is forced to educate himself, picking up parts of knowledge from various places, mimicking his own creation. It’s left ambiguous whether the reader should trust the Creature’s account of this education, as he often leaves contradictions, but so does Victor. The novel ends with an elaborate chase, as Victor tracks the Creature through the arctic, with the Creature leaving clues for Victor to follow, culminating with Victor’s death. Upon seeing his dead father, the Creature announces that he plans to kill himself. The reader never learns if the Creature is successful, or if he even can die, having been created from multiple dead souls and bodies. Pinocchio follows a similar trajectory, but its characters have different intentions. It begins the same; an intelligent man, frustrated by the seeming uncontrollable reason of death and nature, creates a body. However, unlike Victor, Geppetto is widely drunk and does so in a fit of grief and range, not this meticulous study, one which Shelley notably never fully describes. Geppetto also doesn’t have the power to reanimate; he can’t do it again, as Victor attempts to with the Creature’s Bride. Pinocchio’s creation is pure circumstance, as the Blue Fairy hears Geppetto’s grief and decides to do something.

When Geppetto wakes up, and realizes that Pinocchio is alive, he faces the same terror as Victor, and briefly runs away before returning. Leaving and returning play a huge role in del Toro’s film, as each of the Father characters are separated from Pinocchio and return on at least one occasion, before they are firmly separated by death. Rather than being abandoned by his father in a literal sense, as the Creature was, Geppetto shouts at Pinocchio, thereby banishing him emotionally. By the time he awakens the next morning to apologize, it’s too late, and Pinocchio has left. Pinocchio absorbs whatever information he hears, whether or not he listens, and that begins with Geppetto telling him about noses and lying. It’s left unclear whether Pinocchio’s nose grows because he lies, or because his father told him that is what happens when you lie. Regardless, Geppetto’s fairy tale-like warning has worked itself into Pinocchio’s very existence. What follows is Pinocchio’s education, as like the Creature, he learns by walking into situations that have already begun, with stakes and fraught emotions, and trying to make sense of them. At the carnival, Pinocchio is caught in the abusive relationship between Count Volpe and his other son Spazzatura, the monkey. With Geppetto, Pinocchio is stuck between being himself and the son that Geppetto lost and is constantly comparing him to. With Candlewick, he is caught between the toxic father son paring that goes on to symbolize the war itself, raging around Pinocchio, and affecting those he loves.

“You may have no strings, but I control you.”

Because Pinocchio centers on fatherhood, del Toro’s film explores the many versions of that term. Yes, there are the literal and adopted fathers in the film, but it’s equally interested in the violent relationship between son and fatherland. There is no war in Frankenstein, nor in Carlo Collodi’s original Pinocchio text, which takes place in an ambiguous 19th century, as do its adaptations. Del Toro’s film is firmly located in 1930s Italy, even featuring Mussolini in a sequence just to make fun of him. The film is political in a very conscious way, like much of del Toro’s previous work, and those politics educate Pinocchio, just as the Creature was educated by the ongoing moral and philosophical discussions found in his travels. In one of my favourite sequences in the film, Pinocchio and Candlewick argue about who loves war more, shouting over one another, with neither boy really understanding what war is. I find this especially interesting because the Creature in Shelley’s work is only educated by people who understand a concept, somewhat. Here, Pinocchio and Candlewick are equally ignorant of what is happening, implying that while Pinocchio is this undead immortal being (like the Creature), ignorance is human nature and education sometimes comes too late. The following scene shows Candlewick and Pinocchio pitted against one another in play war, but that play ends very suddenly. When the two refuse to name a winner, calling it a tie, Candlewick’s father (the Podestà) tells him to shoot Pinocchio. Candlewick refuses and is attacked by his father, just as the camp is attacked by enemy gunfire. Son against father, soldier against fatherland, standing up for what is right. It’s left ambiguous whether Candlewick survives the ensuing gunfire, but it seems unlikely given that he dies in the original story from exhaustion, as his name foreshadows, blowing out like a thin wick. Much like the Creature, Pinocchio never learns what happens to certain people. Just as quickly as he is reunited with Candlewick and the Podestà, after leaving home, they are removed from his life.

“We shall call you Pinocchio.”

Continuing this Frankenstein journey, Geppetto follows Pinocchio across the country, guided by the various posters advertising Pinocchio’s act, as Victor once followed the Creature’s clues through the arctic. Whereas in Frankenstein, Victor dies before reaching the Creature, and the Creature returns to find him dead, Pinocchio saves his creator before dying, essentially reversing their roles just as Pinocchio is brought back to life. However, like Shelley’s text, the film ends with the death of Pinocchio’s father figures, both Geppetto and Sebastian J. Cricket. There is also some ambiguity on whether he can die and join them in the afterlife. Both Frankenstein and Pinocchio end with isolation, which allows the audience to imagine what happens next, especially with Pinocchio. He is still a wooden puppet, unlike previous Pinocchio adaptations. Both the Creature and Pinocchio want to become a real boy, and each story focuses on their difficulty with that label. It’s something they try to earn and are constantly ridiculed for not being. The Creature potentially becomes a real human by growing remorse at the end of the novel, and Shelley goes on to suggest that he always was human, but there are some complications to that label that even Victor is guilty of. That reading also depends on whether you believe the Creature or not. Pinocchio becomes a real boy at the end of every adaptation, yet here, it’s more of a mental change than physical. Pinocchio becomes a real boy at the end of del Toro’s film by returning to his father and finding joy together. Yet, that is the result of Geppetto realizing that Pinocchio is not his previous son, allowing Pinocchio to be someone else, in light of what he has learned about morals and the world. Simply put, del Toro’s film gives Pinocchio the ability to grow more than a nose, he grows into himself.

Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio (1881-1882), much like Shelley’s Frankenstein, has a cinematic legacy. In 2022, there have been two major adaptations: del Toro’s and Disney’s much critiqued version. I have not seen Disney’s adaptation, but it’s technically of their own 1940 version, versus Collodi’s original story. I have read that it changes the 1940’s emotional stakes, giving Pinocchio less to fight for. Apparently, he just sort of arrives at places, makes zero decisions, and is then whisked to another place, making his final transformation into a real boy feel unjustified. Along with these adaptations, there was a Pinocchio reference in the first episode of 2022’s Our Flag Means Death, a personal favourite of mine, which hilariously takes place nearly 170 years before Collodi published his text. I’ve heard there is a third adaptation, but I know little of it other than this moment in the trailer, which became notorious online. All of this raises the question: why is 2022 the year of Pinocchio? Is it in someway related to the isolation and lockdowns of previous years? Have directors become a fused version of Geppetto and Victor, alone with their assembled creations?

While I’ve not watched Disney’s adaptation, I was struck by one detail in the trailer: Pinocchio is CGI. It’s not surprising, given how many modern films use CGI, but my issue is that the story is about a puppet, so why not use a puppet? It seems like the perfect opportunity to bring in the Jim Henson company, which is exactly what del Toro did. He teamed up with co-director Mark Gustafson and writer Patrick McHale, known for the incredible Over the Garden Wall (2017)series, and went to the company renowned for puppets. Together, they created a remarkable film which showcases the sheer talent and beauty of stop-motion animation. Strangely enough, it’s not the first Pinocchio stop-motion project. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (otherwise known as Rankin/Bass) created a television series in the 60s about Pinocchio (The New Adventures of Pinocchio), long before they collaborated on projects like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). As this video explains, the show very quickly abandoned Pinocchio to focus on unrelated stories, but the show was still helmed under Pinocchio, who appeared in the opening credits. It’s as though Pinocchio’s name became synonymous with stories about young boys leaving home for adventure, similar to McHale’s Over the Garden Wall.

“I lived, actually lived, in the heart of the wooden boy.”

Given the number of adaptations, del Toro had multiple stories to build his Pinocchio, everything from literal adaptations to inspired. He chose to focus on puppets, in more ways that one, creating even further readings onto the Pinocchio tale. The world of del Toro’s film is entirely designed and manipulated, and while you can’t see the arm sculpting the characters’ every move and breath, it’s present. The level of attention given to this film is astonishing, not just the countless hours spent animating the story, but the thought given to elements like the score. It was composed on wooden instruments, to tie into Pinocchio being a wooden puppet, as though everything you are seeing and hearing in the movie, is part of that puppetry. This world is a puppet, it’s not just Pinocchio. Although it’s clear that Pinocchio looks different, each character is animated and built in a comparable way. The other characters also behave like puppets on several occasions, whereas Pinocchio refuses to follow. He defies Candlewick’s father and transforms Count Volpe’s show into a performance against Mussolini. Every figure is a puppet in some way, and that inherent puppet nature lends to the ending, as Pinocchio never transforms. He was always a real boy, so much as any of the characters are. Realizing that is the true transformation.

The reason Pinocchio is popular at the carnival is because he is a puppet without strings, and that’s a blessing and curse. He can’t be control, even by people who are looking out for him. What makes that reading even more intriguing is that Pinocchio, as a filmed puppet, does have strings. He has poles attached to position him, and wires inside to hold a pose. Pinocchio may not have strings in the story, but he is influenced by those around him, both character and filmmaker alike. It means that the film’s attention to fatherhood spreads into the very making of the film, it even appeared in marketing. Del Toro arrived for the premiere with one of the Pinocchio models, carrying him around for photos like a proud father. He’s also described in several articles what an uphill battle it was to create the film, particularly in stop-motion, which is meticulous and time consuming. It’s not often used in contemporary media for that reason, and when a film or show does want something stop-motion, they will often use digital animation just to look like stop-motion. While stop-motion is present in contemporary media, with recent celebrated films like Wendell & Wild (2022) and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (2022), it takes a lot of effort and time to create the astonishing final product. Like Victor’s method, it’s a process of carefully modeling and animating a body, piece by piece with you own hands and instruments.

“Life is such a wonderful gift.”

When Shelley describes Victor’s creation, she refuses to mention any details, arguing that Victor wants to control his method, so no one else could replicate it. Del Toro’s film argues the opposite, showing the audience its world and the dedication that built it. Like the difference between the Geppetto and Victor, the film focuses on what goes into animation, both Geppetto and the filmmaker’s effort. It remains with that subject, whereas Victor abandons his animation, with no explanation. Geppetto is thus just one of the skillful puppet makers in the film, as the stop-motion world he inhabits requires the same skill and love (which underlies Geppetto’s grief) to create real and sincere life.

Analysis portion aside, del Toro’s Pinocchio is a tremendous film. I was tempted to run up to the nearest stranger outside the theater and demand they attend the next screening. It’s funny and sincere, and I wish I could write more praise but unfortunately, I’ve only seen it once. The story is as well traveled as its titular character, yet it finds a home in del Toro’s world and the Frankenstein collection. There will be other adaptations of Pinocchio in years to come, but for me, this ranks above all else.