What happens when you take a book written by Ian Fleming, add a script co-written by Roald Dahl, and finish it off with Dick van Dyke? One of the greatest children’s films of all time that’s what. The film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an absolute classic that everyone will remember from their youth. The very concept is an exciting one. A flying car will always be an exciting creation but add the ghoulish child catcher into the mix and you have a great story. I do enjoy the film but I’ve never read the book before. I can’t say I’m the biggest Ian Fleming fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bond films but I’ve never got on with the books. I’ve got a bit of a fascination with them but it’s hard to forget how inherently sexist and troubling they are. Still, I was sure that his children’s book wouldn’t suffer from quite the same issues as his spy novels.
I don’t know what Roald Dahl and co. thought of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang story but they certainly went out of their way to strip it to the bare bones for the film version. I mean, I get the original would never have made a full feature-length film but there really isn’t a lot of the book that made it to the film. You’ve got the ritual car, obviously, and the inventor father and his two children. After that, it seems as though all bets were off. The Wikipedia page for the film describes it as being “loosely based” on the Ian Fleming book. Now that’s what I call stretching a definition.
The original book by the James Bond writer is a short but charming story about a family who inherits a magical automobile. After an unexpected windfall, Caractacus Pott uses the money to buy a second-hand car. The family fall in love with the car instantly and give it a name. The name is based on the noises it makes when it starts. As the family start making use of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they realise that it possesses magical properties. When they are stuck in a traffic jam, a button appears and the car takes flight. When they are about to be swept away by the tide, it turns into a hovercraft. No matter what the Pott family go through, the car has something up its sleeve to solve their problems. Which means running across a group of gangsters should be absolutely no problem, right?
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a wonderful adventure story. Yes, it might be dated in certain respects but it doesn’t feel out-of-date. The characters talk in a very old-fashioned British manner and there are several quirky throwbacks to times gone by. Yet the sense of adventure and fun is something that never grows old. What child wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of a flying car? Aren’t all children kind of obsessed with cars? I remember the cars of my childhood fondly and can remember what it felt like to sit in them surrounded by my family. We already imagine that our cars have a personality and can understand us. Fleming takes that familiar feeling and runs with it. He taps into something in all of us and the results speak for themselves.
Though it differs so greatly from his Bond novels, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels so like an Ian Fleming book. Not only is there his obvious love of cars but the use of gadgets and secret hideouts. This takes everything he loved in his spy thrillers and transposes them for children’s fiction. And then there’s Fleming’s real love of food. You see it in the Bond novels and you see it here. That man was clearly always hungry. I get that. It makes me feel closer to him. I guess, there is also a sense that Fleming is not entirely comfortable writing for this audience but it mostly works. There is something a bit stilted and simplistic about it. There are moments when it feels as though Fleming is talking down to his reader. Still, you can’t deny how fun this book is. And, as Fleming himself tells us, “never say “no” to adventures.”