Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Truth About Pinocchio’s Lie

Last time, I talked about how Walt Disney made a career out of re-imagining other writers’ creations. To his credit, his adaptations of printed stories to animation were, unlike most book-to-movie attempts, superb. But he often took liberties with the source material. In Pinocchio’s case, what most of you saw on the theater screen was a mirror image of the original, darker tale.

Pinocchio’s creator, Carlo Lorenzini, wrote under the pseudonym Collodi, derived from his eponymous village in Florence, Italy. Like Bambi author Felix Salteen, Collodi was born to a family of modest means (the eldest of 10 children, his mother was a maid and his father a cook) and grew up to be a journalist, and later, an author.

Pinocchio was serialized in Il Giornale dei bambini ("The Journal for Children"), a  weekly children’s magazine, in 1881, under the title Storia di un Burattino (“The Story of a Marionette”). But unlike the cheery, sanguine wooden boy of the Disney film, this Pinocchio is an arrogant brat. In Collodi’s words, Pinocchio is a “confirmed rogue,” a “rascal,” a “wretched boy,” and a “disgrace.” When his “conscience,” Jiminy Cricket, berates him for his foul behavior, Pinocchio squashes the insect beneath a hammer. Disney left that scene on the cutting room floor.

But Collodi made sure Pinocchio paid for his sins. An annoyed neighbor pours freezing  water on him. While drying off on the stove, he burns off his feet. He encounters a puppeteer who wants to use him as firewood to cook his dinner. He travels deep into the forest, meeting a young, turquoise-haired fairy who tells him she’s dead and waiting for a hearse. Real kiddy fare, here. Already robbed by the fox and the cat, they return and lynch Pinocchio from the branch of an oak tree. The End.

Or not. Italian children were horrified. The publisher demanded the puppet be resurrected. Collodi complied, having the “Blue Fairy” save him. But Collodi was not done torturing his creation. In what would surely be labeled child abuse today, Pinocchio is robbed again; jailed in the city of Catchfools; struck senseless by a giant serpent (who dies after rupturing an artery laughing at the foolish puppet); caught in a weasel trap; collared and tied inside a doghouse; stripped naked and doused in flour; forced to cross-dress as a girl; turned into a donkey; sold to a circus; drowned; and swallowed by a shark. At one point, woodpeckers chisel his elongated wooden nose after he has lied.

Understandably, Walt Disney sought to lighten the somber tone when he made his cartoon version in 1940. I suspect the darker original tale might be a hit with today’s desensitized youth, who have grown up in a less wholesome world of movie and television violence. Collodi died in his native Florence, in 1890. He never married or fathered children –  probably for the best, if Storia di un Burattino was any indication of his attitude toward kids.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

It Happened in the Forest

I think the most terrifying moment of my childhood occurred when, at age 4, I was seated in a movie theater watching Bambi with my mother when, without warning, a shot rang out and Bambi’s mother fell dead to the ground, a victim of a hunter’s bullet. Up until that instant, I had been entertained by a light-hearted cartoon. Suddenly, like Bambi, I was thrust into a coming of age moment.

The thought of losing one’s mother to a violent death would probably traumatize most young children. It has always seemed incongruous to me, Walt Disney, a man who built an empire on children’s tales, would pen such frightening fare for impressionable young minds. Turns out, he didn't.

Disney was a master of appropriating other writers’ creations and branding them with the Disney stamp. Cinderella (written by Charles Perrault in 1697), Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi, 1883), The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen, 1837), Beauty and the Beast (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, 1740), The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling, 1894), 101 Dalmatians (Dodie Smith, 1956), Mary Poppins (P.L. Travers, 1934), Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie, 1902), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (The Brothers Grim – Wilhelm and Jacob – 1812). In fact, when you strip away all the authors responsible for much of the “Walt Disney’s (fill-in-the-blank)” empire, there’s barely enough original creativity left for the rats… ahem, a mouse.

Bambi – from the Italian word “Bambino” (baby) – is indeed a coming of age film, tracing the deer’s life from birth through adulthood. The tale was written by Felix Salteen, whose own Bildungsroman is worthy of novelization. Born Siegmund Salzmann, Salteen was an impoverished Hungarian Jew who moved to Vienna, Austria and became a self-taught writer, journalist, and theater critic. He began by writing letters to newspapers and short stories. That led to a job writing obituaries, which he did with such passion, he soon made a name for himself. Salteen became prominent in Vienna’s Jewish literary scene and coffeehouse culture. In 1923, he wrote Bambi: A Life in the Woods.

Most people associate Walt Disney with Bambi; few recognize Felix Salteen for his creation. As a writer – and a creator – I find that sad, and rather unfair.

Salteen fled Austria when the Nazis arrived in 1938. The Third Reich had banned Bambi in 1936. Six years later, Disney brought the story to the big screen. I doubt Salteen, who had sold his rights to the story in 1933, ever saw a dime from the movie. He died, three years after its release.

Felix Salteen wrote another novel the same year he wrote Bambi; The Hound of Florence, about a man who changes into a dog every other day. But then, you've probably seen it… as Walt Disney’s The Shaggy Dog.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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A drunken Irishman stumbles across a man he believes to be a leprechaun, who shows him the true treasure he already has but doesn't appreciate. A short story by Keith B. Darrell. 4,041 words.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Imperious Pair of Fools

This has been a disturbing week in which two democratic leaders revealed they really don’t understand the concept of democracy. In a democracy, “all men are created equal”, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson said that precept was “sacred” and “undeniable”. Benjamin Franklin called it “self-evident”. Abraham Lincoln held the American democracy was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The corollary to that principle is every citizen, being equal, is entitled to one vote. Democracies are governed by a majority of votes, not by a majority of individuals sharing common characteristics such as skin color or sexual preference.

Antonin Scalia should know this. He is one of nine Supreme Court justices, a powerful position that, by definition, requires judgment and fairness. So it is understandably shocking when he would state from the judicial bench, as he did the other day during arguments over whether to repeal the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the protections the Act provides blacks and other minorities is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” 

An entitlement is a right granted by law, although in the common vernacular, the term has become associated with (earned or unearned) benefits bestowed by government. In a democracy, the right to vote is neither a benefit to be bestowed by government, nor even a right to be granted. It is a fundamental right, inherent in the very concept of democracy, inuring to every citizen, vesting when he or she attains a predetermined age. It is not predicated on race, Justice Scalia, nor does it have any time limit or expiration date – it is a perpetual right, not subject to questioning of its perpetuation. Any Justice who could state otherwise, and imply a more invidious sentiment, is neither qualified nor deserving to serve on the Supreme Court.

In a democracy, all citizens are equal, even if they are members of a discrete minority class. The man who brought democracy to Poland, and was lauded for doing so with accolades ranging from the Nobel Peace Prize to the cover of Time magazine, should understand this. Apparently, he does not. On Friday, Polish freedom fighter turned president Lech Walesa announced homosexuals, being a minority, have no right to a prominent role in politics – “They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to great heights.”  He added gays have no right to sit on the front benches in parliament and if present, should sit in back “or even behind a wall.”

What makes democracy arguably superior to other forms of government is precisely the ability of any individual, being deemed equal under the law, to rise to great heights. That’s why, in our American democracy, a member of a minority can rise to become president. A Quaker named Nixon did. A black man named Obama did. And even a Catholic named Kennedy did. Something two other Catholics – Antonin Scalia and Lech Walesa – should keep in mind. Because, one never knows when one will find oneself in the minority.

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