We’ve run into this problem before: First it was a novel. Then it was adapted, more successfully than faithfully, into a movie. Then came a film novelization, a novel designed to be more faithful to the movie than the movie was to the original novel. They did it to Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. More recently, it happened to Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon. It even happened to another book by Ian Fleming. And so your dilemma is this: which book do you buy or borrow, to read or give to your kids? Which counts as the classic?
Far be it from me to condemn film moguls for milking every penny they can out of their film rights. If the industry didn’t make them sickeningly rich, they wouldn’t feel keen to take risks on big, exciting, new movies. But from a book lover’s point of view, it does make me a mite mopey to see the original author’s labor of love shunted into a side-line, overshadowed by the multimedia empire that grew out of it. It’s an especially melancholy matter to muse on in the case of this book, which Ian Fleming—creator of the 100-million-plus-copies-selling James Bond series of novels, also better known today from the film franchise it inspired—wrote on his deathbed as a present for his little boy. The only children’s book he ever wrote, it was published two months after Fleming’s death in 1964. Four years later it became a hit movie with a screenplay co-written by Roald Dahl. Then somebody turned the screenplay into a novel, and that was published too. And though it’s a pretty safe bet that the film novelization is no longer in print, you can now enjoy at least three recent sequels to Fleming’s book written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. So if you want to read the classic children’s book that started it all, you’ll have to choose carefully.
The original book by Ian Fleming introduces us to the “crackpot” Pott family: Commander Caractacus Pott, a retired naval officer who now makes a meager living as a freelance explorer and inventor; his long-suffering wife Mimsie; and their good-natured twin children, Jeremy and Jemima. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a book written by a Dad who was also the creator of James Bond, most of the personality in the family goes to Caractacus. After he invents a new kind of candy and sells it to the local sweet-maker for a tidy sum, he buys a one-of-a-kind old racing car and rebuilds it in his inventing shed. Even in pieces, the old girl seems to have a mind of her own, making modifications to her own design while Pott is looking the other way. Once she is finished, the family takes her out for a spin and discovers that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (as she names herself, after the noises she makes when starting) really has more under the hood (or rather, bonnet) than anyone expected.
Yes, she can drive really fast. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can also fly like an aeroplane, and float like a speed-boat. Though even Caractacus Pott doesn’t know the purpose of all the levers and knobs on her dashboard, he soon learns well enough to obey when a light flashes at him saying, “PULL”—and to do it promptly, before another light adds, “IDIOT.” With one surprising feat after another, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang saves her family from being stuck in traffic, from drowning at high tide, and from becoming part of the evil plans of a gang of robbers led by Joe the Monster. The kids get a chance to show some independent character when they are kidnapped by Joe and his goons. But thanks to the latest addition to their family, everything turns out well.
The edition I read was part of a new imprint that was evidently designed to go with Cottrell Boyce’s sequels. So it shouldn’t be hard to get hold of. And once gotten hold of, it won’t be hard to enjoy. Although the idea of children’s literature including suspense, action, danger, and cliff-hangers, went against the taste of its time, it holds up pretty well today. The magical car in the story was old-fashioned even by 1964 standards, so today’s young readers may experience a little culture shock. Kids familiar with the movie may be surprised by how different it is. And readers looking for more attitude and spunk in their heroes may find the Pott family a little square. But Ian Fleming was clearly not an adult who talked down to children, but one who talked to them as equals, only giving them a little extra time to keep up. He uses big words like “conglomeration” and “transmogrify,” then explains them in littler words, like a forerunner of Lemony Snicket.
I predict that if a parent reads this book aloud to her children, or a teacher to his class, a lot of little voices will soon be joining in choruses of “GAH-GOOOH-GAH” and “But, but, but, and again BUT!” Everyone will be begging for 4,000-franc boxes of chocolate and craving the fudge recipe that Fleming includes in his book. And giving credit where due, I must admit that the 1968 movie starring Dick Van Dyke is a lot of fun, an excellent next stop after reading this book—though you can also expect some confabulation (to use another Ian Fleming word) about the differences between the book and the movie. And again, I can’t deny that Frank Cottrell Boyce is worthy, if anyone is, of continuing what Ian Fleming started. His sequels so far are titled Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Over the Moon.