Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to darker themes in literature. Throughout his career, his films have been influenced by the themes and characters of fairy tales. One of del Toro’s signatures is that he adds the political climate of their inception to the plots of his films, and the characters wrestle with the issues surrounding the children his fairy tales are centered around. As he tells his stories, he adds his touch to the iconic monsters that are both beautiful and horrifying, often leaving the viewer questioning the nature of the beasts, their “human condition.” His films then tend to be littered with symbolism that is seen through children’s eyes, leading the viewer to question the reality of the symbol themselves. The result is a profoundly affecting chimera of fantasy. His characters may go through a metamorphosis or even rebirth resulting from their own decisions; more or less like an epic tale.


In the classic novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, we see a darker tale than the modern reimagining that has been popularized in contemporary literature. Geppetto is a lonely, destitute man who longs to make a living as a puppeteer. A block of wood is given to him by a frightened carpenter, terrified when the block of wood cries out. The carpenter then gives the wood to Geppetto, who carves it into a boy puppet. The puppet comes to life, and by all accounts, except for his body, he is a naughty young man. He then goes on a series of hedonistic adventures while constantly trying to earn money for Geppetto and learn to “be good.” In his adventures, he encounters a string of characters that seek to use or trick him for their benefit.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Image Via Netflix

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Pinocchio’s original intent is to teach children to mind their parents, study, and be obedient. Since then, multiple adaptions later, Pinocchio has become less unruly, more selfless, and loving toward Geppetto. Today, it can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition, questioning what it truly means to be “alive.” Furthermore, it adds to the human condition by ending with the ultimate message: if you love and act kindly, you will be rewarded with love and growth in return. What’s interesting about the original story is that it does not have an answer, nor does it beg the karmic question as to why Pinocchio ends up in the hands of Geppetto in the first place. The reader can assume that it was an instance of not knowing the two spirits needed one another or an entirely serendipitous occurrence.

A Story of Loss Adds to del Toro’s Tale

Pinocchio and Geppetto in Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio
Image via Netflix

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio answers that question by giving Geppetto (David Bradley) a son, Carlo, who died in an accidental bombing in his town during the First World War. Geppetto grieves the loss of his son, effectively putting his life on hold due to the pain of this loss. It’s never explicitly said, but given the events in the film, it can be understood that this grieving period lasts about 20 years or so, as Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) enters his life during the Second World War, coming from a pine tree that grows near Carlo’s grave. One drunk night, a grieving Geppetto cuts down a piece of the tree and carves it into a boy. When he wakes up in a still-drunk stupor the following day, the puppet has come to life again and is called “Pinocchio.” Pinocchio still goes on adventures, longing for a place in the world and the love of his father, Geppetto.

Initially, Geppetto projects his love for his son onto Pinocchio, logically knowing that he is not Carlo, but hoping he will come to be like him. As the story progresses, Geppetto accepts that Pinocchio is not an incarnation of Carlo but is unapologetically himself. In so doing, he begins to cope with his grief, eventually finding happiness again. Although he is aware that the loss of Carlo will never fully heal, his love for Pinocchio makes it possible for him to move on. As a result, Pinocchio entering his life serves a purpose that leaves him more fulfilled. This is a departure from the original story because the focus is not on his obedience but on how each human spirit can participate in each other’s healing and self-acceptance.

War Darkens the Themes

Cricket (Ewan Mcgregor) in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Image via Netflix

Del Toro does not shy away from some of the story’s original themes, though by continuing to present different aspects of the human condition. Congruent to the original story, a series of characters enter Pinocchio’s life in an attempt to use him for their own gain. In past renditions, an evil puppeteer presents as an antagonist who seeks to make him the star of his puppet show. Del Toro includes this character as Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), but adds several characters to illustrate further the darker side of humanity presented in the fable.

Pinocchio (2022) introduces The Podestà (del Toro favorite, Ron Perlman) to the story, who is the father of the classic character, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard). Consistent with many of del Toro’s themes, a podestà during the time of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Regime was a sort of authoritarian mayor to municipalities of Italy. The Podestà in Pinocchio does not like Pinocchio at first. He believes him to be rebellious and lacking discipline. He then demands he goes to school and eventually thinks he would be the perfect soldier to fight in the war upon seeing that Pinocchio cannot die. Pinocchio is then enlisted with Candlewick into a training camp, whereby The Podestà bullies his son and pushes him to be cruel, believing he is weak and therefore, a disappointment. Dissimilar to previous iterations of the tale, Candlewick begins as a bully but later befriends Pinocchio. Pinocchio teaches him to stand up to his father and shows him that kindness and compassion are not weaknesses but fully contributing attributes to humanity. Simultaneously, del Toro shows his viewers that pride is also a part of the human condition by giving us The Podestà, who only sees his child as an extension of himself rather than his own person.

As has been consistent in his career, del Toro honors the meaning of fairy tales by teaching his audience a series of lessons that speak to what it means to be human. As has also been a theme of Pinocchio’s story, the idea of what it means to be “real” goes deeper than flesh in Pinocchio, and reminds us all that love, selflessness, and acceptance are not merely words but pillars to strive for as humans. Maybe we all have something to learn from a little wooden boy with a heart as large as a tree trunk.

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