"The Adventures of Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi is an incredibly imaginative, utterly bizarre, and fast-paced piece of fiction.
The story originally appeared in serialized form in Italian Newspapers, starting in 1881, and was collected in book form in 1883. The serialization accounts for the story's rapid pace and non-stop action: every episode (or chapter) had to contain enough story to entertain on its own, though no single chapter stands as an individual story.
There are a multitude of differences in the details of Collodi's novel of the Disney animated feature (and I'll list a few of the more surprising, funny, or noteworthy ones in a bit), but the biggest difference between the two has to be the characterization of the little puppet boy himself.
Sure, Disney's Pinocchio is pretty naive and has a tendency to make choices based on short-term gratification rather than morality - those are trait's he has in common with Collodi's original, but there is also always a sweetness about him: he loves Gepetto, he wants to be good, he just gets tripped up along the way.
The novel's Pinocchio, on the other hand, spends much of the novel as a mean-spirited, cocky, spiteful monster. He's constantly, willfully choosing to do the wrong thing. He's nasty to almost everyone he encounters, whether they wish to help or harm him. After getting kicked around a lot because of these poor choices, he begins to form a little more of a moral center, but for much of the novel he's an extremely unlikable character. As a result, when he's punished or imperiled (and this is a lot of the time), the reader is likely to either indifferent or even glad, rather than fearful for his well being.
Disney's version is a big improvement, in my opinion. Not only does it make Pinocchio himself a character you don't mind watching for a whole movie, but I think it makes the morals a little stronger too. Collodi's Pinocchio is a nasty little brat, so it's no surprise that his poor decisions get him in trouble. The Disney version shows that even kids who are basically good and want to do the right thing can be tricked off of the right path if they're not careful.
Some of the interesting differences in the novel:
- Crickets: There's no Jiminy Cricket. There is, however, a character called the Talking Cricket. He meets Pinocchio very early on and gives him some good advice. In response, Pinocchio throws a mallet at him and kills him. Seriously. The Talking Cricket does make a thee more brief appearances in the novel: once as a ghost, then as part of a magically-summoned group of creature doctors, and then inexplicably alive again in the closing chapter.
- Blue Hair/Blue Fairy: The character than inspired the Blue Fairy is, first, a little girl with blue hair who wants to be Pinocchio's sister. Then she's a fairy with blue hair who volunteers to be his mother. Later, she appears as a goat with a blue mane.
- Death: At one point, Pinocchio is caught and hung by the fox and the cat. He dies. Collodi actually intended that to be the end of his tale, but public outcry from fans got him to return to the story and bring the puppet boy back to life. The serialized format really came in handy there.
- Funland/Pleasure Island/Donkeys: This sequence of the novel was adapted the most closely by the Disney movie, but there are still some major differences. Pinocchio's classmate Lampwick lures the puppet away from school with promise of a place called Funland where little boys are free to misbehave and never study. After spending several months there, both boys contract Jackass Fever and completely transform into donkeys. Yes, Pinocchio too goes the full donkey. The man who runs Funland then sells them to separate owners.
- Pinocchio ends up as a performing donkey in the circus until he breaks a leg. He's then sold to a man who intends to drown him and use his hide to make a drum. Donkey Pinocchio is plunged into the water where - no kidding - he is attacked by fish who eat away all his donkey flesh, revealing the wooden puppet body still underneath. It's really disturbing.
- Talking Puppet? Not a huge deal. No one seems particularly alarmed or surprised to meet an independently walking and talking puppet boy throughout the novel. In fact, unlike in the Disney movie, he's far from unique. When Pinocchio falls in with a puppet show, somewhat similar to Stromboli's in the movie, ALL of the puppets are thinking, feeling creatures as alive as he is.
- A last look. One of the things I really like about the Collodi novel that I wish had been more incorporated into the Disney film is the inclusion in the closing chapter of many of the characters Pinocchio had encountered throughout his journey. It's in this chapter that we learn the Talking Cricket is alive (though we don't learn how). We see poor Lampwick again - still a donkey - just before he dies from having been worked to death. The villainous Fox and Cat (obviously the inspiration of J. Worthington "Honest John" Foulfellow and Gideon), are now broke, homeless, and sickly from living as thieves and tricksters. Several other characters - including a fun little slug - get a final appearance too.
- When Pinocchio becomes a (SPOILER ALERT) real boy at the end of the story, he doesn't transform from a puppet into a boy, he wakes up in a new real boy body. The puppet body still exists, but is now a lifeless husk. Kind of creepy.
NOTE: Illustrations on this post by original Pinocchio artist Enrico Mazzanti.