Old Favorite: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Who wouldn’t want a magical car that could fly?  (I could really have used one last week, when I was on vacation. Much better than sitting in airports for layovers!)  If you need a car that drives on roads, sails in the sea or flies in the air,  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming (yes, THAT Ian Fleming) might be the car you’d choose!

* * *

Jeremy and Jemima Pott live with their father Commander Caractacus Pott, R.N. (Retired)  and their mother Mimsie Pott in a wood beside a big lake with an island in the middle. It’s a beautiful place to live, but they really can’t get out anywhere because they need a motorcar. When Commander Pott (who is an explorer and an inventor) creates an amazing flute-like candy, Jeremy and Jemima become experts in making music with them…enough to get noticed by the town’s big candymaker, Lord Skrumshus.  After selling the recipe for Crackpott Whistling Sweets, the family finds themselves with enough money from to actually buy a car.  And off they go to look.

They look high and low, but nothing seems quite interesting enough for this unique family.  Until they find a wreck. At first, it looks nothing like a car, more  like a pile of parts.  Buried under a tarp at the local garage, it was a wrecked old one-of-a-kind race car from the thirties. But the Potts see something special, so they hire a tow truck and bring the pile of scrap back to Commander Pott’s workshop.  Only Jemima notices the license plate–Gen11.  Or is it Genii?

Commander Pott fiddles and cleans and polishes and works for three months on the old car. Until, one day, he calls Mimsie and Jeremy and Jemima in for a test drive. He turns the key and:
(with a distinct pause between each noise, and the sounds sort of like two big sneezes followed by two small explostions) the car is off!

The Potts family enjoys their new motorcar immensely. Enough that they decide to take her for a picnic at the shore. Unfortunately, almost every other family in England seems to have had the same thought. In the middle of a huge traffic jam, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang suddenly shows a new knob that says “IDIOT!”  And when Commander Potts pushes the “IDIOT!” light, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang undergoes the most extraordinary transmogrification the family has ever seen…she grows wings!

Suddenly, the Potts are the proud owners of the most interesting car in the world. They decide to have their picnic on a deserted beach, which sets off a spectacularly dangerous chain of events including being marooned, finding caves full of gangsters, a kidnapping, some bank robbers and even the opportunity to befriend French chocolatiers.

Hm. Maybe there is something to that license plate!

* * *

Probably when most people think of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they think of the film starring Dick Van Dyke. But although the car in the movie looks like the book’s Chitty, and some of the characters have the same names, the story is completely different.  Unrecognizably so.

(Here, I will have to confess that I loved the movie, and saw it at the theater when it came out. My mother also bought the soundtrack, so I can sing most of the musical numbers (although you wouldn’t want to hear me) and probably even recite some of the dialogue.)

With that said, although the movie is a fun family film (if a little scary in parts), it’s nothing like the book. It’s not even the same time period! It does have a VERY interesting connection to children’s literature though. What it it? The screenplay was written by Roald Dahl, author of a few other books–some made into movies–that you might have heard of: Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, among others. Which really might explain some of the movie’s humor AND the  scary bits.

A stage version of the musical also hit Broadway in 2005. It had mixed reviews, and featured the same story and musical numbers which were in the film. So Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is still alive and well after almost 50 years!

Ian Fleming–the creator of Bond, James Bond–was the author of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It was his only children’s book, written for his son.  Ian Fleming died just before it was  published in 1964.  It was very well received, and the movie was made in 1967.

Interestingly enough, The Fleming family has commissioned a sequel to be published in the fall of 2011 by author Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of another popular book made into a movie: Millions.  The new books will feature a modern family, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be a camper. Will it have as much charm as the original?  We won’t know until November.  But I will certainly be buying the book for the library and reading it to see!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such an extraordinary car, and a fun book, it’s not surprising that there has become a web of connection between famous children’s authors because of it. (And I forgot one: the original illustrator was John Burningham, who has become a famous picture book author and illustrator.) It’s not long, only about 120 pages, so it’s very accessible to a good third grade reader, although the situations are more in line with a fourth or fifth grader.  It’s also a fun read-aloud for a family trip.  Read it this summer and find out about the most extraordinary car in the world!




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